President Emmanuel Macron is trying to carve out a role for France and the European Union in the Ukraine crisis. His special envoy for Russia, the veteran diplomat Pierre Vimont, has organised a telephone conversation between Macron and the Russian leader to take place on Friday morning.
“The president will talk with Vladimir Putin to propose to him a path of de-escalation,” an adviser to Mr Macron said.
Macron’s efforts are reminiscent of then president Nicolas Sarkozy’s mediation in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which also occurred during a French presidency of the EU Council.
Macron is seeking to revive the frozen Normandy Format talks, which brought together the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in 2014 and resulted in the unimplemented Minsk accords of 2014 and 2015.
Putin has humiliated the EU by refusing to engage with European leaders in the present crisis. He has nonetheless agreed to send the Russian former deputy prime minister Dmitri Kozak to meet the diplomatic advisers of the other Normandy group member states at the Élysée Palace on Wednesday.
The first stage of Macron’s three-step plan to de-escalate the crisis is for the Ukrainian parliament or Rada to abrogate its draft law on the transition of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, because the law was contrary to the Minsk accords. That process is under way.
The Normandy group would then negotiate humanitarian measures including a prisoner exchange, care for vulnerable people in the war zone and the opening of checkpoints. “Third, we will set a date for the Ukrainians and separatists to discuss the law on the special status of Donbas,” the adviser said.
The status of Donbas would be negotiated under the “Steinmeier formula” established by then German foreign minister, now president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in 2016 to clarify the Minsk agreements. “This is obviously the most difficult point,” the adviser said.
The Élysée has received indications that Putin may be inclined to take the diplomatic route. “We have no certainty, but either President Putin decides to create maximum tension . . . in which case it will be very difficult to advance in the Normandy group, or he will decide that in the present, highly volatile context, it is useful to start a form of de-escalation,” the adviser said.
Macron’s evocation of a “European security order” in his speech to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on January 19th created unease among east European members of the union, who are extremely wary of Russia and rely on Nato for their security. Macron said he would propose “a new order of security and stability in coming weeks. We must build it between Europeans, then share it with our allies in Nato, then propose it for negotiation to Russia.”
The presidential adviser alluded to a Franco-German proposal last July for an EU dialogue with Russia. It failed because the EU could not agree on the “modalities” of the dialogue, he said. “Why? Because many countries of eastern or central Europe say, ‘We know the Russians and you cannot trust Putin.’”
At times, the adviser seemed to imply that the US and UK have exaggerated the threat of war in Ukraine, and at other times he assured journalists that although there are “nuances”, France and its allies share their assessment of a “very volatile” situation.
The UK has accused Moscow of planning to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv, and the US and UK have withdrawn some of their embassy staff from Ukraine. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said EU staff would remain in place for now and that he would not “dramatise” tensions.
The Macron adviser said, “The British are developing very, very explicit, very alarmist positions . . . We share a similar disquiet; we note the same volatility . . . One must be careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Despite the French emphasis on a “path to de-escalation”, Paris has contributed to Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence or multinational task forces in the Baltic states and Poland. On Monday, Nato announced a military build-up that includes deploying warships and combat aircraft to eastern Europe. France declared its readiness to send troops to Romania, which shares a border with Ukraine, under Nato command.
The EU and Nato have threatened “massive” economic sanctions against Russian if it sends troops into Ukraine. There are already four sanctions regimes in place against Russia, in connection with the chemical attack on the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian intervention in Donbas.
“We are not in a situation where we must choose between sanctions and dialogue with Russia,” the Macron adviser said. “We must find the means to make ourselves respected, and to engage in a useful dialogue with Russia.”