Convergence on security questions regarding Russia can be achieved if sufficient consultation takes place and the transatlantic relationship is adequately taken into account.
The shock and dismay provoked by the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the ensuing Russian-supported war in eastern Ukraine led to a fundamental shift in approach to Russia in both Berlin and Paris. Russia’s actions raised a series of security-related questions, to which both countries responded by suspending or cancelling former cooperation. Germany halted all forms of military- and security-related interaction with Moscow, at least temporarily. France, which under François Hollande had a more distant relationship with Moscow, renounced delivery of the Mistral-class assault ships sold to Russia under Nicolas Sarkozy, after heated debates about the cancellation, since these could be deployed in the Black Sea and used against Ukraine. This decision cost the French government some €950 million. However, after Emmanuel Macron became president in 2017 he advanced the idea of a security dialogue with Moscow and attempted to establish a functioning bilateral relationship with Vladimir Putin. This initiative was greeted with some scepticism in Berlin, in particular because of its unilateral nature. Despite this, there is sufficient agreement on the fundamental questions in the security realm in France and Germany to make cooperation feasible.
Macron’s strategic autonomy initiative
From the beginning of his mandate, Macron combined harsh criticism of Moscow with an attempt to establish a relationship with Putin. The French president is certainly aware of the nature of the Russian political regime, as well as its hostile intentions and capacity to do harm. The attacks Macron’s campaign suffered in the run-up to the 2017 election – with rumours about his private life and the holding of offshore accounts, as well as the hacking and disclosure of thousands of emails from his campaign team members just before election day – all pointed to Russia, as the MacronLeaks investigations later revealed.
Nonetheless, the new French president decided to restore a direct dialogue with the Kremlin, hosting Putin at Versailles in May 2017 for the inauguration of an exhibition on Peter the Great. At the joint press conference, Macron did not spare his counterpart, bluntly stating that the media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik had ‘repeatedly produced untruths about [his own] person and [his] campaign’ and were no more than ‘organs of influence’. As this example demonstrates, Macron’s approach to Russia has involved a combination of dialogue and firmness. The approach relies on two premises widely shared in France: that not only Russian actions but also the growing confrontation between Russia and the US imperil European security; and that Russia is part of Europe culturally and historically.
Macron’s Russia policy is also embedded in a broader approach towards European security and predicated on his view of key international developments and trends. He has increasingly asserted a bold new vision for a more stable and autonomous Europe, as notably set out in the speech on Europe that he delivered at the Sorbonne in 2017. In August 2018, during the president’s annual meeting with all French ambassadors, he asked them to reflect on the definition of European security interests. The same year, he launched the European Intervention Initiative, a joint military project that now brings together 14 Western and Nordic European countries outside the framework of NATO and the EU. On the same occasion, he called for the creation of ‘a real European army’, arguing that ‘in the face of Russia … which has shown that it can be threatening … we must have a Europe which defends itself more alone, without depending only on the United States, and in a more sovereign way’.
A few months later, Macron pushed to renew the debate on Europe’s so-called ‘strategic autonomy’, a concept that remains both vague and contentious, but which goes beyond the EU’s relations with the US. This unexpected move irritated German politicians and policymakers, mainly because of the French president’s failure to consult with Berlin and other EU capitals, but to some extent concerning its merits as well. In parallel, Macron started to make the case for a ‘differentiated Europe’, as a response to the realization that it is very difficult to move forward with 27 members that disagree on defence, taxation and monetary policy. Although significant progress can be noted in the field of European defence with two new EU mechanisms, the permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) and the European defence fund (EDF), Macron’s efforts have not achieved the success he anticipated. His initiatives and statements have also sparked controversy among EU member states, revealing a growing divergence of views on the US’s commitment to Europe and the future of the transatlantic relationship.
Macron decided to switch to a bilateral dialogue with Russia and invited Putin to his summer residence at Brégançon on the eve of the French-hosted G7 summit in Biarritz.
Eager to make his ideas about European strategic autonomy prevail, Macron changed his tactics in the summer of 2019: without waiting for the outcome of the European discussions, he decided to switch to a bilateral dialogue with Russia and invited Putin to his summer residence at Brégançon on the eve of the French-hosted G7 summit in Biarritz. Macron’s overtures towards Putin were most likely driven by three factors. First, he certainly thought that this initiative would force Europeans to have a discussion on European autonomy. Second, pragmatic considerations may have played a role, especially the realization that Russian participation was needed to achieve a peace settlement in Syria. Third, as clearly stated in his speech to the French ambassadors later that month, his policy towards Russia derives from his assessment of the evolution of the international system and its consequences for European security. China’s extraordinary rise and build-up make the US pivot to Asia ever more inexorable, while the growing erosion of arms control treaties brings new security challenges for the Europeans. The unpredictability of the US administration at the time added an element of confusion that was most probably intentionally used. After Donald Trump’s sudden and unilateral decision to withdraw from Syria in late 2019, Macron caused a new stir in many European capitals by claiming that NATO was ‘experiencing brain death’, to underline what he perceived as the lack of strategic thinking and coordination.
Macron went even further in early 2020, when outlining his vision in his first speech entirely devoted to nuclear deterrence and arms control. Convinced that there could be ‘no defence and security project for European citizens without a political vision seeking to promote gradual rebuilding of trust with Russia’, he aimed at ‘improving the conditions of collective security and stability in Europe’. Breaking from past tradition, he asserted the European dimension of French deterrence and called for a ‘rebalanced transatlantic relationship’, while urging Europeans to agree on an ‘international arms control agenda’. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, he explained why he believed in the need for a strategic dialogue with Russia that would embrace cyber, space, military relations and external conflicts.
Despite scepticism among an influential number of high-ranking French civil servants, a Franco-Russian bilateral dialogue materialized through regular contacts at both ministerial and much lower levels. A highly experienced and respected diplomat, Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to Washington and former executive secretary-general for the European External Action Service, was given the task of conducting and coordinating this dialogue. On the one hand, 13 inter-ministerial working groups were set up, tackling very different issues including human rights, Iran, Libya or civil nuclear power – the idea being to build trust by reconnecting, exchanging views and learning more about mutual positions and red lines. On the other hand, 2+2 meetings between the ministries of foreign affairs and defence were intended to permit the discussion of security issues, in particular arms control – the objective here being to make Russia and the US understand that Europeans must participate in the upcoming negotiations that primarily concern them.
German positions on security and options for convergence
The reaction in Berlin to Macron’s proposals was lukewarm at best. The time was not perceived as ripe for a high-level dialogue on European security as envisaged by the French president. Furthermore, Macron’s project seemed in danger of adopting some of the faulty assumptions made by German policymakers in their previous approaches to Russia. Berlin was not completely inactive with regard to security dialogue, however. In November 2018 the German–Russian High-level Working Group on Security Policy renewed consultations after a six-year hiatus. Some of the subgroups of this Working Group had in fact met in Moscow as early as 2017. This indicates that the German government attributes a relatively high priority to this form of dialogue, although information about it in the German media is scarce. In the NATO framework, Germany continues to support the NATO–Russia Founding Act despite repeated Russian violations of it.
Berlin’s response to Macron’s proposals in the security realm – whether concerning European strategic autonomy or a policy reset with Russia – was tepid primarily because of the failure of the French side to consult with EU counterparts including Germany. But there were also some doubts in Berlin about the logic behind the initiatives, especially regarding the EU’s capacity to influence Russia’s relationship with China. While some senior German officials have embraced the idea of convincing Moscow to abandon or at least weaken its strategic ties to Beijing by proposing closer cooperation with the EU, most German experts consider this position untenable. Furthermore, the hidden assumption behind Macron’s initiatives appeared to be a belief that there were enough common interests between Russia and the other European countries to allow a dialogue on security issues to bear fruit eventually.
However, this assumption can be questioned in view of Russian behaviour in the Eastern Neighbourhood, as well as in light of official perceptions in Moscow regarding the very meaning and implications of security and Russia’s role in ensuring it. In Brussels and Washington, the sovereign equality of states – which implies the freedom to choose alliances – is seen as an inviolable principle and a guarantee of long-term stability. This view is contested in Moscow: the most extreme actors continue to believe that support for irredentism is compensation for the collapse of the Soviet Union, whereas experts with a more balanced position refer to the concept of ‘indivisibility of security’ (nedelimost’ bezopasnosti), thereby underlining the need to take into account the security of all countries and to revive ‘the culture of mutual consultation’. From the Russian leaders’ perspective, European strategic stability cannot be achieved without addressing political issues, such as the role of NATO in Europe and the future of the other post-Soviet countries.
Yet on the whole there is a certain overlap between French and German thinking on the subject of dialogue with Russia. In both cases there is a strong inclination to pursue such dialogue, as can be seen in Merkel’s proposal, backed by Macron, at the European Council meeting in June 2021. The German chancellor advocated for a discussion between Vladimir Putin and the EU heads of state and government. With regard to the broader security environment, the historically conditioned pacifist streak in German politics and society and the strong German preference for multilateral forums alluded to above imply both a certain resistance to dealing with issues of ‘hard’ security and a potential willingness to play a subordinate role in formats addressing these issues, provided an adequate level of consultation takes place. As the transatlantic relationship remains extremely significant for Berlin, embedding security dialogue in this relationship – or at least ensuring that it is not jeopardized by such dialogue – remains a key interest, especially now that Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. But if these concerns are dealt with, Franco-German cooperation in the security sphere appears eminently possible. Not only is Berlin increasingly worried about the European security environment, but there is also growing acceptance of the need for Germany to make greater contributions in the hard security realm.
It is necessary to recognize that the strategic instability that prompted Emmanuel Macron to initiate a security dialogue with Moscow has far from disappeared.
Finally, it is necessary to recognize that the strategic instability that prompted Emmanuel Macron to initiate a security dialogue with Moscow has far from disappeared. The termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 was followed by the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty in November 2020, and by Russia’s withdrawal in January 2021. In that respect, the last-minute renewal of the New START Treaty between Moscow and Washington in early February 2021 for five years (and not for one year as initially expected) came as good news, and allows the opening of new negotiations on nuclear arms reduction in which France and the UK could play a role. But the Franco-German motor could also become active in this area in the future, not least on account of the role Germany plays with regard to nuclear sharing.
However, Russia’s growing engagement and destabilizing actions in sub-Saharan Africa cast doubt on Moscow’s commitment to negotiate new security arrangements. In September 2021, only three months after France announced an upcoming reduction of its Barkhane counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel, and the intended withdrawal of more than 2,000 French troops (of 5,000), Mali made known its willingness to recruit 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries. Although not yet confirmed, this move has already prompted alarm in many European capitals, and has strained French relations with Mali and Russia. The experience of the Wagner presence in the Central African Republic suggests that its involvement in Mali and the Western Sahel could aggravate the security situation in this extremely poor and troubled region and give Moscow an opportunity to instrumentalize a new migration crisis politically.
Furthermore, the degree of opposition in the European Council framework to the discussion with the Russian president, as advocated by Merkel and Macron, should serve as a warning to both Berlin and Paris. In order for proposals on dialogue with Russia to succeed at the EU level, they must be predicated on serious consultations with other EU member states; and the interests of these states must be not only understood but also clearly reflected in the substance of the proposals. The significant efforts made by both Berlin and Paris to engage with counterparts in Poland and the Baltic states on Russia and security-related topics have not yet led to such a state of affairs. The heightened concern with issues of hard security that has emerged in Germany in recent years makes it likely that the next German government will engage more substantively in this area, although radical changes of position are unlikely, especially due to the compromises required to bring a three-party coalition into being. This is all the more true given that the SPD is slated to head the defence ministry in the new cabinet.