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In Vilnius recently, and alongside his Lithuanian counterpart Gitanas Nausėda, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed his ambition to push forward with a strategic dialogue with Russia. ‘Without naivety nor concession’, he clearly specified. A few hours later, he reasserted his position in Riga. Has Macron been successful in convincing his Baltic partners that a strategic dialogue with Russia, run by France, also addresses their security concerns? Nothing is less certain…
Underperforming but Increasingly Important Bilateral Relations
During his visit, Macron went to the military base of Rukla in Lithuania, where 300 French soldiers are currently deployed. French participation in this NATO Enhanced Forward Presence mission is the ultimate proof – together with the Baltic Air Policing – that France is actively involved in the security of the eastern flank. On their side, the Baltic states are also showing interest in French security concerns in the southern neighbourhood. While Lithuania and Latvia are participating in the EU training mission in Mali, Estonia is one of the few European member states to be involved in Operation Barkhane in the Sahel.
Apart from security and defence, these countries are also continuously solidifying their relations at the EU level and in the economic sphere (including in digital, fintech and biotech).
A Specific Context
Macron’s visit was expected for a long time; the last French presidential visit took place almost two decades ago in 2001. But it comes at a particularly critical time, just as the Baltic states – with Lithuania in the lead – play key roles in Europe’s reaction to the Belarus crisis.
Right before his arrival in the Baltics, Macron sent a strong signal of support for their stance, by demanding that the Belarusian leader, who stands accused of forging his country’s elections, cannot remain the country’s president: ‘Lukashenko must leave’, Macron demanded. During his visit, the French leader also met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian chief opposition figure, in Vilnius. And Macron repeatedly asserted the position of France as an active actor in a mediation led by the OSCE, in which Russia would be involved.
Nothing New Under the French Sun
Due to its insistence on a dialogue with Russia, France has attracted a lot of criticism in Central and Eastern Europe. However, recent declarations from French Defence Minister Florence Parly – who admitted that the dialogue with Russia has not produced ‘tangible results’ – as well as the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, rekindled some hope in Central and East European countries that France may reconsider its stance on talking to the Kremlin. However, what Macron said in Riga or Vilnius was similar to what has been heard from him since August 2019 in other European capitals such as Warsaw.
Macron’s position has not changed, and can be summed up in three arguments. First, Macron sees this dialogue not as an option but as a necessity. According to him, the past few years have proved that avoiding dialogue with Moscow did not produce any results, and a dialogue is necessary to build a ‘European security architecture’.
And the creation of this ‘architecture’ leads to the second ingredient of Macron’s reasoning: his aim to beef up European ‘autonomy’ in security. As he argued in Riga, Europeans must take back full control of their relationship with Russia as ‘this will allow us to have a more stable and protective relationship over time’. He also argued about the need to revive and replace disarmament treaties in which the Europeans must play a central role, as their own security is at stake.
Finally, Macron aims to convince France’s Central and East European partners that his approach to Russia does not entail ignoring their interests or security concerns. As he told his Baltic hosts, the dialogue with the Kremlin is being made ‘in this spirit of mutual understanding and transparency and of protection of your security’.
So, notwithstanding the fact that no significant progress was registered in this dialogue for over a year, Macron is determined to pursue his dialogue with Russia. He sees the showdown in Belarus and the current fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a reiteration of the need for dialogue with Russia: after all, France has been an active participant in the so-called Minsk Group designed to handle the conflict in the Caucasus.
It should not be forgotten that, as far as Paris is concerned, the latest batch of crises occur in areas generally perceived as part of Russia’s sphere of influence; it is noticeable, for instance, that the official French name for Belarus remains ‘Biélorussie’, the old Soviet appellation. As such, French officials often consider engagement with these countries only through cautious steps designed to avoid any move which could be interpreted as a provocation by Russia. Macron seems to perceive these ongoing crises as windows of opportunity for dialogue with Russia. And then, there is the French president’s personal preference to see his actions as fights which will result in triumphs against impossible odds: as he memorably put it on the night of his electoral victory back in 2017, in a thought which often justifies his approach, ‘Everyone told us it was impossible, but they didn't know France!’.
A French Mirage?
Predictably, Macron appeared very confident about his success in explaining his policies to the Baltic states, declaring that ‘ambiguities or misunderstandings are gradually removed’. His claim was, however, met with the polite silence of his hosts.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius’ comments probably summed up the view of many Central and East European stakeholders: ‘Dialogue for the sake of dialogue’, he said, ‘is not what we want to see, it creates an impression of business as usual’ with Russia. And here lies one of the most significant misunderstandings about the French initiative. France believes that Europeans can engage in specific areas of cooperation even while Russia is pursuing aggressive moves elsewhere, but the Central and East European countries consider that such an approach only encourages the Kremlin to believe that there are no consequences for its misbehaviour.
In addition, misunderstandings persist around the burden of history in such matters. During his trip, Macron showed empathy by admitting that France has not experienced ‘the same 20th century’ as the Balts, who were subjected to Soviet occupation, as well as a host of other unspeakable horrors. Yet, at the same time, Macron also told his hosts that they have ‘to face their history and their geography’, an appeal which only makes sense provided that Russia is no longer a revisionist or expansionist power.
Another tangle with history arises when Macron tries to persuade his partners that France is fully committed to their defence and sovereignty. But most of the Central and East European countries are simply not convinced that France would be committed to the defence of their independence any more than in the late 1930s; instead, they are afraid that France might be tempted to negotiate against their interests with Russia.
Clément Beaune, France’s Secretary of State for European affairs, has recently published a 20-page article explaining Macron’s vision for Europe, in which he claims the French ambition is to talk to everyone. Nevertheless, France’s objective of developing bilateral relations with Central and East European countries has mostly failed until now. During Macron’s recent visit, the formation of a ‘quadrilateral’ format of consultation involving the French and Baltic foreign ministries was announced. Details of this initiative are still missing, but this is an encouraging step. Still, France cannot just build this dialogue at the top levels. French public diplomacy in this region has to be refashioned in order to give more space to civil society and think tank initiatives. Such a strategy would not only help France to reduce misunderstandings with its Central and East European partners, but it would also help convince France’s partners about its commitments to uphold their security.
Unfortunately, however, Macron is still pursuing the mirage of French leadership over the EU’s diplomacy. The reality is that France is more and more isolated: to the scepticism from Baltic states regarding Macron’s dialogue with Russia, one should expect a similar attitude from important Central European countries such as Poland and Romania. France’s dynamism is admirable. But it is also frequently clumsy.
Romain Le Quiniou is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Euro Creative, the first think tank in France focusing specifically on Central and Eastern Europe. He is also a Fellow at WiseEuropa, a Polish think tank.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: President Gitanas Nausėda and First Lady Diana Nausėdienė welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron with his spouse Brigitte Macron who came for an official visit to Lithuania. Courtesy of the Lithuanian Presidency / lrp.lt.