(Bloomberg) -- France’s foreign minister praised a “new atmosphere” that could help to resolve the long-stalled Ukraine conflict as President Emmanuel Macron steps up efforts to repair strained European relations with Russia.
“It’s a new atmosphere which we haven’t seen for many years,” French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference in Moscow on Monday after he and the French defense minister met their Russian counterparts in the first such visit in five years. “That’s why we welcome it.”
The negotiations in the Russian capital came after Macron hosted President Vladimir Putin Aug. 19 at the French leader’s summer residence, just before the Biarritz G-7 meeting. Macron has called for a summit of leaders of Germany, Ukraine and Russia that is due to take place in the next few weeks in a bid to revive a peace deal for Ukraine reached in 2015.
“It’s not yet the time to lift sanctions,” Le Drian said. But he noted that there is a “window of opportunity, an opening for calming down the situation.” The top French diplomat said ahead of the trip that the punitive measures could “progressively be revised” if there is progress toward stabilization in Ukraine.
Annual meetings between French and Russian defense and foreign ministers began in 2002 but were suspended in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, leading to rounds of sanctions from the European Union. Macron has criticized Russia’s cyber-meddling in other country’s elections and its crackdown on domestic opposition, but at the same time he and his aides have argued that working with Russia is essential to solving foreign policy crises from Syria to Libya to Iran.
“Pushing Russia away from Europe is a profound strategic error because it would isolate Russia and only increase international tensions,” Macron said in an Aug. 27 speech to France’s ambassadors, where he claimed a “deep state” within the foreign ministry was hampering his outreach to Moscow. “At the same time, we can’t be weak with Russia and forget all the past disagreements, the past conflicts. We must deeply rethink this structure.”
The London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs said in a Sept. 5 report that “there is no world leader with a more contradictory attitude toward Russia than Emmanuel Macron.”
The French ministers’ trip comes days after Russia and Ukraine agreed on a mass exchange of prisoners that Le Drian said showed “the willingness to renew dialog” between the bitter adversaries. French officials said other key subjects for the Moscow talks included the Iranian nuclear accord, the war in Syria, and the military standoff in Libya.
On Sunday, Le Drian called for Russia to remove mines and heavy weapons in the eastern separatist areas, and for Ukraine to start institutional reforms granting autonomy to the rebel regions agreed in the so-called Minsk 2015 peace deal.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly met her U.S. counterpart Mark Esper in Paris Saturday and said they discussed “the opening the president of the Republic wants to pursue with Russia.”
Esper responded that “Russia needs to change its behavior,” and behave as a “normal country,” listing its invasions of Georgia and Crimea, the intimidation of Baltic nations, and its cyber attacks. “Our aim would be to try to get them on a better path.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, asked about the U.S. official’s comments, retorted, “We’ll be ‘not normal’ for the time being.”
--With assistance from Francois de Beaupuy and Ilya Arkhipov.
To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org;Henry Meyer in Moscow at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at firstname.lastname@example.org, Gregory L. White, Torrey Clark
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.