After their five-hour, one-on-one conversation Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that Vladimir Putin was moving to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine. In response to this claim, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that no such assurances had been made.
Peskov went on to stick his thumb in Macron’s eye, noting that the very notion of a Moscow-Paris deal made no sense. “France is an EU and NATO member,” he said. “France is not leading NATO.”
And so the rest of us are left with the question that we’ve asked at almost every new turn in this months-long drama: what the hell is going on?
One thing is for sure: If there is a diplomatic deal to be made, it will be struck by Putin and President Joe Biden. Any western leaders who think otherwise are kidding themselves. The United States is, and always has been, the leader of NATO. Putin, who views life through the prism of his own power relationships, regards America’s allies as Washington’s vassals. Someone like Macron, in this view, is at best a tool to float ideas that Biden isn’t ready quite yet to endorse—or, more likely, a foolish upstart whose ambitions Putin might try to exploit by scoping out, and then deepening, fissures within the alliance.
Macron has long advocated a policy of “strategic autonomy” for the European Union—meaning autonomy from U.S. dominance. France currently happens to occupy the rotating seat of the EU’s presidency; Angela Merkel, for many years Europe’s most powerful head of state, was replaced by the untested, somewhat wavering Olaf Scholz as German chancellor when her party was ousted; so, Macron seems to have reasoned, there is no better time to thrust France—and himself—onto the global stage by negotiating peace in our time.
But Macron’s moment has probably passed. When Donald Trump was president and riled allies with talk of pulling out of NATO, Macron spoke most openly about building up a European defense force that no longer depended on Washington for security; at one point, he declared NATO—whose mission had been somewhat nebulous since the end of the Cold War—to be “brain dead.” However, in the wake of Putin’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border and his talk of removing the U.S. military presence from Eastern European countries that were once under Soviet dominion, NATO has rediscovered its purpose, rejuvenated its spirit, and resisted Putin’s attempts to splinter its ranks with surprising near-unanimity. As BBC News reported, quoting an off-the-record briefing from high-level EU diplomats, cooperation with the U.S.—especially with Biden’s full embrace of the alliance—is “better than it has been in decades.”
Still, Macron tried to gin up a French version of shuttle diplomacy, moving on from Moscow on Monday to Kyiv on Tuesday, for talks with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. That was followed by a meeting in Berlin with the heads of Germany and Poland—the so-called Weimar Triangle, formed in 1991 to boost cooperation among the three countries in crisis zones.
But Macron isn’t the only European leader making the rounds on the diplomatic circuit. On the same day that he and Putin had their marathon chat, the new German chancellor met with Biden in Washington, while his foreign minister—along with those of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—traveled together to Kyiv. It is worth noting that Macron knows better than to try playing this game freelance: Before heading to Moscow, he spoke with his counterparts in Washington, London, and Brussels, who all approved of his efforts.
This is all to the good, in that it keeps the allies on the same page and in frequent consultation. And it frustrates Putin in his main strategic ambition, not only in this confrontation but in his overarching foreign policy goal of the last several years, which has been to strengthen Russia by weakening the EU and NATO. At least so far, his moves on Ukraine have set back his strategy by doing more to firm up those two overlapping western alliances than any other event in the last decade.
At the same time, Putin’s moves and the West’s bounce back with renewed American leadership have robbed Macron of the swagger he’d hoped to strut on the world stage.
Nonetheless, Macron’s tête-à-tête with Putin may have given us a hint of how this whole crisis could eventually be resolved.
In the press conference after their meeting on Monday, Putin did say, “A number of [Macron’s] ideas or proposals—which it is probably too early to speak about—I see as rather feasible for creating a foundation for our further steps.” Putin didn’t specify what the proposals were, but in Kyiv, Macron mentioned the Minsk agreements—a never-implemented ceasefire and political settlement signed by Kyiv and Moscow in 2015—as a possible way out. He also told reporters that “Finlandization” was “one of the models on the table”—referring to the 1948 treaty in which the Soviet Union agreed not to invade Finland, as long as Finland remained militarily neutral and did not join NATO.
Zelensky opposes implementing the Minsk agreements because it would give the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine a role in the country’s policy, including, under Moscow’s interpretation of the accord, a veto power over Kyiv’s foreign policy. Finlandizing Ukraine is unacceptable to Biden and most other NATO leaders, who oppose letting other countries decide who can and cannot join the alliance—even though they all concede that, for several reasons, Kyiv is unlikely be let into NATO for many years, if ever.
The Minsk accords might be the most plausible opening to a diplomatic solution to the crisis, if only because both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko have mentioned them as a way out. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has implemented the accords because they demand unpalatable steps by both sides. William Pomeranz, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, suggests all sides return to the tables to negotiate “a creative, if narrower” version of Minsk, “with the two overriding goals of preventing war and keeping Ukraine’s sovereignty intact.” Pomeranz didn’t specify—and it’s impossible to say at the moment—just how such a revision would be reached, what measures it would call for, and how it would be enforced. But going down that road may be the only alternative to permanent crisis or war.
Update, Feb. 9, 2022: This piece has been updated to clarify that Angela Merkel was not ousted personally but rather as the head of her party, which was defeated in parliamentary elections.