To anyone with eyes to see and a mind to interpret without prejudice the live broadcast of the Macron-Putin broadcast last night, which began at midnight Moscow time, it was evident that the French and Russian presidents were at the end of their tether – exhausted and frustrated with mutual incomprehension after nearly six hours of talks in isolation at opposite ends of a three meter long table with only the translation delivered through ear plugs to keep them alert.
Utter fatigue was clear on the pained face of Emmanuel Macron as he gave his summation of the talks and as he answered journalists’ questions. A man who is never at a loss for words when standing before a microphone, he rattled on, delivering gibberish, for lack of concentration. It was clear that notwithstanding the complexity of the ongoing crisis at the Russian-Ukraine border, he had only one goal for the talks that had been agreed with the European Commission, NATO and Washington before his flight to Moscow: to persuade the Kremlin to begin withdrawal of its military forces so that a de-escalation could be announced to the world.
On Macron’s face we saw in addition to fatigue, strain and animal fear. What could he fear? That he would leave Moscow empty-handed, with no concessions to boast. Indeed, French government spokesmen put lipstick on the pig when they claimed a certain success well after the meeting ended, saying that Vladimir Putin would now order a large part of Russia’s 30,000 soldiers presently in Belarus back to their bases in Russia once the ten day military exercises soon to start are completed. Of course, that was always in the Russian game plan of exercises that prioritize training their Belarus colleagues on the latest Russian military hardware, which they brought with them and which will remain in Belarus to bolster the country’s southern flank.
The whole issue of reducing the Russian troop numbers was dealt with by Macron and his spokesmen as if that by itself would reduce the chances of armed conflict breaking out at any moment. The issue of the 150,000 Ukrainian forces massed at the border with Donbas and armed to the teeth with new Western toys for the boys was not addressed in any way by Mr. Macron, whereas it is precisely that which explains the Russian troop concentrations on their side of the border and explains why the bulk of the Russians are not leaving any time soon. We heard from Macron only upbeat and empty remarks on how the Normandy Format would be continued in further efforts to implement the Minsk Accords.
There was also a measure of animal fear on Macron’s face when he mentioned how disagreeable it is for the Russians to be planning to position nuclear arms in Belarus. Putin denied that such plans are afoot.
For his part, Vladimir Putin was also lacking the usual animation and humor with which he sprinkles his speeches through use of Russian folk expressions. His face was drained of emotion and he was clearly exhausted from 5 hours of interchange with his incredibly ill-prepared and dense interlocutor. He also could have been paying the price of jet lag, considering that he had just come back from a two day trip to Beijing for an eventful meeting with President Xi before the opening of the Winter Olympics.
Kremlin news broadcasters have in recent weeks emphasized that Russia has ‘no one to talk to’ from among Western leaders, who are pygmies compared to their predecessors of just a couple of decades ago. Macron yesterday was a case in point: a finance specialist by training, a former interne at a major brokerage house, he came before the press conference yesterday looking and sounding like some minor stock exchange dealer, totally out of his depth.
Nonetheless, Mr. Putin remained the cordial host to the bitter end, thanking Macron repeatedly for his efforts to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis.
Meanwhile, also yesterday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington meeting with Joe Biden in an effort to show loyalty to his country’s military defender and to dispel suspicions that Germany would not join the enforcement of ‘sanctions from hell’ that the Biden administration is preparing for the eventuality of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. True, in the press conference which followed, Scholz was silent on the question of scuttling Nord Stream 2, but Biden nonetheless claimed the countries were now fully aligned.
One question that was not addressed was one inadvertently raised by Biden himself a couple of weeks ago in what was called a ‘gaffe’ by his handlers and then swiftly buried: what happens if any Russian incursion into Ukraine is very minor? Still more relevant but still unspoken in our media, what happens if the Russian incursion, invasion, air strikes against Ukrainian troops or infrastructure, call it what you will, is a reaction to a Ukrainian armed assault on Donbas threatening to create vast numbers of civilian casualties? What happens if the Russian action is framed in terms of the ‘obligation to defend’ that the United States and its NATO allies invoked when they embarked on their intervention in Libya against the Gaddafi regime? Where will Germany and the EU member states stand then?
In what can only be categorized as a stunt display of frenetic diplomacy that denies the reality of fatigue, jet lag and fuzzy logic, Scholz, Macron and Polish Head of State Andrzej Duda are going to meet this evening to review the results of the talks in Moscow and Washington and to plot further coordinated diplomacy in the long-neglected format of the Weimar Triangle.
The old remark that all foreign policy is ultimately just a projection of domestic policy holds true in all of these European diplomatic undertakings. Each of the principals has his own message to take back to his supporter base at home which far outweighs the prospects for any concrete contribution to Peace in Our Time. For none is this more true than Emmanuel Macron. Every appearance at home and abroad is a vital part of his re-election campaign.
To use a favorite term of former British Prime Minister and possibly future NATO General Director Theresa May, it is “highly likely” that the question of whether there will be war or peace between Ukraine and Russia is outside the control of any of these European civilian leaders and may well be outside the control of Vladimir Putin. The Guns of February or March will be fired, if they are fired at all, by actions taken by military authorities either in Kiev or at the line of demarcation independently of what President Zelensky may wish. The fuse may even be lit by detachments of British or U.S. special forces now circulating near the line of demarcation, also without the specific knowledge of their respective Prime Minister or President just as the February 2014 coup d’etat in Kiev was engineered by a certain State Department officer, Victoria Nuland, without the participation or detailed knowledge of her bosses.
In conclusion, we are involuntarily all watching the denouement of a conflict that has been decades in making, that is as deep rooted and possibly as unmanageable as any of the several cataclysms that shook the Western world in the past hundred and twenty years. A great deal will depend on the intelligence, sang froid and luck of the only “adult in the room” – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022