Emmanuel Macron gets played for a fool by Vladimir Putin

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again,” the adage goes, “and expecting different results.” How else to describe the effort of France’s President Emmanuel Macron to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by constantly seeking to reengage with Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin?

Other than confirming the well-established fact that Putin is a malevolent and bad-faith actor, there is not much new to be learned from the transcript of a phone conversation between Macron and Putin, held four days before the invasion. The text has been made public as part of a television documentary authorized by the Élysée, in hope of burnishing Macron’s credentials as a global dealmaker.

Yet that is not the impression one gets of France’s “Jupiterian” president. Putin, chastising Macron, rages about Ukraine’s “coup” in 2014, in which “people were burned alive.” Instead of challenging the nonsense, Macron assures Putin that he’s “doing [his] best to push” the Ukrainians and tries to entice him to remain at the negotiating table with the prospect of a one-on-one meeting with President Biden in Geneva.

Emmanuel Macron
A transcript of a conversation between Macron and Putin that occurred four days before the invasion has been released.
AFP via Getty Images

The rest, as they say, is history. The puzzle, however, has been Macron’s readiness to talk to Putin and be humiliated by him again and again, even after this demonstrably fruitless experience. In fact, Macron recently mentioned a “hundred hours’ ” worth of conversation that he had had with Putin since December.

To what end?

The most charitable way to understand Macron’s strategy is through the figure of his mentor, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, from whom he borrowed his penchant for synthesizing seemingly irreconcilable positions and courses of action.

Macron’s own political movement, LREM, and his candidacy were a way of moving beyond the political left and right. In 2017 and this year, he defeated populist candidates in the presidential election while being also a populist disruptor himself. He wants a state that protects workers, while simultaneously pushing, though with mixed results, for liberalization of France’s ossified labor markets.

Vladimir Putin
Putin spent most of the conversation ranting about the 2014 “coup” in Ukraine.
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine War
The Ukraine War will likely require a political settlement.

The philosophy of “at the same time” — “en même temps” — places France into the position of a supposedly impartial and trustworthy mediator in the current war and a major provider of military equipment to Ukraine. Just as Macron pontificated about the dangers of “humiliating Russia” in order “to build an exit ramp through diplomatic means,” French-provided Caesar howitzers were making a real difference in the defense efforts in the Donbas.

Yet a statesman should allow no theory, no matter how sophisticated or elegant, to blind him to reality. To anyone not enamored with continental philosophy, it was obvious that Macron’s initial attempt to reach out to Putin through the high-profile summit in Versailles in 2017 was a dead end. Instead of learning from an early mistake, the French leader insisted that everything that was happening in the West’s deteriorating relationship with Russia was a nail, ready for his Ricoeurian hammer.

Eastern Europe is not a Sorbonne seminar room. There is no clever way to “overcome” a confrontation with a bully trapped in his own ideology-driven worldview who seeks to restore Mother Russia, long humiliated by the West, into its rightful place by stomping on the freedom and self-determination of its neighbors. The only language bullies understand is one of hard, uncompromising power.

Yes, Russia’s war against Ukraine will come to an end, eventually, and it will likely involve a political settlement, and maybe even a handshake, with Putin. What Macron’s philosophy fails to grasp is that the time for such a settlement will come only after the basic contours of that settlement have been decided on the battlefield.

Today, one and only one consideration should be guiding France’s actions, as well as those of other Western allies: The better Ukraine does in the present war, the stronger it (and the collective West) will be at the negotiating table.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

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