This is What Macron Might Do About Russia's Invasion of Ukraine
1 July, 2017

Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron is positioning himself to play an active role in uniting EU foreign policy and developing a strong, collective position for Europeans on the Russian-Ukrainian war. To discuss what this will mean for France's relations with Ukraine and Russia, Hromadske met with Marie Mendras, Russia and Eastern Europe Expert and Professor at Sciences Po University's School of International Affairs in Paris.

According to Marie Mendras, President Macron's new government is "an extraordinary overhaul of the political class and of political representation." Apparently, he also intends to move away from the national, French foreign policy of his predecessors in favour of a united approach that Mendras described as "a European foreign policy, supported by France."

After the recent meeting between President Macron and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko on June 26, 2017, the French President announced a meeting of the Normandy Four in June or July 2017. "He's going for a strong Franco-German tandem with Chancellor Merkel," Mendras explained.

While President Macron has been an open critic of Russian policy towards Ukraine, it seems as though he is still trying to safeguard France's direct relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After inviting President Putin to Versailles at the end of May, President Macron seems to be taking a similar approach to US President Donald Trump, who he invited to France for Bastille Day on July 14.

According to Mendras, this is all part of President Macron's attempts to balance his vision of European foreign policy with France's specificity in international relations. Nevertheless, Mendras maintained that the French government has held a clear position towards the Kremlin and has never taken the conflict in the east of Ukraine lightly. In her words, "We need to continue collective action and the Minsk process is one of the best examples of this."

In Kyiv, Hromadske spoke to Marie Mendras, Russia and Eastern Europe Expert and Professor at Sciences Po University's School of International Affairs in Paris, about how President Macron will change not only French, but also EU foreign policy towards Ukraine, Russia and the United States.

We are looking closely at French foreign policy with the newly elected President Macron. He shows his open and very critical position towards Russia, he is like a new force in uniting Europe. At the moment, in the context of French involvement in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, what can we expect?

France has gone through a tremendous transformation politically. We have a new president who nobody knew about a year ago. He was minister of the economy for about 18 months but people didn’t really notice him. So he is very new, he’s very smart and he’s very popular. 66 percent of the vote in the second round, even if there was high abstention, it’s still amazing for somebody who had no popularity a year ago. A new government, with the exception of maybe three-four members of government. All the other members of government were unknown to the public, a new National Assembly where 75 percent (if I’m not mistaken) of the deputies were never deputies before. So it’s an extraordinary overhaul of the political class and of political representation in various institutions.

Of course it’s difficult to predict what Emmanuel Macron is going to do, first because he’s never been dealing with foreign affairs or security problems before, it’s really his very first time. He’s learning fast, but he has a lot to learn still. Second, it’s difficult to predict because France is not the only player. I think what is quite new in what Emmanuel Macron wants to do, and I think he’s very right, is not to try and build a new, nationalist, French policy in Europe or in relations with Russia or the United States. He claims he wants to build a European foreign policy, supported by France. And one interesting sign of this that very few people noticed is that he changed the name of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it used to be the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and now it’s the Ministry for Europe & Foreign Affairs. So Europe comes first, and Europe is no longer foreign affairs, because it’s Europe and foreign affairs.

He is a Europeanist at heart. He is advised by individuals that know Europe, some have been elected MEPs, so he will go for a pro-European policy. He’s going for a very strong Franco-German tandem with Chancellor Merkel and this is really new fact. If you remember, with Francois Hollande or his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy, France was more on the line of French power projection, like the operation in Mali under Hollande or Sarkozy trying to be the big strong guy in Europe, but having a national French policy towards Russia, towards the United States, and this is gone. We are experiencing something very new and I think it’s very welcome in Europe. Most European countries are very happy that France is going to go for a more collective, European approach and this is exactly what we need if we want to have the right policy towards Ukraine and also toward Russia. We need to continue collective action and the Minsk process is one of the best examples of this.

So how will or how might Macron’s intentions and this European policy be translated into action towards Ukraine, towards Russia? Are we talking about financial support towards Ukraine, bigger involvement in the Normandy meetings and in the Normandy Format? There is a bit of an open confrontation and more brave, open and sincere stance on Putin, for instance.

I think the French position on Putin and the Kremlin has been pretty clear for years. Since the annexation of Crimea and military conflict in Eastern Donbas, the French government has never taken this lightly. The confrontation with Russia is now a fact. Every single Western democracy now has a very difficult, tense and sometimes conflictual relationship with Moscow so France is not alone in this situation. Emmanuel Macron has to think about how he can still maintain some kind of state to state relationship with the Russian leadership and at the same time have a policy towards Ukraine, towards Georgia, Moldova and other countries of the Eastern partnership without caring too much about how Moscow may retaliate. This is, at the moment, what Emmanuel Macron is thinking about: how to disassociate policies towards Moscow from our European policies towards Ukraine, knowing very well that the two problems are impossible to disassociate.

To what extent can we expect change and bigger involvement? France has always been seen in Europe as someone who would take care of the southern borders, of the Mediterranean but not so much in Eastern Europe where Germany would take the lead.

The fact that we will reinforce the Tandem with Germany is a good sign of this. It’s not in the French habit to pay much attention to the smaller countries of the EU when it comes to big security issues. Now, with what the Kremlin is doing, endangering our security not only because of what it does in Ukraine but also with cyber subversion, meddling in elections and other problems, it seems to me that the French people and the French government understand that security issues, that covers everything.

Now the problem for Emmanuel Macron as I see it is that although he does understand the need to work together with the other EU partners and also other NATO member states, he also wants to safeguard France’s specificity and have some kind of direct relationship with both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. It’s difficult with both leaders, for very different reasons, but I think this is what he wants to do: have, maybe not a working relationship, but at least some kind of a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, which is why he accepted having him come to Versailles at the end of May, to give him a try and see how it goes. This is probably also why he invited Donald Trump to celebrate the fourteenth of July, Bastille Day, in France, to see how he can establish a one-to-one relationship and reassure the American administration and the American public that the President is very difficult to manage, for us too, that we respect the institution of the presidency and chief of state. So it is important to develop whatever kind of relationship can be developed with Donald Trump.

Is this kind of strong position of Macron towards Trump helpful for Ukraine, or not? To what extent then could the U.S. be involved in our negotiations with Russia? We can already see the relationship between America and Macron, and we would be like to connect where is Washington, where is Moscow, Putin himself, and Ukraine, how does it affect Ukraine?

Marie Mendras: I think there is a misunderstanding in Ukraine about the Normandy Format and the Minsk process. It was all a French process to start with. It was Francois Hollande, the President of France, who invited both President Putin and President Poroshenko to attend the 6th of June celebrations in 2014. It was after the annexation of Crimea, after the beginning of the conflict in Donbas. The French took the initiative, and always has been very actively involved because it was a Franco-German project. I don’t think Holland was just running after Chancellor Merkel. He really took the initiative and that’s certainly one thing he did very well, Francois Hollande. And there never was any German domination over the Minsk process even though the German Chancellor played more of a vocal role because of her special capacity to talk to Putin and to be tough with him for a number of reasons. She’s had experience dealing with Vladimir Putin for quite a number of years and Hollande had hardly met him before.

For Macron it was his first encounter with Putin recently, so I think what’s going to happen is more continuity than change. We will continue to go for the Normandy format as the format of the Minsk negotiation process, because the Minsk process is not just the summits but a constant process of discussions at other levels than heads of states and government. I think this will continue knowing very well that there is no good will coming from Moscow on any major breakthrough in the negotiation to seriously implement a ceasefire and disarming eastern Donbas. Our problem is that we have no influence on the Putin leadership. We can’t change their policies and it’s very difficult to adjust to this. At the same time we need to keep the Minsk process going and it’s a lot of work.

I think for that we also need the Ukrainian side to be very clear on what it wants to achieve and what it sees for Donbas in the future, not just for tomorrow but in three years, in five years, in ten years. We are still waiting for the Ukrainian President, the Ukrainian government to explain what is their vision and strategy for eastern Donbas and the displaced people. I think this is what we need to hear now, because this situation is going to last. It’s not going to be solved in six months. The maneuvering margin with Moscow is very limited, but that can also be an opening for a more forceful partnership with Kyiv, as long as Kyiv also plays it’s part. And playing its part is not redrafting a new constitution but really getting in engaged in continuing to support people who lived in the non-occupied and occupied parts of Donbas and that there is a project in the future for a free sovereign Ukraine.

Read More: Will The New French President Shift the Power Balance in Eastern Europe?

/Text by Eilish Hart