In Baltics, Macron defends French dialogue with Russia

French President Emmanuel Macron looks on during a news conference in Vilnius, Lithuania September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

VILNIUS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron insisted on Monday that Europe should cooperate with Russia to build peace in Europe, despite calls among European Union peers to review his stance towards Moscow after the poisoning of a Russian opposition leader.

Over the past year, Macron has tried to reduce distrust between Russia and the West, hoping to enlist Russian help in solving the world’s most intractable crises.

But Macron’s efforts have upset other EU governments, particularly those in the east that escaped Moscow’s orbit after the Cold War. They say little has changed to merit a thaw in relations on ice since Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014.

In Vilnius on Monday, on the first visit by a French president to the Baltic countries since 2001, Macron appeared to stick to that strategy, despite the fact that French officials agreed it had yielded little results.

“The way we see things is that if we want to build peace on the European continent, we need to work with Russia,” Macron said in a news conference with his Lithuanian counterpart.

“I say this on a soil which has lived through the worst, which has endured oppression, which has endured deaths. But we can’t do as if Europe was an island far away from Russia,” Macron added.

In a sign Paris is treading a fine line between defending democratic ideals and a wish not to provoke Russia, the French leader also confirmed he will meet Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday behind closed doors.

Asked about the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Macron reiterated that Russia should provide clarifications about the case or face international consequences, without elaborating as to what these may be.

He added that the international community will have to decide on the consequences based on information provided or not by Russia to an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Reporting by Michel Rose in Paris, Andrius Sytas and Ardee Napolitano in Vilnius; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Evans