The French president wants to convince Vladimir Putin to halt military deployment around Ukraine. But some in Moscow believe the Russian president is only interested in negotiating with the U.S. about the wider global balance of power.
PARIS — "If you invite a Russian bear to dance, it is not you who decides the end of the dance, it is the bear.”
This old Russian saying, recalled by a French diplomat, underlines the delicate nature of the mediation French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting this week on the Ukrainian crisis.
President Macron is meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Monday afternoon in Moscow. He will go on to Kyiv the next day to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Macron separately phoned the two leaders Thursday evening and spoke on Friday with U.S. President Joe Biden and then with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg.
Key to deescalation
It will be a question of finding the route to de-escalation, given that for the last three months at the border with Ukraine, Russia has amassed around 110,000 soldiers, hundreds of missiles, tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.
"We are not going to obtain unilateral movements," the French president said Sunday in an interview with Journal du Dimanche daily. "But it is essential to avoid a deterioration of the situation" before establishing reciprocal mechanisms and gestures of trust.
However, a Russian journalist, well acquainted with the Kremlin, believes that Putin won’t take his French counterpart very seriously. In Putin’s eyes, the only interlocutor that counts is the White House, with whom the Russian leader can discuss his aims that go beyond Ukraine: the reorganization of the entire global security architecture. The Kremlin wants to use the risk of war in Ukraine to open a "new era in international relations," with the help of China, and to erase the Russian geopolitical setbacks since the dissolution of the USSR.
The Kremlin will have to present any compromise as a Russian victory.
A European observer adds that the French president could "obtain some progress on Ukraine, a subject within his reach" in the framework of the negotiations of the so-called Normandy format [Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France] devoted to the sole Ukrainian separatist region of Donbass.
But according to Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian think tank Russian Council, "the Kremlin will have to present any compromise as a Russian victory because, after weeks of tension with the West, Vladimir Putin cannot afford to get no results."
File photo of Macron welcoming Putin in Paris, France on Dec. 9, 2019
Bluff or invasion, clock is ticking
These discussions are taking place against a backdrop of growing tensions. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russia is stepping up preparations for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It already has 70% of the necessary equipment.
The 60 Russian tactical battalions deployed since November in Crimea and Belarus, near the eastern Ukrainian border, have recently been reinforced by 20 additional units. Fourteen new battalions from the rest of Russia are also in transit. And a squadron of Sukhoi-25 ground attack aircraft, key to an offensive, arrived in Belarus on Saturday from the Russian Far East. On another front, a Russian fleet has been deployed in the Black Sea, including five amphibious landing vehicles. Six others are on their way from the Baltic Sea.
U.S. intelligence believes that Putin may not have made up his mind yet, but wants to give himself the means to weigh all the options: intimidation and bluffing, absorption of the separatist enclave of Donbass, or full-scale invasion. In this case, the Russian army could surround Kyiv and overthrow President Zelensky in 48 hours, according to these officials. This conflict could cause an exodus of one to five million refugees, mainly to Poland.
Meanwhile, the potential ramifications extend well beyond the region. Some investors believe the risk of a major war in Eastern Europe is being underestimated by financial markets. With Macron's diplomatic blitz, we may know more this week — or we may not.
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