By BARBARA SURK – Associated Press
NICE, France (AP) – While most of the world is shunning President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the few leaders who maintains an open line of communication is French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s diplomatic efforts to prevent war have failed, but he’s not giving up: the two men have spoken to each other four times since Russian forces attacked Ukraine on February 24 and 11 times in the past month.
The French leader, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, is now one of the few outsiders with insight into how Putin was thinking at the time of Europe’s largest military invasion since World War II. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is also acting as a mediator, meeting Putin on a surprise visit to Moscow on Saturday and phoning him again on Sunday.
Macron’s relentless drive for dialogue reflects France’s post-WWII tradition of forging its own geopolitical path and its refusal to blindly follow the United States.
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With Russian troops invading deep into Ukraine, Macron’s determination to maintain lines of communication with Putin is giving Western allies a glimpse into the Russian leader’s state of mind, his intentions on the battlefield and at home in Russia, while the Kremlin cracks down on opponents .
“He keeps a diplomatic channel open for the West in case Putin wants to de-escalate and look for a way out of this crisis,” said Benjamin Haddad, senior director for Europe at the Atlantic Council in Paris and a member of Macron’s party.
Macron also spoke to Putin on behalf of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Haddad said, trying to wring some mercies from Putin: local ceasefires, safe passage for captured civilians and access to humanitarian aid.
During their last phone call on Sunday, which was at Macron’s request, the French leader and Putin spent almost two hours focusing on the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.
Putin said he has no intention of attacking them and agreed to the principle of “dialogue” between the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ukraine and Russia on the issue, according to a French official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with the French presidency practices methods exercises.
There is “absolutely no illusion in the Elysee that Putin will keep his word,” Haddad said, or that Putin will change his mind about the invasion. But Haddad said it was important that Macron keep trying to engage Putin, even as the West punishes Russia and strengthens Ukraine’s defenses.
And contrary to the diplomatic norm of keeping such talks secret, the French presidency has widely shared the substance of Macron’s talks with Putin. Macron’s advisors and the President himself detailed the unbearable efforts to prevent war, then revealed Putin’s broken promises of peace.
That helped Macron rally support for the toughest sanctions against Russia, unite the notoriously divided 27-member EU, and revitalize NATO’s geopolitical role.
To the extent that keeping lines of communication open during a conflict can be useful in relaying messages, warnings, or threats and hearing the response, the Biden administration believes such contacts can be useful in providing at least some insight into Putin’s mood , behavior and mindset. Therefore, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken will travel to Paris on Tuesday to hear directly from Macron about his recent talks with Putin.
But US officials remain unconvinced that Macron’s efforts — or those of any other leader — had a significant impact on Putin’s decision-making process. They note that despite a series of interventions by the French president, Putin has not only pushed ahead with the invasion, but also intensified the conflict.
The French President made it clear from the start: Putin alone is to blame for the death and destruction in Ukraine and the great consequences of the war for France and Europe. But then again, if Putin wants to talk, he will listen.
Putin called on Thursday. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine had already exceeded one million, and several cities in the east lay in ruins. Macron answered and they talked for 90 minutes.
A French Presidency official rushed to brief reporters on the conversation. Putin told Macron the military operation in Ukraine is “going according to plan” and will continue “to the end,” the official said.
Putin claimed that “war crimes” were being committed by Ukrainians. He called them “Nazis,” the official said. There is no need to negotiate, Putin said. With his army he will achieve the “neutralization and disarmament of Ukraine”. The official could not be named after Elysée practice.
Macron “told the truth” to Putin, the official said, explaining how his war against Ukraine was perceived by the West. “I spoke to President Putin. I asked him to stop the attacks on Ukraine. At this point he refuses,” Macron tweeted.
He said the dialogue will continue. “We have to prevent the worst.”
Since his election as President in 2017, Macron has shown a keen interest in forging personal relationships with world leaders, including those who appreciate a degree of pragmatism when discussing democracy and human rights while pursuing business opportunities.
His pro-business diplomacy paid off in the Persian Gulf in December, when he signed a multi-billion-euro arms deal with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan. Macron drew heavy criticism on that trip for traveling to Saudi Arabia to become the first Western leader to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Macron stands out among European Union leaders for his willingness to be in the spotlight, to drive foreign policy and to move things forward,” said Silvia Colombo, EU external relations expert at the International Institute in Rome.
There is no other foreign leader Macron has tried to bring closer to his corner than Putin. Macron, a staunch European, was confident that a mixture of personal charm and the glamor of France’s past would persuade Putin to keep Russia in the European security habitat.
Macron received Putin for the first time in 2017 at the magnificent Versailles. Two years later, at Macron’s summer residence at Fort de Bregancon on the French Riviera, they discussed stalled peace talks with Ukraine as Macron sought to build on European diplomacy that had helped temper hostilities in the US past.
In recent weeks it has become clear that Putin was on the warpath, although he denied it while sitting at a very long table opposite Macron on his most recent visit to Moscow.
Macron wants to believe him, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said after critics claimed the French president had fallen into the old European trap of placating Putin’s Russia.
“The President is not naive,” said Le Drian on the eve of the Russian invasion. “He knows the methods, the character and the cynical nature of Putin.”
Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.
Follow AP’s coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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