Macron hopes for rewards but faces risks in Moscow trip to see Putin

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not pictured) hold joint news conference in Berlin, Germany January 25, 2022. Kay Nietfeld/Pool via REUTERS
  • French president travels to Moscow Feb. 7, Kyiv Feb. 8
  • Aims to capitalise on progress on east Ukraine peace talks
  • Will seek ways to get Russia to reduce military build-up
  • Macron's 'lack of coordination' grates on some allies

PARIS, Feb 4 (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron heads to talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday hoping to ensure Europe gets a say in broader U.S.-Russian negotiations over Ukraine, but risks embarrassment if he returns empty-handed.

France, Russia and Ukraine have had numerous phone conversations over the past 10 days that culminated on Friday with Macron's office confirming that he would travel to Moscow and the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Feb. 7 and 8.

The trip, coordinated with Washington and Berlin, is part of diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions after Russia massed some 100,000 troops near Ukraine and demanded NATO and U.S. security guarantees, including that NATO never admit Kyiv as a member.

For Macron, it will be a chance to showcase his leadership credentials ahead of his expected re-election bid in April, while trying to get concessions from Putin, especially in talks to end the pro-Russian separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014.

"The Russians gave us signals so we have to jump on them... In a way we're calling their bluff," said a senior French official. "But whether we can get anything, nobody can predict. What it does is help to gain time and reduce these tensions."

Macron aims to capitalise on limited progress made during four-way "Normandy format" peace talks on Ukraine in Paris last month. He hopes to get a commitment from Putin to continue the talks and dial down tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, two sources close to Macron said.

"We're heading to Putin's lair, in many ways it's a throw of the dice," one source close to Macron told Reuters.

A French presidential official told reporters on Friday that Macron would see what could be negotiated to reduce Russia's military build-up so that it was in a less threatening posture and thus help to start defusing tensions.

The Kremlin has made clear the priority of the talks will be Moscow's demands for security guarantees from the West.

"Putin doesn't need to offer Macron anything because for him the negotiation is with the Americans," said a former French envoy to the region, adding that Putin was likely to use the session with Macron to play divide and rule between NATO allies.

Since taking power in 2017, Macron has nurtured relationships with what Western diplomats say are awkward leaders such as Putin, receiving him at the Palace of Versailles and his summer retreat in Bregancon with much fanfare as he sought a reset of relations with Moscow.

IRRITATED EASTERN COUNTRIES

But Macron has had scant success and his efforts to establish a strategic dialogue with Putin have often irritated some eastern European and Baltic partners who have bemoaned his lack of transparency and coordination.

French officials say they have learnt from previous errors of judgment to ensure European Union and NATO allies are kept fully in the loop. The French presidency has been calling EU partners to brief them ahead of Macron's trip but three EU diplomats said the contacts lacked substance, focusing more on just re-engaging with Putin and showing solidarity with Kyiv.

Macron's pending visit to Moscow has also raised eyebrows among Western leaders backing Ukraine in its volatile standoff with Russia.

While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will host three Baltic leaders in Berlin before going first to Kyiv and then Moscow for talks, Macron will head first to Russia, a choice that has disappointed Ukrainian officials.

"The optics for Macron's internal politics ahead of the election are good because they show the French he is 'saving the world,' but we don't like the methods," said a senior official from an eastern European nation.

"There's always a lack of transparency and coordination, which is ironic as they (France) are always asking for transparency from the Americans."

The French presidential official defended Paris' stance.

"The problem we have today, it's in Moscow that it needs to be solved..., it's not in Kyiv. So we go to Moscow to solve the problem," he said.

Reporting by John Irish and Michel Rose Editing by Mark Heinrich

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