Newly re-elected Macron to toughen stance on Russia: Analysts

Dialogue channels will remain open, but Macron is expected to push for a more aggressive position on Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks during a media conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before their meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, January 25, 2022
Macron (centre) has held regular talks with Zelenskyy (left) and Putin (right) throughout the war [EPA]

Emmanuel Macron’s victory in securing a second term as France’s president will enable him to adopt a more aggressive approach on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, analysts say.

In the run-up to the presidential election held earlier this month, Macron eschewed campaigning in favour of shuttle diplomacy, regularly meeting presidents on both sides – Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenksyy and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Despite failing to broker peace, Macron’s cultivated role of a statesman ultimately worked in his favour.

He secured 58.6 percent, compared with far-right Marine Le Pen, his main political rival who has previously enjoyed warm relations with Putin, who took 41.5 percent.

Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said he believes Macron will transform his rhetoric into action – as well as double down on diplomatic efforts.

“Now that Le Pen has lost, Macron will push for a full energy embargo, as he has already said that France doesn’t depend on Russian gas,” he told Al Jazeera.

The French president will also “build on recent heavy artillery transfers to Ukraine and the 100 million euros [$106m] in arms sent in the first two months of the war”.

With the election pressure gone, Macron “will have more freedom to engage with Putin diplomatically while making French policy towards Russia tougher”, Ramani added.

As France currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, Macron’s re-election could also strengthen NATO and EU positions against Russia.

“Macron has also sustained EU integration and is one of the main sponsors of a common defence strategy, and the current conflict is an important test for his vision,” said Pierluigi Paganini, a cybersecurity and intelligence expert in Italy.

“Macron always sustained the autonomy of the EU, and states that its operation has to complement NATO’s territorial defence.”

‘Delicate balance’

Macron’s meeting with Putin at the Kremlin at the start of February, before the invasion began, was mocked on social media – with images showing the two world leaders sitting on opposite ends of a long table.

He has regularly checked in with the Russian president since then, holding hours-long talks that have failed to change the course of the war.

Joséphine Staron, director of international relations at the Paris-based think-tank Synopia, said Macron will not shut down negotiations with Putin unless a major escalation takes place in the conflict.

“Contrary to other countries, Macron has been a little bit more careful since the beginning of the war and has not for example insulted Putin, like US President Joe Biden has done,” she said.

Geographical proximity is one reason for France’s wariness, and being a nuclear power engaged in dialogue with Russia – also a nuclear member – is another.

“If France says Putin has crossed the red line, then as a nuclear power, what would that imply for France? What would its next step be?” she asked.

French President Emmanuel Macron meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier in February
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 7, 2022, for talks in an effort to find common ground on Ukraine and NATO [File: Sputnik/AFP]

Taking a firmer stance on Russia as the war lingers on and expands into neighbouring regions, EU states and Washington are sending more weapons to Ukraine.

In a U-turn, Germany on Tuesday greenlighted the transfer of armoured vehicles fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and last week, days before winning the election, Macron said France is sending heavy artillery weaponry – Caesar howitzers, Milan anti-tank missiles, and thousands of shells – to Ukraine.

Staron warned that the EU’s open support for Zelenskky might be construed by Putin as “an engagement in war”, saying the bloc should tread carefully, especially after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments on Monday about the conflict escalating into a third world war.

“There are two solutions,” she said. “Stay totally neutral, or help Ukraine – but not to the point where we would cross the red line, which as Putin said, would be going to war against Russia.

“It’s a delicate balance.”

Oil and gas embargoes

The risk of the conflict accelerating if surrounding countries were forced to enter the fray is feared by many, as the recent alleged bombing of the Russian-backed Transnistria region in Moldova has shown.

The United States has previously warned that Russian forces could launch “false-flag” operations to create a pretext for invading other nations – charges that Moscow has rejected.

If the conflict widens, the EU might finally cave in to what Zelenksyy has demanded for months: an oil and gas embargo.

On Wednesday, the dispute over gas exploded as Russia’s Gazprom cut supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, saying the two nations had failed to pay in roubles – a move Moscow demanded after being hit with Western sanctions.

Despite France being much less dependent on gas from Russia than other European countries, shutting down energy pipelines will be devastating for the continent.

Furthermore, the consequences of an oil embargo would likely cause a recession in Europe, said Paganini

“While the US, the EU, the UK, and other countries have sanctioned Russia, Russian export revenues since the beginning of the invasion is not decreasing,” he said.

“Even if European governments agreed to stop Russian coal imports starting in August, it is not enough. The prices for oil would increase on a global scale.”

Using alternative oil provisions from the Middle East and Africa would take time, which in turn would force European countries to adopt an energy policy characterised by austerity, he added.

With these risks in mind, the EU is hardly likely to reach a total agreement regarding such measures, especially with the knowledge that some countries will be disproportionately affected.

“A French oil and gas embargo would be a major step towards isolating Russia, but as long as other major powers, such as Germany and Italy waver, and smaller countries, like Hungary, resist it, an EU consensus will be very hard to achieve,” Ramani said.

Source: Al Jazeera