French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouska in Lithuania turned out to be even less than a side-show: a half-hour private meeting, without a joint public appearance (BNS, Agence France Presse, September 28, 29). Instead, Russia loomed large on Macron’s agenda for his two-day visit to Lithuania.
For all his ambitions to lead Europe into a rapprochement with Russia, Macron might have reflected that Lithuania had witnessed the rise and fall of such French ambitions two hundred years earlier. A stone’s throw from Vilnius, on the Nemunas River, Emperor Napoleon met with Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1807 to divide Central-Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. The partition lines largely resembled those drawn in 1939 by France’s nemesis with the same eastern power (Grégoire Gafenco, Préliminaires de la Guerre à l’Est, Egloff Fribourg and L.U.F. Paris, 1944, 1946). And five years after the meeting on the Nemunas River, it was Vilnius again that became the terminus of the Grande Armée’s bare remnants escaping from Russia.
A later cycle of history witnessed France (Entente Cordiale) conceding Central-Eastern Europe writ large to Russia in 1914–1917 (George-Henri Soutou, La Grande Illusion: Quand la France Perdait la Paix, 1914–1920, Paris: Tallandier, 2015); then (after Russia’s temporary collapse) claiming French leadership in Central-Eastern Europe following the end of World War I. But that order was beyond the means of France to sustain, and it disintegrated even before the start of World War II. Next, Charles de Gaulle’s great complaint about Yalta was that France was not invited (Arthur Conte, Yalta ou le Partage du Monde, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1970). At present, Macron proclaims ambitions to lead Europe in establishing a new security architecture together with Russia. The track record shows that such French grand designs are disproportionate to French means and pose risks all around before failing.
Macron is currently performing a solo act, seeking a Europe-Russia “strategic dialogue” to deal with the problems of Libya, Syria, Iran, China and global issues such as climate change. The Kremlin’s putative cooperation would be rewarded with an enhanced role for Russia in a reconstructed European order. While arguing that Europe needs Russia’s cooperation to deal with those problems, however, Macron at the same time calls for Europe to become “strategically autonomous” from the United States and to reduce the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) role in the security of Europe (see below). “Strategic incongruity,” rather than autonomy, would more accurately describe the proposition of more Russia and less US in Europe’s security.
Macron’s secondary objective is to upstage Germany in European affairs, notwithstanding (in this case also) France’s lesser resources. Without a mandate from the European Union, NATO or any allied governments, Macron aspires to position France as Russia’s preeminent interlocutor in Europe. For their part, NATO’s eastern frontline states, facing Russia’s re-expansion in their eastern neighborhood, call for strengthening NATO’s cohesion and seek to increase their cooperation with the United States.
The French president’s visit to Lithuania (and his meeting with Latvia’s Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins on the same trip) aimed to reassure these Baltic allies but also to proselytize Macron’s own agenda for a European security order with Russia’s participation (ELTA, BNS, Agence France Presse, September 28–30).
In this broad context, Macron seems to perceive an opportunity in Belarus to score a double goal: first, reassure the Baltic States and Poland by helping to dislodge Alyaksandr Lukashenka, now perceived as Russia’s protege, from the presidency of Belarus; and second, potentially the main prize, rehabilitate Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eyes of European public opinion by convincing him to push Lukashenka out and give Russia’s blessing to free elections in that country. Macron can only intercede with Putin to do this, but Putin alone has the power to act in Belarus. The Kremlin would rid Belarus of “Europe’s last dictator” and would help introduce a multi-party system in that country. As Macron and his Baltic hosts surely know, Putin actually proposes to introduce a parliamentary system of government in Belarus, which would in all probability be dominated by Russia-sponsored mass parties (see EDM, September 10).
In the same broad context, French diplomacy is nudging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept the holding of “elections” in the Donbas territory under Russian military and political control, as per the Minsk “agreements.” Those elections would be held under the so-called Steinmeier Formula which would validate elections compatible “on the whole” with European standards, rather than simply compatible. But such an outcome, as in Belarus, would position Russia as a constructive problem-solver, indeed crisis-solver in Europe. What better way than this to rehabilitate Putin and qualify Russia for a seat at the top table of a European security order, without impairing Russia’s interests in Ukraine or Belarus but, instead, catering to those interests.