Paris (CNSNews.com) – Five years after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and support for Ukrainian separatists prompted European Union sanctions, the government of French President Emmanuel Macron is looking to patch up ties with Moscow.
Macron’s foreign and defense ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly, met with their Russian counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu in Moscow this week, for talks aimed, Le Drian said, at establishing “a new agenda of trust and security.”
“The time has come, the time is right to work to reduce mistrust with Russia,” said Le Drian.
“We do not always have the same vision,” said Parly, but added that it was important for the two sides to talk to each other, “to avoid misunderstandings, friction.”
Topics on the agenda included the ongoing crises in Ukraine and in Syria, a former French colony where Russia has been deeply involved in propping up the Assad regime.
The two-plus-two meetings came after an exchange of 70 prisoners between Moscow and Ukraine raised hopes of a thaw in relations between the two countries, former Soviet allies which have been bitterly estranged in recent years.
In a phone conversation with President Vladimir Putin, Macron hailed the prisoner swap as a huge step towards peace between the two countries.
Lavrov told the French visitors that the prisoner exchange was a good sign, and expressed hope that “Russian-Ukrainian relations will normalize.”
David Cadier, a researcher at the Centre for International Studies at Sciences Po University in Paris, told French television that this was the first time the two-plus-two meeting had been held since 2014. Prior to that it had been an annual event, but France halted the exchanges as a result of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Despite the positive signals, Cadier noted that France for now is not proposing lifting the E.U. sanctions against Russia – which were extended for another six months last June – since “there is no real progress in eastern Ukraine, no decrease of violence, and no strong concrete gestures from Moscow except the prisoners' exchange.”
He recalled that Putin’s main aim is to ensure that Ukraine does not become a member of NATO or the European Union. NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War has been bitterly opposed by Putin, and the loss of Ukraine to the Western alliance would be a particular blow.
Cadier said if Western nations found a way to give Ukraine a “special status” that was acceptable to Russia, that could lead to a resolution of the crisis between Russia and the E.U.
Overall, Cadier said Macron hopes to persuade Putin to change direction in Ukraine and also hopes “to convince other Europeans, especially our allies, who are a little worried about the power of Russia.”
Over the summer, Macron spoke about a desire to establish a new relationship of trust and security between France and Russia, along with a strong and frank dialogue with Putin.
He even invited Putin for talks just before the G7 summit last month. Russia was suspended from the then G8 after it annexed Crimea in 2014.
Not mentioned by the visiting French ministers were any concerns about Russian authorities’ handling of the weekend local elections in Moscow. Numerous anti-Putin candidates were barred from standing for the capital’s legislature, prompting large protests. The E.U. and France had earlier criticized the arrest of activists involved in the protests.