The story so far: In a significant departure from the position of the trans-Atlantic alliance (EU-NATO-U.S.) on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, French President Emmanuel Macron, in an interview on June 3, said that the West “must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means”. Viewed alongside recent phone calls from Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the statement hints at a pivot toward a diplomatic solution. This is at odds with the West’s stance so far — adopted in solidarity with Ukraine — that the only acceptable outcome of the ongoing conflict is a military victory for Ukraine, unconditional withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, and restoration of Ukraine’s pre-2014 territorial boundaries.
Mr. Macron’s comments elicited strong rebuke from Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted, “Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it. Because it is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives.” Earlier, in May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had already gone on record claiming that Mr. Macron wanted Ukraine to compromise its sovereignty so that Russia can “save face” when deciding to cease hostilities. With Russia now in possession of one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, Kyiv wants the West to supply it with more advanced weapons, especially longer-range missiles, so that Ukraine can strengthen its position before contemplating diplomatic possibilities.
EU nations which share a border with Russia — the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and Poland — reacted sharply to Mr. Macron’s comments, indicating a growing divergence of views within EU ranks. Latvia’s deputy Prime Minister Artis Pabriks said on Twitter: “It seems that there are number of so-called Western leaders who possess explicit need for self-humiliation in combination with total detachment from political reality.” Lithiania’s Foreign Minister observed that “Giving the occupier a chance to occupy territory means that it can be repeated elsewhere.” The strongest response, however, came from Estonia, which, along with Poland, has been at the forefront of providing military aid to Ukraine. Marko Mihkelson, head of the Estonian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee even used the phrase “brain-dead” — once applied by Mr. Macron to describe NATO — to characterise the words and actions (repeated phone calls to Putin) of France and Germany.
From the beginning of the conflict, the West’s response has been to isolate Russia from the rest of the world through a combination of harsh economic sanctions and a 360-degree cultural, political and commercial boycott of Russia, and aggressive military aid to Ukraine with the objective of weakening Russia and forcing it to abandon its military ambitions. But 100 days of the war have gone by, and while an end is nowhere in sight, collateral damage in the EU due to economic sanctions against Russia — rising fuel prices, a sputtering economy, and spiraling cost of living for the average citizen — is beginning to bite, especially in Germany and France, whose dependencies on global trade, supply chains, and commodity imports are high. The possibility of an endless — or long-term — war is making them nervous, vindicating Mr. Putin’s calculation that Russia’s pain threshold is higher than the West’s. Against this background, Mr. Macron seems to believe that an insistence on a military solution — that is, defeat, or “humiliation” of Russia — is an unrealistic goal that would only end up prolonging the war, and attendant pain for Europe, without moving the needle closer to a resolution.
Historically France has had close links with Russia and Mr. Macron, in particular, has fashioned himself as a mediator between the EU and Russia. He has been in regular talks with Mr. Putin from December 2021, first attempting to pre-empt the conflict, and when that failed, trying to find a quick negotiated settlement. On June 4, both Mr. Macron and Mr. Scholz had long phone calls with the Russian President where they raised the issue of Russia unblocking the export of grains from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Russia’s month-long blockade has triggered fears of widespread shortages and hunger, especially in developing countries. Mr. Putin, according to reports, promised to allow the export of grains provided the ports are “de-mined” and “relevant sanctions” on Russia were lifted. While France and Germany are hopeful of Russia allowing food exports from Ukraine, other EU nations and the U.S. are not keen on lifting any of the sanctions on Russia.
It does seem like two blocs with distinct views are beginning to coalesce. On one side are the U.S., the U.K., the Baltic states, and Poland, whose primary objective is to help Ukraine win the war, and failing that, to weaken and isolate Russia. On the other are EU states like France and Germany, and, for slightly different reasons, Hungary, which favour maintaining lines of communication and commercial links with Russia and are not enthusiastic about the policy of isolating the country. While the former bloc speaks only of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty over its territory and view talks with Mr. Putin as “encouraging” the occupier, the latter, especially Mr. Macron, believes that isolating Russia will not yield a sustainable security architecture for Europe, given the long history between the two. While the bloc in favour of arming Ukraine is dominant for now, the camp favouring a diplomatic resolution could gain fresh converts as more EU nations begin to feel the economic pain of a long-drawn war of attrition.