Is France Making Its Own Russia Play?

Emmanuel Macron’s conversation with Vladimir Putin today comes amid rumblings of disquiet with the U.S. approach to Ukraine.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.

It’s not quite Freedom Fries, but there is more than a hint of divergence between Paris and Washington on foreign policy amid Russia’s military buildup near its border with Ukraine.

Those looking for signs of cracks between the NATO allies found ample evidence earlier this month, when Emmanuel Macron reiterated his longstanding call for greater European military integration, saying it was “vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia.”

Since then, there have been grumblings from the Elysée Palace about the aggressive stance taken by the U.S. and its Anglophone partner Britain. One divide is clear: Neither Paris nor Berlin see the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine with the same urgency as Washington and London.  “We see the same number of lorries, tanks and people,” one French official told Le Monde. “We observed the same maneuvers, but cannot conclude an offensive is imminent.”

France’s quieter diplomatic approach appears to be paying dividends, with four-way Normandy Format talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine resulting in a renewed cease-fire in the war in eastern Ukraine.

Today’s call between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the highest-level talks between Putin and a NATO member since he spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the beginning of January, can be seen as another attempt to take control of the issue. Macron “will propose a path towards de-escalation,” one Elysée source told the Russian news agency TASS.

So, is France going it alone? Benjamin Haddad, the senior director of the Europe Center at the  Atlantic Council, doesn’t think so, seeing the differences between NATO allies as a matter of tactics rather than a deeper rift: “The Americans and Brits consider that we already have to bolster our negotiating position with the Russians by matching some of their aggressions,” Haddad said, citing recent sanctions and weapons transfers to Ukraine. “Macron’s approach is to say let’s really give a chance to diplomacy. Let’s hear the Russians out. Let’s not be the ones escalating on our side.”

For Macron “there’s a desire to be able to say, if this does end up in a conflict, we want to make clear that Russia has been the aggressor,” Haddad said, “so let’s not do anything on our end that could lead to what they call a self-fulfilling escalation.”

The narrative of French exceptionalism is overblown, Haddad said, with French statements on Ukraine’s sovereignty and NATO’s open-door policy tracking closely with those of the United States. France has also not merely left the issue to diplomats, proposing to lead a NATO force in Romania as an assurance measure.

The idea of a recalcitrant Berlin has been punctured in recent days too, with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock laying out a clearer German approach in a speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday and appearing to make a virtue of Germany’s obstructionist stance on arms transfers to Ukraine.

“A team doesn’t need 11 center forwards who all do the same thing, but 11 players who get along well and have a common game plan in mind,” Baerbock said, in remarks that also underlined that the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline would be targeted in a “strong package of sanctions” under consideration.

Rather than being frozen out, Germany is being wooed, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz expected to join U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on Feb. 7.

Read the original full strory on FP

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