The "useless" chats between Moscow and Paris

(To Andrea Forte)
23/02/22

French President Macron, even as the rotating president of the Council of the European Union, after yet another phone call of almost two hours with his Russian counterpart Putin, did not have time to announce the possibility of a summit among the highest leaders of Washington and Moscow, which from the latter comes the official recognition of the separatist republics of Donbass (Donetsk e Luhansk) and the entry of Russian troops into the territories controlled by them.

Already on February 7, the spokesman of the Kremlin Dmitri Peskov had announced that the meeting between the two, preceding this conversation, although important, would not lead to decisive turning points.

These dynamics reveal a lot about the tonnage differences and game tactics of the powers involved in the current Ukrainian crisis. The Russians actually intend to reiterate that they consider themselves a superpower and that, precisely for this reason, they only speak with the United States when it comes to really deciding something, and not with their European satellites.

If Russia really considered the relations with a "province" of its adversary to be conclusive, however important and more or less autonomous in moving, it would automatically admit a diminutio of their status as a great power, whether real or presumed to be. The Russian objective is instead to be considered "face to face" by the United States, in order to continue to imagine and credit themselves as equals.

At least on a diplomatic level, the aim of considering themselves questioned at the same level by the Americans has so far been achieved by the Russians, a result that they would never jeopardize, really dealing with minor powers. Obviously the French president knows this (he merely said he hoped for one de-escalation) and does not go to talk to his Russian counterpart, assuming he can influence his trajectory.

First of all, two premises must be made.

Primo. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the current phase of the Ukrainian crisis (the crisis itself has existed since 2014) occurs at this particular European moment. Germany is experiencing the decline of the era of Chancellor Merkel and the beginning, at least apparently not exciting, of the successor Scholz; it is at the end of Macron's presidency and in the face of an attempt to reconfirm him; the British Prime Minister, Jhonson, is always on the verge of a government crisis, due to scandals related to the covid-party; finally, the Italian premier Draghi is weak due to the institutional system and political contingencies, highlighted both by the risk of early elections, in the event of his passage to the Quirinale, and by the troubled procedures of re-election as president of the Republic of Mattarella.

Second. Macron presented himself as an expression of a construction, that of the European Union, which the Russian perception of power, rather than not understanding, does not appreciate (perhaps even despises). It is an architecture that is neither imperial nor national, therefore built to be an object, absolutely not a subject.

NATO is the only organization that Russia considers real. It can be added that this is also clear to the object, that is to the European Union, and therefore to Macron, which in the circumstances represents it. Therefore dealing with those who have no weight does not mean seeking solutions, but waste time (for Russia) and try to waste time and therefore gain it for itself (by France - EU).

Recognizing the two separatist republics immediately after the talks with the "voice" of the EU therefore also has the meaning of humiliating an organization that Moscow does not esteem and of reiterating that Putin not only knows the game of time, but does not fit in, unless, as he is doing, he manages the phases.

Returning to the game that Macron is playing not as President of the Council of the EU, but as a French one, this is instead aimed at other actors.

First of all, the opposite is true for France of what is true for Russia. Just as this does not make decisions with that, because this would diminish the symbolic perception of its own power, so France tries to speak to a power of a larger size than its own, because this increases its status and allows it to present itself to other subjects (and items) of the match with an increased weight.

First of all, Paris wants to signal itself in the eyes of Washington as a reliable European reference point in negotiations, even if it belongs to club of less anti-Russian Europeans. Precisely because they are the real decision makers, the United States cannot afford to outsource a game, which requires enormous geopolitical clarity, to the countries of the so-called NATO of the East, whose fear of the Russian posture is prevalent and prevents them from imagining any realistic compromise with Moscow. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe certainly serve to contain the latter when it comes to assertive containment, but they are almost counterproductive if it is to be dealt with.

When agreements are at stake, that part of the European NATO is mobilized which, due to the greater distance from Russia, is also endowed with greater serenity in evaluating the pros and cons of a particular conciliation on its borders. In mobilizing this part of the Atlantic alliance, the US does so by combining this need with the equally essential need to continue to keep Germany "under", because, among the countries most sympathetic to Russia, it is however the one too important to leave it. being too understanding.

The US gives the European allies a chance to maneuver, which counterbalances and prevents Germany from any possibility of acting as a protagonist in a game which, if successfully brought home, would give it elements to increase its eventual regional sphere of influence and therefore a greater ability to connect with Russian power, to the detriment of American hegemony in Europe.

Here, France's entry into the field becomes fundamental, a nation that has much less need for Russian gas than Germany, and therefore less “fascinated” by Putin's sirens. To send it forward means then to intercalate it between Germany and Russia and to ensure that everything that separates them in that space continues to separate them, including Ukraine. In fact, when it perceives the western part of NATO withdrawing from total military support in defense of it, France wants to tell him that in any case she is its European point of reference. Translated, France tells Ukraine that she cannot rely on Germany, whose level of exposure in relations with Moscow is too high. In this way, the French feed Ukrainians suspicions of being expendable in German eyes, to place themselves as a referent in themselves and as a true European arm of the United States in this crisis. Here too, translating, if Kiev wants to continue to have Washington on its side, it must rely, in Europe, on Paris, not Berlin.

Going further, on the one hand France is authorized to mediate with Russia, because not even she agrees that a total closure with it pushes it even more towards China, but on the other hand it equally does not agree that, by negotiating with the Europeans, it gets too close to Germany - if the US fears a Russian-German partnership, imagine France, which resides there.

The United States, it can be paraphrased, prefers the ambition of a Franco-Russian mediation rather than a Russian-German geopolitical handshake, because it is potentially much more dangerous, as it would be "heavier". This does not mean that Biden wants to eliminate Germany from the game, it would be impossible, given the size of the country in question, but to use it to multiply the French force, inhibiting the possibility of doing it independently. This is something that Paris tries to do in every European dossier. The formalization of the suspension (already in progress) of the Nord Stream 2 certifies it. Equally significant, as proof of the American fear of the possible German proximity to Russia, is that on the same 7 February, the day of the "sending" of Macron by Putin, Scholz was "summoned" to Washington by Biden.

In reality, the French president is also playing on other tables at the same time. The first is the internal one. Macron, about two months before the French presidential elections, would like to be able to play the card of diplomatic success at the polls, selling his participation in the negotiations as something fundamental. It is not true, but it is political.

It is also positioning itself in the eyes of Kiev in competition with the strong help it receives from Turkey, also in an anti-Russian sense. By supporting Ukraine, France would like to place itself, not only within the EU, but also in her NATO, with her as her best friend and align her with itself, pulling her off to Turkey. It is just the umpteenth chapter of a France-Turkey clash, which now involves multiple geopolitical scenarios. Unfortunately, her support, unavailable to direct military intervention, is a blunt aid compared to the Turkish one, whose drones contributed to making the resistance of the Donbass separatists more fragile months ago and therefore to make Russia nervous.

By helping Ukraine, albeit to a limited extent, but still doing it, France also speaks to the other Eastern European countries of the Atlantic Alliance, emphasizing to everyone that she, and not Germany, is a shawl (certainly not an armor) that supports their anti-Russian effort from the rear. It is little, of course, but it alleviates their feeling of being helped only by a distant empire, however present, like the American one. In the end

Macron plays in the long term, in the almost impossible eventuality of a future European strategic autonomy, which the Eastern Euro-Easterners do not want, because they translate it as a departure from the American protector. France, aiding Ukraine, reminds her that it would be the only real military pivot of an unlikely European deployment disconnected from Washington. The only EU power that can guarantee the atomic umbrella.

So both Macron and Putin talk to each other in order not to decide anything, and therefore, if they stop doing so, they basically do not interrupt anything, but above all they send messages to the other actors in the field. In a sense these talks are much more important than troop movements, because these are functional to the negotiations, rather than in contradiction with them (for now).

Nothing will happen or be thwarted through talks with minor powers, but it will also pass through these, even if they will not be decisive and final, because the United States and Russia will also speak as equals, but as much as Russia expects it, they are not.

Photo: Kremlin