Since December 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have spoken fourteen times, including during the former’s visit to Moscow. Among western leaders, Macron has been one of the few to keep diplomatic channels open with Russia, even after the invasion of Ukraine. This not only shows France’s foreign policy activism but also hints at Paris’s pivotal role in finding a negotiated solution to the current war. Analyzing Macron’s discourse during his latest visit to Moscow can therefore yield some interesting insights on how he intends to deal with Europe’s most reckless neighbor, Russia.
Since his election in 2017, Emmanuel Macron has adopted an ambitious foreign policy agenda both at the global and European level. While he has portrayed himself as a proactive, iconoclast diplomat in an attempt to reinvigorate France’s pivotal role in world affairs, during his five-years Macron has had to face an increasingly hostile international environment. Not only has he had to confront disruptive international actors such as Russia or China, but he has also had to deal with worsening relations with old allies such as the US and the UK. Thus Paris has had to digest a number of hard-to-swallow failures of which France’s withdrawal from Mali is only the latest to date.
At the European level, Macron has staunchly advocated for a new form of European sovereignty on the ground, stating that “only Europe can grant a real sovereignty, that is our capacity to exist in today’s world to defend our values and interests”. This declaration of intents, on a more practical level, concretely implies reinforcing the EU international architecture by building a common defense policy and industry that would constitute the initial step towards a European army. In sum, De Gaulle’s objective of a strategic independence for France has been transplanted by Macron at the European level. This in turn entails a certain independence from the US and the US-dominated NATO. While Macron’s endeavor was understandable due to the Trump administration’s blatant disinterest in European security matters, and still is in the light of US pivot to Asia, France’s efforts have been met by criticism from other EU member states such as Poland and the Baltic states. Even in the field of the defense industry France’s bid to further European integration has been hampered by strategic differences among the member states, such as the deadlock of the MGCS (Main Ground Combat System) and FCAS (Future Combat Air System) projects.
France’s effort for a European solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict
From this perspective, before Russia’s decision to begin military operations, the Ukrainian crisis seemed to be Macron’s last chance to create some momentum for European cohesion and affirm the (relative) strategic independence of the EU. On this matter, the EU and US had differing interests that practically legitimized a “European way” to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its wielding of the nuclear threat such differences are now almost insignificant, as NATO countries appear to show a renewed unity, at least temporarily. One might recall the blunt words used by Macron with reference to NATO in a 2019 interview with The Economist. He not only declared NATO “brain-dead”, but also affirmed that Europe needed to think of itself as a geopolitical power to remain in control of its destiny. While the reference has to be understood in the light of Trump’s disregard of the Atlantic Alliance, France has been advocating for a long time for the implementation of a strategic culture in Europe. Today, EU member states are unanimously rallying behind NATO’s flag as the possibility of immediate negotiations with Russia has faded away. It is however possible that in the future negotiations will again take place, since it is doubtful that the current conflict can be solved only through military means and sanctions from the West. Germany’s defense policy U-turn, together with EU’s decision to send military support to Ukraine, might therefore constitute the basis of a new defense culture in Europe. In this context, understanding French negotiation efforts through an analysis of Macron’s words could shed light on possible future solutions to the ongoing conflict.
Macron’s speech during his latest visit to Moscow: a principled negotiation?
In 1981 Roger Fisher and William Ury published for the first time their seminal book “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In”. The two scholars of the Harvard Negotiation Project presented four principles for effective negotiation. Comparing Macron’s speech at a press conference in Moscow on 7 February 2022 and Fisher and Ury’s book, it appears that the French President followed their advice closely.
First of all, Fisher and Ury insist that positional bargaining is largely ineffective: each party, opening negotiations with their positions on an issue, engage in a sort of haggling that tend to produce unsatisfying agreements. The outcome reached will lie somewhere half-way between the parties’ positions and will most probably neglect their interests. Principled-negotiation, on the other hand, tends to focus on interests rather than positions, and tries to separate people from the issue. While Putin started the press conference highlighting Russia’s positions and grievances towards the West, US and their NATO allies, Macron adopted another stance. He firstly underlined how Russians are “friends”, how they are an integral part of Europe, and that Russia is an essential element in Europe’s security architecture. Only later he claimed that the two sides have different perspectives and interpretations of facts. This is the book’s first principle: separating the people from the issue. Macron went on to enumerate the common interests between Europe and Russia. He mentioned economic interdependence, the security of the Old Continent, and the shared worries for the humanitarian consequences of a war. Macron’s objective was clearly to elicite a reflection on the diverging interests of the parties, while insisting on the existence of a common ground in accordance with the second principle: focusing on interests rather than positions.
What options and formats might be seen at future negotiating tables?
After Russia’s declaration of war, the most relevant element of principled negotiation is perhaps the Harvard scholars’ insistence on the third principle: generating a variety of options before entering into concrete negotiations. It is not by chance that Macron mentioned Finland and Sweden. Both countries are not part of NATO but have signed collaboration agreements with the security organization. Despite France’s claim that the “Finlandization” of Ukraine was never suggested by Macron, this reference was not casual, nor was that to Georgia and Moldova. Both countries are at the intersection of western and Russian spheres of influence. Georgia even experienced a conflict that brought South Ossetia and Abkhazia under Russia’s influence (Russian passports were distributed in both regions, similarly to what has been done in the Donbas), and the Georgian state has signed a partnership agreement with NATO. While another option, a revision of the Minsk agreements has indeed sunk, the recognition of the Donbas separatist republics as well as the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation still remains on the table, despite Russia’s declaration of war.
The question of defining objective criteria on which to base an agreement (the book’s fourth principle) is a primary concern in this context. When interests are directly opposed, as in the case of the ongoing war, it is essential to agree on procedural criteria before addressing the core issues. It seems unlikely that Russia will endlessly occupy the Ukrainian territory because at least a part of the country is staunchly opposed to Russia’s influence. At some point Putin will need to resort to diplomacy. While a dialogue with the US and NATO has been severely compromised by Russia’s unprovoked invasion, the Format of Normandy (composed of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine) will possibly constitute a valuable platform for future negotiations again. On February 7th Macron already mentioned the importance of such a format in the then ongoing negotiations.
The current crisis is evidently another failure of France’s diplomatic efforts. However, as Fisher and Ury suggest, parties may engage in deliberate deception about their intentions. This clearly has been the case of Russia. According to the Harvard scholars, when a party refuses to adopt principled negotiation, the principled part should recur to “negotiation jujitsu”. The crucial element is to refuse to respond in kind: when the other side attacks, the principled party should not counter-attack; nor should it accommodate the other party’s request. The adoption of sanctions, and the suspension of the Nord Stream II project should therefore signal Europe’s unwillingness to accept Russia’s terms. The hope is now that Russia will eventually take its seat at the negotiating table again. When (and if) it does, it may find a different Europe, possibly one that has embraced a common defense culture and is ready to take its security more seriously.