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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

To "Not Humiliate" Putin Is The Real Danger

French President Emmanuel Macron is making a point of keeping an open dialogue with Putin, hoping to avoid a world war at all costs. But he needs to get his historical comparisons (and world wars) in order.

To "Not Humiliate" Putin Is The Real Danger

A poster in protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. French President Emmanuel Macron has previously called for the need to not humiliate Putin, but some are calling it the wrong move.

Dominique Moïsi

-Analysis-

PARIS — “I know Putin well. We should not be hoping for him to leave: whoever is likely to succeed him will be much worse.”

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This is what former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said to me in 2017, while we were in New York. He was trying to moderate my growing hostility towards the Kremlin’s leader. In fact, in the same sentence, he wanted to also reassure me about the United States President Donald Trump, who had just come into the room: “He may be unpredictable, but he is not an ideologue.”


While the war rages on in Ukraine and continues to evoke World War I trenches for some military analysts, Kissinger’s words on Putin come back to me. And even more so now that French president Emmanuel Macron seems to behave like a disciple of Kissinger, a man who did not hide his admiration for Bismarck's realpolitik of excluding morals and ethics from decisions.

Setting boundaries 

By emphasizing the need to "not humiliate" and isolate Russia, Kissinger and Macron have the wrong priorities. The focus is elsewhere. It is to avoid at all costs that the "crime pays," that the aggressor is rewarded. In other words, preventing the defeat of Ukraine is more important (especially in the long term for the stability of the world order) than preventing Putin’s humiliation.

We live in a world where words and nuances are more important than ever. Wanting to prevent the defeat of Ukraine is not exactly the same as having the defeat of Russia as a goal. It is not the country that we want to belittle and humiliate, but its leader with whom we want to set the necessary boundaries. And this goal cannot be achieved through dialogue with Moscow, but by creating a stronger balance of power between Russia and Ukraine.

How, in this context, do we explain the diplomatic approach and search for dialogue with Moscow at any cost, favored by Paris? Beyond pride, one can legitimately wonder about the philosophical, cultural, geopolitical, political or other motivations that explain the choices of a diplomat who has objectively isolated Paris from the majority of European and Western capitals.

More German than the Germans

Beyond the concerns expressed by Kissinger (that the alternatives to Putin would be worst), there are those formulated by Jürgen Habermas. Europe, as well as everyone else, knows that the German philosopher is a supporter of the European cause (and cannot imagine its future without maintaining some form of link with Russia).

Habermas articulates a very "German" preoccupation, analyzing the geographical, historical and cultural proximity between Berlin and Moscow, without forgetting the specific weight of guilt and remorse linked to World War II.

By continuing to emphasize the importance of the Franco-German couple, has Macron, in his relationship with Russia, become more "German" than the Germans themselves? In a more classic sense, doesn’t the rapport between France and America, as well as a certain Gaullist tradition (concerned with protecting France's diplomatic independence) further explain the particular relationship between Paris and Moscow? The interests of Paris are not the same the ones as Washington. And even more so now that America has become unpredictable despite its newfound firmness, at least in appearance, on the issue of Ukraine.

Russian embassy in Berlin

Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, during a pro-Ukraine demonstration on June 19.

Omer Messinger/ZUMA

Putin and Hitler?

There is one more interpretation, which is more philosophical and historical. The French president is concerned about the multiple historical analogies that may exist between the current situation and the conditions that prevailed at the beginning of World War I. Does he intend to do whatever it takes to ensure that the world does not go into a third world war, a potentially nuclear one?

Without being too controversial, one may nevertheless wonder if Macron, legitimately obsessed with the First World War and the risks of a third one, is not overlooking a third unavoidable historical comparison: the Second World War?

And to be more precise, with a parallel that can no longer be summarily dismissed as too extreme: Putin and Hitler?

When pride takes over

What does it mean to not humiliate and isolate Putin? In order to grasp the full vanity of this ambition, it would be enough to refer to the "Diary of an Embassy in Berlin," written by one of the French diplomats who was among the first to perceive the "specificity" of Hitler, Ambassador André François-Poncet.

The idea that one could seek compromises with Hitler and Putin would undoubtedly have amused him. Now, Macron can argue that he has done everything to avoid the worst. But does he really have the same cards at his disposal as Turkey does to present himself as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine?

Doesn't France risk appearing as an illustration of the growing divisions to come within the Western camp on the issue of Ukraine? But to get to the heart of the matter, it is not the Western camp that is primarily responsible for the humiliation of Russia. It is Putin himself.

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