English version of an article published on the site of Ukraine Verstehen, on 27/08/2019
“The only issue is Ukraine”. In order to normalise relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned neither the Russian policy in Syria, nor the Kremlin’s interference in Western elections, nor the ongoing brutal repression of opposition protests in Moscow. “The resolution of this conflict (in Ukraine, ed.) is a magic wand that will open the door for Russia to return to the G7 club, which could become the G8 again”, Macron said during a joint press conference with Putin on 19th August. Donald Trump took the opportunity shortly after to stress he would think about reintegrating Russia into the G7 “very favourably”. Unlike his French counterpart, the U.S. President did not even set any conditions for it to happen. He did confirm on 26th August that he would invite Russia as a guest to the next G7 summit to be hosted in the United States.
It is hard to understand from his statement whether Macron sticks to a principled position of defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian agression, a policy that has prevailed in French and Western diplomacy since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the Russian intervention in Donbass. It may well be that Macron signals he looks for a way to get rid of the issue in a way or another, so as to resume a more constructive relationship with Russia. In the same line of questioning, his statement that Russia is “deeply European” is intensely debated. In stressing “deeply”, does he intend to flatter Putin and to offer Russia a European future or to imply the country has different values than its leader’s?
Out of these questions on Macron’s strategy with Russia and vision of a “solution” in Ukraine, two things are certain. First, the fact that he receives Putin in his Brégançon summer residence is a major source of concern in Ukraine, where it is seen as a “betrayal” to reach an agreement over Ukrainians’ heads. Second, the meeting shows that France has taken the lead to redefine the EU relationship with Russia at a time Germany’s Angela Merkel is incapacitated because of domestic issues, Putin-friendly populist and illiberal regimes strengthen their grips on power in several member-states and Britain’s Brexit drags on endlessly. Several Western powers do thrive to lift Russia out of the exclusion zone is lays in since 2014. France, it seems, is the one to make it happen.
The Brégançon meeting is not the first draw. On 25th March 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe allowed the return of the Russian delegation. It ended an exclusion that was prompted by the annexation of Crimea. All French representatives supported the move. Several Western judiciary and banking institutions have been criticised for poor cooperation with Ukrainian counterparts in some high-level investigations and court cases, for example in freezing Gazprom’s EU assets as a payment of its debt to Naftogaz. The construction of the Nord Stream II from Russia to Germany causes great concerns in Ukraine of a Western “betrayal”. So do Trump’s latest comments on unconditionally enlarging the G7.
Such steps towards an appeasement of relations with Russia are downplayed in Western capitals by the symbolic dimension of some of these decisions. The Council of Europe does not have any decision powers but for human rights-related issues. The G7 is above all a discussion forum that does not reflect today’s reality of world economy. As things stand, such countries like Italy have no more political and economic legitimacy to sit at the G7 than Russia. In short: to reintegrate Russia would not change the face of the world. It would not hinder Western solidarity with Ukraine, nor would it solve all matters of discontent with Putin.
Yet the underlying idea is clear: France as well as several countries are interested in an enhanced cooperation with Russia. It would serve economic and energy purposes. It may help building a diplomatic consensus on Iran. Some countries are also interested in partnering up to face Islamic fundamentalism. Yet above all, it is about understanding realpolitik. “Even if Western democratic countries would keep isolating Russia, it will remain a powerful international player. So better to establish a dialogue”, writes Laurent Joffrin, chief-editor of the very anti-Putin French daily “Libération”. Western cooperation with Russia is set to resume, sooner or later.
Such a perspective scares many Ukrainians, and rightfully so. “Since March 2014, when Russia was suspended from the G8, nothing has changed. The Ukrainian Crimea is still occupied, the Ukrainian Donbas is still suffering from the war”, a seemingly infuriated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted. The widely-shared assumption in Kyiv is that Ukraine may be sacrificed for the sake of pleasing Putin. Hence Zelenskyy is right in setting strict conditions for allowing back Russia “to its place at the top table of global diplomacy”: the “return of occupied Crimea, cessation of hostilities in Donbas & releasing over 100 political prisoners & Ukrainian sailors that Kremlin currently holds”. Provided Western solidarity with Ukraine would remain as strong as in 2014, Zelenskyy may hope to achieve such absolute results.
Recent developments show that the Western approach to Russia has changed, though. One remembers that the Cold War-era Western powers never acknowledged the USSR annexation of three Baltic states in 1939. It did not prevent the so-called “Free World” to interact with the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. Principled solidarity is one thing, realpolitik is another. In this sense, Macron’s stance on finding a “solution” to the war is Ukraine may be seen as an opportunity to restart long-frozen peace negotiations. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania never enjoyed such a consideration.
What may this “solution” be, one may ask? The outcome of negotiations will draw the line between peace and capitulation, between solidarity and betrayal, although Ukrainians should not expect a full-scale and absolute victory. It is understood since 2014 that the key to a political settlement is hidden in Moscow. So-called “frozen conflicts” in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia demonstrate that nothing happens without the Kremlin’s consent. Macron does praise Zelenskyy for “courageous steps and actions in this conflict”. The French President may be sincere in encouraging a peace settlement that would be fair to all parties, Ukraine first of all. Yet the key is in Moscow.
As Ukrainians long understood this state of affairs and as they observe several Western countries working hard to renew their relations with Russia, one may feel like Ukraine is yet again a spectator rather than the master of its own fate. Yet the 40-million country is far from powerless. Kyiv’s Western integration has become an institutional reality over the past few years through the implementation of the Association Agreement. Intense cooperations with both the EU, the USA and the IMF make Ukraine more Western-connected than Russia will ever be. This is not something that the return of Russia to the G7 would endanger.
Were Zelenskyy to deliver on his promises of a proper fight against corruption, the establishment of a transparent and fair judiciary system as well as the implementation of other structural reforms Petro Poroshenko failed to pass, it would strengthen Ukraine’s position in the region and it would send a powerful message. It would show to Ukrainians in Donbass and Crimea that Ukraine may offer them some perspectives. It would make Ukraine a reliable partner for Westerners and it would provide them with an alternative to Russia. It may convince those who still need to be convinced that Ukraine is worth fighting for, even if Putin does not like it.