French president Emmanuel Macron met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin this week. It was an attempt to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine, but Macron had another aim too.
Today, the French President’s trip to Moscow and what it tells us about his role on the world stage.
In diplomacy pictures can have just as much meaning as the words exchanged by world leaders.
So when a photo showing Russia’s Vladimir Putin meeting France’s Emmanuel Macron was released it gave a pretty good indication of how things had gone.
They’re in a grand room in the Kremlin in Moscow. Along the wall hangs gold-trimmed curtains, a beautiful wooden floor is partly covered by a large rug, and on that rug is a long, white, oval table.
And it’s there where Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron are sitting at opposite ends, five metres apart, with just a bouquet of flowers between them.
“Amid growing concern worldwide about the situation in Ukraine, President Macron has been holding talks in Moscow with President Putin…”BBC News
It marked the start of a week of intense diplomacy as more than 100,000 Russian troops gathered at the country’s border with Ukraine.
“The French president said he hoped discussions would begin a process of de-escalation and reduce the possibility of a Russian invasion.”BBC News
President Macron said he wanted to build a “new security and stability order in Europe”.
His Russian counterpart wanted NATO to pledge that Ukraine wouldn’t join their alliance and rollback their presence in Eastern Europe. Cue: more than five hours of talks, which began with pleasantries in English.
Vladimir Putin: “How are you?”
Emmanuel Macron: “Fine just fine, how are you?”
Vladimir Putin: “Did you have good trip?”
Emmanuel Macron: “Very good…”Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron greet each other at the Kremlin
But then it was down to business.
While Emmanuel Macron set out his proposals, Vladimir Putin sat, barely blinking, but listening, through a black earphone which translated French into Russian.
The Russian leader used his opening remarks to frame the conversation on his terms. And when he did respond to Emmanuel Macron’s proposals, he knew to flatter him.
Because the French president, who faces an election this year, wants Angela Merkel’s old job. To be at the centre of the international conversation, the “unofficial” leader of Europe.
Once the talks and press conference finished, French officials claimed Vladimir Putin had moved towards de-escalating the Ukraine crisis.
They said he promised not to undertake any new “military initiatives” and agreed to withdraw thousands of Russian troops from Belarus after planned exercises were completed.
Emmanuel Macron even told Ukraine’s president the next day that he’d been given personal assurances by Vladimir Putin.
That claim was met with scepticism in Kiev, because the Kremlin said no agreement had been reached, only that they were “prepared to continue dialogue”.
“Who to believe? The Kremlin is adamant Vladimir Putin did not agree to anything during his face-to-face meeting with the French president Emmanuel Macron. But the French leader claims Vladimir Putin personally assured him that Russia would not escalate the crisis in Ukraine. The Kremlin undercutting Macron…”NBC
When Vladimir Putin made provocative statements like accusing the Ukrainian government of trying to settle the separatist war in eastern Ukraine by “military means,” Emmanuel Macron came up with little response. He just insisted it was important to keep on talking.
His efforts to show concern for Russia’s needs and interests stood in stark contrast to statements made by U.S. president Joe Biden.
“If Russia makes a choice to further invade Ukraine, we are jointly ready and all of NATO is ready…”Joe Biden speaking at a press conference
And Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte.
“We can call this an attempt to recreate something like Soviet Union 2.0.”Ingrida Simonyte, Sky News
So what did Emmanuel Macron achieve in Moscow?
Over the course of her premiership, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Russia around 20 times.
She speaks fluent Russian, and Vladimir Putin speaks fluent German. He even gave Angela Merkel a bouquet of flowers, more than once.
It was a cordial relationship, which critics say led to Germany having too cosy a partnership with Russia.
Angela Merkel is no longer German Chancellor and Emmanuel Macron wants to assume her role as the EU’s most powerful leader on the world stage. But he has no such relationship with President Putin who knows that in a few months time, there will be an election in France.
One in which Emmanuel Macron is keen to present himself as the unquestioned leader of Europe.
This week in Moscow Vladimir Putin played to this. He thanked Macron for taking the “most active part” in the development of fundamental decisions in Europe.
Observers doubt whether any real progress was made on the issue of Ukraine.
President Macron may have done all he could for Ukraine and for himself but he and President Putin still appear to be five metres apart.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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