Emmanuel Macron will revive EU attempts to persuade Vladimir Putin to help resolve international crises over Ukraine and Iran when the French president hosts his Russian counterpart at his Mediterranean holiday retreat on Monday.
Mr Macron has invited Mr Putin to Brégançon fort as a prelude to the Group of Seven nations’ summit, which begins in France later in the week. With Chancellor Angela Merkel’s influence on the wane in Germany and the UK distracted by Brexit, Mr Macron has become western Europe’s most active leader on international issues, and the EU has backed his attempts at peacemaking in Ukraine.
But an earlier attempt to court Mr Putin by inviting him to the Palace of Versailles in 2017 bore little fruit.
Among Mr Macron’s priorities this time is to elicit a positive response from Mr Putin to the call earlier this month from new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for fresh peace talks to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist militants have fought government forces for five years.
“We are intensifying our efforts on the question of Ukraine,” said one of Mr Macron’s senior officials. “Ukraine is a major security challenge at the heart of Europe which must be resolved so that we can have a stable relationship with Russia.”
Strong business and trade ties make Paris one of Moscow’s key partners in Europe despite years of sour relations between Russia and the west. Hopes for a productive meeting have been boosted by last week’s transfer of French financier Philippe Delpal to house arrest in Russia; he had been held in a Moscow jail for six months on fraud charges which his lawyers say relate to a corporate dispute with a politically connected rival.
But French officials accept it will not be easy to rein in the authoritarian leader whose annexation of Crimea from Ukraine five years ago triggered Russia’s expulsion from what was then the G8.
Moscow has responded tentatively to the recent election in Ukraine of Mr Zelensky, a former comedian with no previous political experience, and his calls for a new initiative to solve the conflict in the east. France and the EU are meanwhile urgently trying to revive talks in the so-called “Normandy” format that brings together Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.
Established in 2014 during the 70th anniversary celebrations of D-Day, the Normandy four made initial progress on ceasefire talks, but the influence of the initiative has waned as the war rumbles on.
“Further meetings and renewed engagement by Russia, as called for by Ukrainian president Zelensky, would give fresh impetus to the peace process,” an EU spokesperson said. The bloc said the Minsk agreements of 2014 remained the basis for an outcome that fully respected Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“We expect the Russian Federation to make full use of its considerable influence over the separatists it backs to stop the fighting immediately and to fully implement the Minsk agreements,” the spokesperson said. “Not to do so puts civilian inhabitants, who have already suffered too much, further at risk. This is particularly pertinent following the recent spike in ceasefire violations.”
“The French have many times come up with a proposal to hold a summit in the Normandy format in the near future, including with regard to the change of the leadership in Ukraine,” Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told local newswires on Friday.
“We in general back this idea, but believe that if the summit is held, it should be thoroughly prepared, so that it would be clear that when we go to this summit we will reach politically important results.”
Mr Macron is investing in this new initiative despite misgivings over Russian interference in French domestic politics and concerns about Mr Putin’s crackdown on recent demonstrations by his opponents in Moscow.
“The announcement of the Brégançon visit — a very strong symbolic gesture — is to an extent polluted by the big demonstrations in Russia,” said Thomas Gomart, a historian and director of the French Institute of International Relations. He added: “Russian diplomacy does not hide its scorn for the G7.”
Mr Macron — who has also agreed to attend Russia’s annual May 9 celebrations in Red Square next year, a showpiece event where the Kremlin shows off its military might and closest foreign allies — believes a strong relationship with Mr Putin is worth the risk, his advisers say.
“We need a better level of international consensus than exists today,” said the French official, citing the particularly sensitive crises in Ukraine, Iran, Syria and Libya. “The president [Macron] does not hesitate to take the initiative, to take risks . . . The fact is that there are important convergences possible between the European and Russian agendas.”
As well as Ukraine, Mr Macron and Mr Putin are expected to discuss Iran and the crisis in the Gulf prompted by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and Washington’s hardening of US sanctions.
Some EU diplomats complain privately that Moscow has failed to come up with practical measures to back its public statements in support of the deal, which it signed along with the US, European powers, China and Iran in 2015.
While France, Germany and the UK have laboured to set up a financial channel known as Instex to protect Iranian trade in the face of US sanctions, European officials believe Moscow has sat back.
Instead, Russia has focused on developing its own direct ties with Iran and joined it in fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime in the country’s civil war.
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