French President Macron and Russian President Putin's first meeting did little to warm up their nations' frosty relations, Russian experts concluded. Macron tried to promote himself internationally while Putin sat tight.
"Despite significant results that surpassed most expectations, the meeting was rather cool," said Tatiana Stanovaya. The Paris-based expert from the Institute of Modern Russia's (IMR) Center for Political Technologies (CPT) told DW that, "Neither Vladimir Putin nor Emmanuel Macron was willing to go into details on contentious issues." In Stanovaya's assessment of the two leader's first meeting, the space to maneuver on issues such as Syria, Ukraine, and related western sanctions was "very restricted." It seems rapprochement between Russia and France will be difficult.
Monday's visit was unusual in many respects. The news that Russian President Vladimir Putin would accept newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron's invitation to visit France was confirmed just one week prior to the trip. The Russian president has seldom been seen in Western Europe since Russia's annexation of Crimea. Nevertheless, he always visited France.
Then in the fall of 2016, Putin surprised many by canceling a trip to Paris. It was said that there were diplomatic tensions with then French President Francois Hollande.
Macron shows toughness, Putin sits tight
That cancellation served to heighten the attention on this trip. Ahead of the visit, some Russian media outlets emphasized the fact that Macron would welcome Putin at Versailles, formerly the residence of the French king, and not at the Elysee Palace. They noted that this was a sign of particular honor. The official reason for the unusual venue was said to be an exhibition on the Russian Czar Peter the Great.
In summarizing the visit upon its conclusion, experts gave sober assessments.
"Many had the impression that the meeting took place in what was neither a particularly critical nor a particularly warm environment," Alexei Chikhachev from the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a government-related think tank, told DW. The meeting brought no breakthroughs, though neither leader expected as much, the St. Petersburg-based France expert said. The visit was much more about Putin and Macron having the chance to get acquainted with one another's views.
Macron, said Chikhachev, announced that he would take a tough stance on Russia early on, and the young president is intent on establishing himself as a new foreign policy player on the world stage.
"Putin maintained his stance well and will simply wait and observe, since he knows that any decisions pertaining to Russia will have to be made within a larger framework," Chikhachev explained. For instance, any decisions on Ukraine will have to be negotiated within the so-called Normandy format, in which France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine have been seeking a political solution to the war in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. Chikhachev is convinced that Macron will continue to pursue his predecessor's approach, though the expert noted that Francois Hollande's relationship with Russia was "not very good."
Macron more difficult for Putin than Hollande
Stanovaya sees a fundamental difference between the former and the current French presidents. Hollande, she says, was passive. In contrast, Macron wants to expand the importance of France's role in resolving international conflicts. After meeting with Putin, he therefore announced new initiatives such as the creation of a Syria working group and a civic forum with Russia.
Stanovaya said that Macron will be a more difficult partner for Putin than Hollande was. In her view, the new French president is offering the Russians a "marriage of convenience": "We are forced to work with Russia because we have common problems with terrorism. Problems that we cannot solve without them." She believes there are no signs that French-Russian relations will grow warmer; In fact, there is a risk that they could cool further.
Macron offered a taste of what France's new, tougher stance might look like at the end of his press conference with Putin. A Russian journalist asked Macron why her colleagues from the Russian foreign news channels RT and Sputnik had been kept out of his campaign offices during the recent presidential election. During the campaign Macron accused both outlets of having defamed him.
Standing alongside Putin, Macron said that both channels had "behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda." According to Chikhachev, such statements may be common during election campaigns but are highly unusual for a sitting president. He added that if Macron continues to use this "logic of confrontation" when dealing with Russia, it will certainly hamper dialog with Putin.
Stanovaya said that the issue is very personal for Macron. And if Russia fails to find a way to calm the waters, she says Moscow should not expect any warm gestures from the new French president.