Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 7 was widely considered a failure. The French president cannot be blamed for this. Success could only have been bought with new concessions to the Kremlin, which would have been a bad omen.
The Elysée Palace hinted between the lines that the meeting had been particularly tense and that the former KGB agent in Dresden had been even more aggressive and withdrawn than usual. The Normandy format meeting in Berlin on February 10 also ended in disagreement and, as Olga Tokariuk rightly pointed out, this is also really rather reassuring: neither Germany nor France pushed Ukraine to make concessions.
The fact remains that from Washington to Paris, from Berlin to Kyiv, everyone continues to proclaim that diplomacy must be given a chance. This language, in fact, is not even self-persuasive: it is reasonable to believe that neither Emmanuel Macron, nor Joe Biden, nor Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for that matter, believe that diplomacy has any hope of succeeding. This current round of diplomacy has only one purpose — to buy time. It does not aim to solve the problems linked to Kremlin aggression, but to slow down events to such an extent that a massive military assault aimed at Ukraine is postponed or abandoned.
When President Macron announces that he is seeking de-escalation first, he is not setting a substantial, long-term objective, but an immediate one (at best.) This limited and unambitious stop-gap is not what the West needs today: instead, we should seek the end of the occupation of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Ukrainian Donbas, and Crimea, as well as the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova and of course Belarus. To do this, it should be clearly stated that these objectives are not limited to containment, but that we intend to consider the need for a rollback.
Yet France and Germany continue to cling with the energy of despair to the Minsk 2 agreements which have no chance of succeeding, if only because the Kremlin has long since moved away from the letter of these agreements in favor of a de facto takeover of the Donbas. This is revealed in particular by the “passportization” process implemented since 2019 whereby Russia offered the paperwork and more than 600,000 inhabitants accepted. Everyone knows that free elections are impossible there without the departure of all Russian elements, as Minsk requires. If they were ever anything more than at best a form of fictional agreement, it is now clear that their value and scope are null and void. But these agreements are the only channel for discussions today and—a fact often ignored—their non-implementation by the Russian regime is the legal basis for the European Union’s sanctions against it, miraculously renewed every six months until now. There is also another regime of sanctions, which in this case targets individuals, relating to the illegal annexation of Crimea.
This attachment to the diplomatic process is both — if I may say so — not without reason and disturbing. Sometimes diplomacy reminds me of the story of a Jesuit priest who has lost his way and who calls out to a farmer working in a nearby field. The farmer replies: “Father, you can’t find it: it’s straight ahead”. Sometimes diplomacy, by dint of devoting itself to procedures until it runs out of steam, ends up losing the direction that is supposed to guide it. The Franco-Russian thematic working groups on multiple topics set up after the meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin at Brégançon on August 19, 2019, have thus, as expected, produced nothing but a useless cluttered agenda for the officials who participated.
First, it brings to mind another classic mantra: “There can only be political solutions to the conflict.” This phrase has been used ad nauseam in the worst situations, notably in Syria, when everyone knows that, to put an end to the abuses of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian sponsors, the only solution is military.
For Putin’s Russia, there is no diplomatic solution that can even begin to construct the “elements of trust” that Emmanuel Macron spoke of, even though it is increasingly clear that he is no longer truly convinced of this possibility. The same is true for the “stability” and “visibility” that he also mentions and that President Joe Biden, after making them his objective in relations with Russia, has clearly renounced. As long as Putin is in power, there can be neither stability nor security nor peace in Europe, or even beyond.
Second, diplomacy has been, especially towards Russia, a way of hiding from the reality of Russian power. It was a sure way not to gain time, but to lose time. It has in fact ratified, without—fortunately—giving it legal consecration, the occupation of 20% of Georgian territory, the annexation of Crimea, and the occupation by Russian elements of part of Donbas. No one could reasonably think of settling these blatant infringements of international law through diplomacy. Diplomacy led to a status quo benefiting the Kremlin and allowed Russia to both dramatically improve its military potential and its depth of control over these regions. This has resulted in the even more serious security situation that we are facing today and that we did not want to prevent. All this was foreseeable and indeed foreseen.
Moreover, as Anne Applebaum has pointed out in a remarkable essay, under the pretext of diplomacy, the West has turned a blind eye to the Russian regime’s deep-seated practices of corruption at home and the export of corruption abroad. Diplomacy has been a means of delaying, if not denying, sanctions against the Kremlin’s inner circle, i.e. Putin’s intimates. In the countries of the West, we have consented to the growth of this corruption of society by a hostile power that now threatens our democracies from within.
Finally, we have taken a double risk. On the one hand, diplomatic attempts to engage with Russia have led to a division of Europe and to a lack of understanding, especially among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Fortunately, Europe has now achieved a more united front. On the other hand, probably also because we confused simple discussions with dialogue (an inappropriate term) and negotiation—a totally inappropriate word—we have obscured our real objectives. This vagueness has been widely exploited by the Kremlin’s propaganda to suggest that Putin’s regime is normal, even partially legitimate and within its rights. We have even bought into his alleged perceptions of insecurity at times, when they were merely a narrative to whitewash his revisionist and all-conquering policies.
If we remain in this state of sibylline chiaroscuro, the confusion that Putin seeks to sow, his desire to paralyze our ability to act, will live a long life—and so will our defeat.
Nicolas Tenzer, non-resident senior fellow at CEPA, is the editor of Desk Russie, guest professor at Sciences Po Paris and a blogger on Tenzer Strategics. He is the author of 22 books and three official reports to the French government.