After Macron and Scholz Visit Putin, What Next?
While there are hopes for de-escalation, there are not yet clear signs that it is coming—despite claims of a pullback, some 150,000 Russian troops still remain in position at the Ukrainian border. What is clear is that a unified front remains paramount in addressing Russia’s threats. Below, GMF policy analysts from Paris, Warsaw, and Berlin discuss key takeaways from the visits of Scholz and Macron to Moscow.
Paris and Other Europeans Need to Keep Up Diplomatic Efforts
The first lesson of the visits to Moscow by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz is that, despite the limited results, European countries have no choice but to continue trying to offer a diplomatic solution to the crisis. While keeping expectations low, these initiatives are significant insofar as they offset Russia’s ambitions to have only a bilateral discussion with the United States on the future of European security. Even if Moscow shows little interest in their proposals, the meetings helped Berlin and Paris keep a degree of agency.
Even if Moscow shows little interest in their proposals, the meetings helped Berlin and Paris keep a degree of agency.
The second takeaway is that these meetings with President Vladimir Putin helped shape the narrative around the crisis in a positive way. Russia’s leadership has tried to portray the West as inflexible and unwilling to negotiate. With these high-level meetings, France and Germany have showed that they wanted to open a dialogue with Russia and therefore called its bluff. Even if they fail to provide a path to de-escalation, the visits will influence the future description of the events leading to an eventual conflict.
Finally, Macron and Scholz have not widened transatlantic divides during these bilateral talks, despite the concerns of some observers. Both were committed to coordinating with other European countries and the United States prior to and after the meetings. This effort was a success. For France in particular, it was crucial to respond to the suspicions of unilateralism in some European capitals.
Macron and Scholz have opened channels for a dialogue with Russia at the highest level. This comes after the talks between the White House and the Kremlin earlier this year. The next step for the transatlantic partners would be to design a better division of labor among themselves. These initiatives all share the goals of deterring Russian military actions, strengthening transatlantic security, and designing a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Like in 2014, coordination and clear US support for European diplomatic initiatives are needed to forge a coherent transatlantic approach that includes Central and Eastern European countries.
Poles Have Become Slightly Less Skeptical of French and German Approaches to Russia
In January, the United States ramped up its diplomatic efforts to seek dialogue with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council and bilateral meetings. In February, European countries took center stage. For Poland, de-escalation is most important, regardless of who achieves it. Therefore, France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz are given credit for their efforts. However, Poland attributes the latest small signs of de-escalation mostly to the United States’ strategy of releasing intelligence and to President Vladimir Putin’s over-reaching.
For Warsaw, a united Western front is the prime answer to an aggressive Russian leader, as exemplified by the letter to Russia from the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy on behalf of all EU members.
Poland has also noted the evolution of France and Germany on the crisis. It feels that Western European countries now have a better understanding of how dangerous and unpredictable Putin is. For Warsaw, a united Western front is the prime answer to an aggressive Russian leader, as exemplified by the letter to Russia from the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy on behalf of all EU members. Yet doubt remains in Warsaw about the trustworthiness of France and Germany as well as an acute awareness of the three countries’ divergences on Russia.
President Macron’s style is perceived as too mild and appeasing and his “European approach” raises worries about excluding the United States. Poles worry that his statesmanship is the implementation of French ambitions. Chancellor Scholz, on the other hand, is seen as too hesitant and reluctant in security matters. Poles also believe that Russia does not see either France or Germany as an equal as it does the United States. Alarm bells go off in Warsaw when Macron talks about accepting Putin’s demand for altering the European security architecture and when Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to join NATO in the future are on the table.
European countries have spoken with one voice on Russia in the face of a looming threat. But many in Poland fear the change in French and German policy may not last. If the crisis evolves from the threat of imminent invasion into a medium-term one of constant pressure through hybrid means (disinformation, cyberattacks, military exercises), it will be harder to for the West to remain engaged and unified.
Poland is on the frontline of the crisis but not a major player in it.
Poland is on the frontline of the crisis but not a major player in it. Still, it seized the diplomatic opportunity given by its chairmanship of the OSCE by offering additional negotiations within that body, which Russia accepted, surprisingly given the state of relations between the two countries. Until recently an EU outlier criticized for pursuing undemocratic judicial reforms, Poland has been invited back into the fold of international diplomacy.
Poland believes the diplomatic path needs to be bolstered by strengthening Ukraine’s deterrence capacity and by EU sanctions. It is sending arms to the country and welcoming additional US and UK troops. However, it is not part of the Normandy Format and remains a minor player looking for the protection of a superpower. Therefore, Poland hopes that the West will remain united, that the United States will remain the chief negotiator in the crisis, and that negotiations will take place through the OSCE.
How Long Can Berlin and the West Play Russia’s Long Game?
By Ulrich Speck
While Russia wants to negotiate primarily with the United States in the current crisis, in Moscow’s view Germany remains a key actor for economic and geopolitical reasons. That explains why President Vladimir Putin received Chancellor Olaf Scholz with more hospitality than he had received President Emmanuel Macron. The German leader stood his ground in Moscow, criticizing the sentencing of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny and the banning of the human rights NGO Memorial during the press conference, kicking the can down the road with regard to Ukraine’s NATO membership, and trying to lure Russia back into the negotiations in the Normandy Format.
Recent events have demonstrated that a competent administration can unite and lead in a way Europe still cannot.
Nonetheless, the United States remains indispensable in a crisis with Russia. Recent events have demonstrated that a competent administration can unite and lead in a way Europe still cannot. Washington has devised a smart strategy with its European allies—a solid mix of carrots and sticks—and it is executing it well. The Biden administration has built a consensus-oriented framework that the big European capitals can plug into.
Also, thanks to competent US leadership, Western unity remains strong, despite some differences with regard to the vision of key actors. Macron is pushing for a “new” security order to be agreed in Europe and with the United States, and then negotiated with Moscow. (At the same time, though, French officials play down that project and say that there is no clear vision yet for that.) On the other hand, Scholz’s approach is to convince Putin to go back largely to the status quo ante—negotiations in the Normandy Format—and to try to put the genie back in the bottle. Maybe the difference in their approaches is the reason why the two leaders did not go to Moscow together (reports from each side claim that the other did not want a joint visit). Yet the overall message Putin has heard from the West is the same: no concessions on substance—Ukraine’s sovereignty and NATO’s open door—but openness to talks.
Putin is determined to roll back the post-Cold War order of independent states in Eastern Europe and particularly Ukraine’s independence is unacceptable to him.
The crisis is not going to go away, however. Putin is determined to roll back the post-Cold War order of independent states in Eastern Europe and particularly Ukraine’s independence is unacceptable to him. The West, by contrast, has every interest to strengthen this order that, among other things, blocks the return of a truly imperialist Russia. The standoff will continue: while Putin is ready to talk, as he told Scholz, he will not accept the West just kicking the can down the road, as he made clear in the press conference with Germany’s chancellor.
The West must be prepared for the long game. Russia may pull back some troops but will most likely leave its military hardware largely in place on Ukraine’s border. The threat to the country’s independence will remain, even in the case of no major attack now. Russia will try to use all kinds of negotiations and pressure to bring Ukraine back into its sphere of control. For Putin, this is a legacy issue: he does not want to go down in history as a weak leader who finally lost Russia’s empire. Therefore, the West must stay firm and keep supporting Ukraine.