It’s official: France is actively working for a reset in relations with Russia. As bne IntelliNews said in a comment last week “Russia’s frozen relations with Europe start to thaw“ the signs of a thaw have rapidly become apparent, but the foreign ministry’s comment elevate a rapprochement with Russia to the level of official policy.
“The time has come, the time is right, to work towards reducing the distrust between Russia and Europe, who ought to be partners on a strategic and economic level. Our divisions hurt our shared interests,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister said, adding its too early to talk about lifting EU sanctions against Moscow imposed over the Crimea.
France says that the next meeting between the four partners in the peace process could happen "within days."
The statement comes on the back of French President Emmanuel Macron active diplomatic initiatives in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Macron was the first European leader to call and congratulate Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the night of his victory in April’s presidential election. Macron then hosted president Vladimir Putin in France as part of apparent intensive negotiations that ended in the first prisoner swap in five years between Ukraine and Russia at the weekend, despite the fact that Putin and Zelenskiy have yet to meet in person.
Paris clearly hopes to build on the positive momentum at the next Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) meeting due to be held later this month to restart the stalled Minsk II process to bring an end to the conflict between the two countries.
Le Drian comments sparked a torrent of scorn on social media, with commentators accusing France of appeasement. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region remains under the de facto military control of Russia’s armed forces and Russia has expressed no intention to even negotiate over the possible return of the Crimea peninsula.
Speaking at a press conference alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Le Drian said: “It is not yet the time to lift sanctions. [However] we are seeing a new state of mind compared to that of the last few years, which we are pleased about.”
Some member EU states, such as Poland, have voiced concerns that Paris is taking too lenient a line with Putin’s regime and are likely to resist any efforts to lift sanctions.
The views of the Zelenskiy administration are less clear. The Ukrainian president said during his election campaign that he wants to bring an end to the undeclared war in the east as soon as possible and hinted strongly that he is prepared to make concessions to Russia “even if this costs me this job.” But he has give no details of what sort of deal he would be prepared to cut to bring the fighting to an end.
The Russian side is clearly open to a deal and wants to end the sanctions regime which is not only hampering its economic recovery but also caused a “war mentality” amongst its leaders that emphasises stability over growth at a time when the Russian economy is stagnating.
Lavrov welcomed Le Drian comments and highlighted French efforts to preserve the Iranian nuclear deal. France and Russia have common cause in other international disputes and all of Europe is moving away from the US under US president Donald Trump’s chaotic leadership, which only makes working to improve relations with Russia on its own more important.