Macron’s Russia dialogue to be tested on Baltic trip
French president heads to Lithuania and Latvia, where discussion will focus on Russia and Belarus.
PARIS — When French President Emmanuel Macron flies to Lithuania on Monday for a three-day trip to the Baltics, he will be heading to the frontline of skepticism toward his Russia strategy.
His trip, which will also include a visit to Latvia, comes at a particularly tense time between the EU and Moscow.
Although the visit was scheduled long before protests erupted in neighboring Belarus, and before the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny (which Moscow denies involvement in), these events — and Russia’s behavior more generally — will permeate much of Macron’s discussions.
In Lithuania, which borders Russia and hosts one of four NATO “enhanced forward presence” (eFP) battlegroups intended to deter Moscow, including a newly deployed French contingent, Macron’s dialogue with Russia is of particular concern.
“The so-called new architecture of security that France wants to develop with Russia is sensitive for us, because it’s a bilateral conversation discussing a multilateral issue,” said a Lithuanian government official ahead of Macron’s visit.
As was the case when Macron visited Poland in February, addressing concerns about Russia will be at the heart of the president’s approach, according to officials in his office.
“It will be an opportunity not only to listen to our partners’ sensitivities, in particular on Russia, but also to discuss with them the best way to go forward, so that not only their interests but the European interest is taken into consideration in the next steps,” an Elysée official said.
But Lithuanian officials are wary and remember a scathing comment by former French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 when he said that Baltic and Eastern European states had “missed an opportunity to keep quiet” when they supported the American invasion of Iraq against French and German opposition.
They will be looking for signs of “a better understanding by President Macron of Lithuanian and Baltic concerns regarding Russia,” according to the Lithuanian government official. They will also be watching to see if Macron meets with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, which “would send a strong message” — especially as the EU has delayed imposing sanctions — and would help make “progress on economic cooperation, especially on innovations, digitalization and new technologies.”
So far Macron’s team has played it coy, avoiding confirming that he will meet with Tikhanovskaya but not ruling it out either. She has expressed her desire to meet with him.
But France has been raising the pressure on Belarus. European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune told POLITICO that Paris was “open” to European sanctions against embattled autocratic Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Macron has called for his departure.
“It is clear that Lukashenko must go,” Macron told French paper Le Journal du Dimanche over the weekend.
Western officials have stressed that they are not in competition with Moscow over Belarus and Macron believes Russia has a role to play. He says he discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 14, though there has been no progress since.
Navalny is another issue Macron raised with Putin on that call. But his questions on the circumstances of the poisoning didn’t yield satisfactory answers. Macron and other European leaders have demanded clarity from Moscow over the poisoning, with the French president warning that the use of chemical weapons crosses a “red line.”
“I don’t think the president was surprised, I don’t think he was satisfied because he didn’t get the answers to his questions, but does that mean he won’t call Putin again? No, I think he will,” said an official in Macron’s office.
Yet Macron’s dialogue with Putin continues to cause a stir.
A year after the two leaders formally launched a “strategic dialogue” that caught many of France’s European partners by surprise, including Germany, concrete results are scant.
Given the failure of an attempted “reset” with Russia by former U.S. President Barack Obama, some Kremlin-watchers, especially in the Baltics, believe Macron is misguided in thinking he will succeed in getting Putin to change behavior where others have failed.
But these challenges are precisely what makes the dialogue important, according to officials at the French presidency, who point to the length of phone calls between the two as a sign of Putin’s interest.
“Should we suddenly stop the strategic dialogue with Russia because of the Navalny case? From our point of view, that is totally counter-productive,” the official in Macron’s office said. “If not speaking to the Russians solved problems it would be known by now.”
The poisoning of Navalny would be a blatant breach of the security framework in Europe that Macron says he wants to protect and strengthen through his dialogue with Putin, but also presents a challenge to the international system of non-proliferation of chemical weapons.
The last time Russia was accused of using Novichok — to poison Russian former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in the U.K. in 2018 — EU countries imposed sanctions on senior officials from the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. (Moscow also denies involvement in this incident.)
Its use again highlights the limits of the effectiveness of sanctions and other tools at the disposal of Western countries in the face of Russian belligerence.
At least three documents are expected to be signed during the trip.
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden have confirmed that Novichok was used against Navalny. Yet Russian officials continue to deny that it is the case and they have still not explained the full circumstances of the poisoning.
In Lithuania, Macron will visit the 300 French soldiers recently deployed in Rukla and serving in NATO’s eFP under German command (France has also deployed Leclerc tanks). Lithuania would like to see more NATO military gear stationed on its soil.
At least three documents are expected to be signed during the trip. Lithuania, Latvia and France will send a common letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen making proposals on cybersecurity, disinformation and the manipulation of elections.
France has been vocal on these issues, especially since Macron’s own presidential campaign was targeted by Russian-linked hackers, but on this too the president will be pushed in Lithuania.
“Lithuania would like to see France do concrete things on cybersecurity in Europe, for example participating in the Lithuania-led PESCO project on Cyber Rapid Response Teams,” the Lithuanian government official said, referring to a project set up as part of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation pact.
In addition, plans to implement a Lithuanian-French strategic partnership and an agreement on finance technology are expected to be signed. But it is Russia that will dominate the conversation.