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Russia has to choose betwen Europe and China

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By welcoming Vladimir Putin face-to-face in Brégançon on 19 August, by restoring diplomatic realism in his speech to the Conference of Ambassadors on 27 August, by relaunching summit negotiations on Ukraine, Emmanuel Macron has clearly marked a new turn in France’s Russian policy.

Contrary to what members of the small, but very influential, neoconservative “Sect” at the Quai d’Orsay thinks, the President of the French Republic believes that it is more important to engage in dialogue with Russia than to try to isolate it.

Donald Trump feels the same way, but he is hampered in his efforts by Congress and some major American media, which have accused him, since his election to the White House, of being the kind of agent that the Kremlin would once have recruited. 

The French and American presidents would like the G-7 to be able to welcome Russia back and to reduce, if not eliminate, the trade sanctions imposed against it in 2014 by the European Union (EU) and the United States.

The two leaders understand that they would make a serious strategic mistake by throwing the Russians into China’s arms. But is the Kremlin ready to take the hand Emmanuel Macron held out to him? 
On Monday, the first 2-2 Summit (Foreign and Defence Ministers) between France and Russia since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis will take place in Moscow.

Will it mark a Russian inflection, more pro-European? Will Putin confirm, on this occasion, his positive response to Macron, who wishes to convene a summit in Paris by the end of the month in “Normandy” format (bringing together, since it was invented by François Hollande on 6 June 2014, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France)? Will the Kremlin master come forward ready to make concessions? 

Let us have no illusions. Russia will never return the Crimea, a peninsula annexed in March 2014 after a popular referendum (but without Ukraine’s agreement), without blood being shed. The vast majority of Crimean residents felt more Russian than Ukrainian. As for the population of Russia, they have always considered Sevastopol to be a Russian port. In March 2014, they supported Putin’s refusal to take the risk of seeing the port handed over to NATO’s navies by the new Ukrainian regime that emerged from the Mayan Revolution.

Russia has built a huge bridge over the Kerch Strait at the eastern end of the peninsula to create territorial continuity with the Crimea. But Vladimir Zelensky’s election as President of Ukraine and the absolute majority he has just won in the Rada (the unicameral parliament of Kiev) creates a window of opportunity to settle the Donbass conflict – a conflict that, according to the UN, has claimed more than 10,000 deaths between Russian Slavic and Ukrainian brothers since the summer of 2014. Having placed peace with Russia at the top of its political agenda, Zelensky has sufficient authority to make concessions.

For his protégés of the Donbass (Russian-speaking rebels hostile to the new Ukrainian government), whom he saved militarily both in the Summer 2014 and in January 2015, Putin must at least extract from Kiev an amnesty law as well as a law guaranteeing the cultural autonomy of the region (which wants Russian to remain his official language). 

But will he be able to give up on the idea of political autonomy – something Zelensky could never reasonably grant to Donbass? Will he make a move to allow Ukrainian ships to cross the Kerch Strait freely to supply their port of Marioupol?

These are concessions that would not cost Russia much and could significantly improve its relations with the EU. 

Putin knows that the Chinese are tough negotiators. That they take his oil at a 20% discount, under the pretext of their “friendship”. He suspects that they secretly covet Siberia. Russia will never be comfortable with China, although it can integrate well into Europe.

Moscow’s young elites dream of nothing else. They are culturally ready. At a time when Russian youth is waking up, when they are expressing their desire to participate in political decision-making, when they are rejecting the arbitrary government of the silovikis (the officials of the enforcement ministries), Putin must make a choice.

In domestic politics, does he want to evolve towards the Chinese totalitarian model or, on the contrary, build the rule of law in his country? Does Russia want to look to their counterparts and friends in Beijing, or to Paris and Berlin? 

To govern is to choose. The time has come for Putin to choose!

This article was first published in Le Figaro.

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