Ukraine Fears Emmanuel Macron's Fraught Peace-Dealings With Vladimir Putin

  • Diplomat compares Macron to Neville Chamberlain
  • "He went to Moscow first"
  • Paris says Macron consulted with Ukraine beforehand
  • Ukraine's NATO ambassador rejects "destructive" concessions

French President Emmanuel Macron's recent visit to Moscow has prompted fears in Ukraine that its Western partners are maneuvering to force Kyiv into costly concessions to avoid war with Russia.

Vadym Prystaiko, Kyiv's ambassador to the U.K., told Newsweek in an interview at the Ukrainian embassy in London that the French president's visit was not received well.

"What bothers many Ukrainians is that he went to Moscow first, and then with prepared notes came to Ukraine," Prystaiko said.

While reaffirming Western opposition to more than 100,000 Russian troops massed around Ukraine's borders, Macron also hinted that the West must consider Moscow's concerns that Kyiv might one day be allowed to join NATO.

The French leader also claimed to have secured a guarantee that Russia would not further escalate. This purported guarantee was later disputed by the Kremlin.

"Macron is coming to Ukraine saying, 'I brought peace,' almost like Chamberlain, but in French," Prystaiko—who previously served as Ukraine's foreign minister—added, referring to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, vilified by for his appeasement of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in the late-1930s.

"There is no security for Europeans if there is no security for Russia," Macron said, an apparent departure from the relatively unified Western position in support of Ukrainian sovereignty, defense of NATO's open-door policy, and rejection of Russian demands.

"Russia is European," Macron said. "Whoever believes in Europe must know how to work with Russia and find the ways and the means to construct the European future among Europeans."

French officials also briefed reporters on possible "Finlandization" for Ukraine—i.e. a state of enforced neutrality with limits on Kyiv's armed forces and foreign policy independence.

Macron denied using the term in his meeting with Putin, but the sudden appearance of the word in media reports has intensified Ukrainian fears of an imminent sell-out.

Asked whether he thought Macron's position in Moscow reflected that of other key NATO partners like the U.S. and Germany, Prystaiko replied: "I believe the simple answer is yes. I haven't seen their papers. I don't know the official position, how far they will go. But yes, that's what will be very well met in many capitals, this position."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a briefing on Thursday that there was "no betrayal" by Macron.

Kuleba said: "The option is that someone will come and begin to impose something on us, so there will be no such conversation in principle. And yesterday there was a discussion of ideas, it was not a discussion of specific proposals."

A spokesperson for Macron told Newsweek that the French president spoke with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy twice by phone before his visit, and had been coordinating with other partners in the week leading up to his Moscow trip.

They also said that Macron did not mention "Finlandization" and that the president stressed his continued support for NATO's open-door policy.

Western officials have repeatedly emphasized their solidarity with Ukraine and cooperation with Zelenskyy's government in Kyiv. "Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine" has become a rallying cry, a response to any hint of divergence between the Western allies.

"My problem is about what we are discussing, not how we are doing it: with Ukraine, without Ukraine," Prystaiko said. "I would rephrase it: 'With Ukraine, for Ukraine.' If you want to talk for Ukraine, you try to help us, talk to us, coordinate with us."

Emmanuel Macron in Moscow with Vladimir Putin
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on February 8, 2022. SERGEI GUNEYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Minsk: A False Peace?

In the absence of a new deal, those seeking to avoid war might settle for an old one.

The Minsk protocols—two agreements signed in September 2014 and February 2015 under Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) supervision—stopped the intense fighting between Ukrainian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Germany and France, in particular, appear to be placing their hopes on the Minsk agreements, which are deeply unpopular in Ukraine. Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia form the Normandy Format, tasked with overseeing Minsk implementation.

The agreements introduced de-escalation measures around the frozen front line in eastern Ukraine and set out a roadmap for the reabsorption of separatist-held areas into the Ukrainian state, albeit with as-yet-undefined new measures of autonomy.

Both agreements were signed following significant Ukrainian battlefield defeats facilitated by Russian troops and equipment.

Kyiv considers the Minsk deals unfit for purpose, deals signed under the barrels of Russian guns designed to formalize a Moscow-controlled Trojan Horse in eastern Ukraine. To date, there has been little progress on their implementation.

Natalia Galibarenko, Ukraine's ambassador to NATO, told Newsweek that Russia "would like to see Ukraine as a failed state, and to use the occupied territories in that sense is very good leverage for Putin."

"We welcome any peaceful initiatives, including from President Macron, but we will not allow anyone to impose any peace or any concessions which would be destructive for Ukraine," Galibarenko added. "This position is very clear."

"We can meet in different formats. We can discuss how to better proceed with the implementation of the Minsk agreement. But any peace which will allow Ukraine to disintegrate and cease to exist as an integral state will not be supported by society."

Prystaiko, who was part of the Ukrainian team negotiating Minsk 2, argued for a new deal: "There is already a Minsk 2. Why not a Minsk 3? What's wrong with that?

"Maybe we won't have the perfect solution in Minsk 3. Maybe we will be complaining again. But if you ask if there is a way: Yes, there is a way."

However, that is likely not possible now, Prystaiko added, without even considering Russian reluctance: "Not now when Macron is investing so much in it, and he has no time until his elections to create something as complicated as Minsk 3."

Macron said in Kyiv: "We now have the possibility to make these negotiations move forward."

But some Ukrainians fear any forward momentum will be paid for by Kyiv. "The word 'progress,' I hate this the most," Prystaiko said. "Every time I hear 'progress,' it means we have to make another concession."

The ambassador acknowledged that French and German leaders need to be able to sell domestic and international audiences on the progress of peace.

"Because they can't get this progress from the Russians, somebody else has to give it. Otherwise how do you expect the Germans and French to stay engaged in a very painful situation?" he said.

"This is painful, we understand. But where's the end of this line? Nobody knows, and nobody cares that much.

"I believe that our cabinet now is facing this very difficult dilemma of how to navigate between somebody like Macron who is happy with 'take it or leave it'—or 'take it, it's already agreed with everybody'—and the rest of society saying: 'What about us? Has anybody asked what we want?'"

Svitlana Zalishchuk—a foreign policy adviser to Yuriy Vitrenko, the CEO of Ukraine's state-owned Naftogaz energy firm; and to Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine's deputy prime minister on European Euro Atlantic integration—told Newsweek that concessions in the shape of Minsk would be "unacceptable" for most Ukrainians.

Indeed, she noted Ukraine has included its goal of Euro-Atlantic integration in its constitution.

"It looks like Macron is arguing for a change in the constitution of Ukraine," said Zalishchuk, who formerly served as a member of Ukraine's parliament from 2014 to 2019, and then as a foreign policy adviser to former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk.

"For the 'Finlandization' of Ukraine, you need Putin's acknowledgment that Ukraine is an independent state; that Ukraine has the right to choose its future and to realize its policy.

"Russia wants to have Ukraine as its satellite, as part of its sphere of influence, which is just unacceptable for Ukrainians."

Any Minsk-shaped concessions will be a hard sell for the government in Kyiv. "People will never support it, even if some of the political leaders would lean in the direction of talking about the scenario," Zalishchuk said.

"Many people who voted for Zelenskyy were supporting European integration and NATO integration. It's difficult to imagine how Zelenskyy is going to convince the country to move in that direction."

Vadym Prystaiko in Berlin in 2019
Ukraine's then-Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko gives a joint press conference with his German counterpart in Berlin, Germany on December 20, 2019. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

A Constant Russian Threat

A major Russian invasion of Ukraine is still very possible. The military build-up in Russia, Belarus, and the Black Sea is unprecedented in modern times, even including the cycles of escalation and major military drills close to Ukraine since 2014.

For Ukrainians, Russian aggression is nothing new. Kyiv has been grappling with hybrid warfare—disinformation, cyber-attacks, terrorism, use of proxies in Donbas—since 2014. This crisis could drag out long in 2022 or beyond. Indeed, Russia's current build-up started in April, but Western attention only intensified in November.

"We are acutely aware of the different things around the globe which can distract attention from us and leave us with Russians," Prystaiko said.

"Sometimes they think yes, let's give Russia something. We have Syria to resolve. We have Iran, we have North Korea," he added, referring to Ukraine's Western partners.

"They believe that he will resolve some internal tension by bringing back the prize. And that these tensions will ease, and we'll see again the 'end of history,' or whatever they promised. No. Unfortunately, it does not work this way."

The West has, until this week, been resolute in opposing Russian demands. NATO expansion, officials say, is not up for discussion with Russia. Nor is Ukraine's right to defend its territory, recover land occupied by Russia and its proxies, and choose its own future.

Kyiv has been broadly pleased by Western unity, underpinned by unprecedented supplies of military aid and economic support. "The support that we are receiving now is very tangible," Galibarenko said.

But there is more to be done.

Many in Ukraine want fresh sanctions on Russia now, not in response to the next round of aggression. "Let us be prepared before so we can prevent this worst-case scenario," Galibarenko said.

"We are talking to our European partners in Brussels saying it should be something already on the table, well prepared and ready to be adopted within hours, not weeks after aggression or other provocation against Ukraine.

"The majority of our partners are saying that they do agree that there should be a sanctions package already agreed...Some countries—I will not for diplomatic reasons mention their names—are saying that we should wait and see what Russia will do against Ukraine and only after that, they will be ready to react."

Prystaiko wants to see a tougher negotiating position, especially after Macron's mission to Moscow. Pre-emptive sanctions and ending support for the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline are two steps the West has so far hesitated on.

"From the point of view of diplomatic negotiations, I look at this impotency and think, what are you actually negotiating with, what's the bargaining chip here?" Prystaiko said.

"You are not standing your ground. You were at least wise enough to say nobody is re-writing the North Atlantic Treaty. You can also remind Putin that he is occupying Ukraine, not the other way around. But I don't see this strong position here.

"We don't have anything for the Russians. We don't have a bargaining chip.

"So you keep your position and force everybody at the table to bring results as of now. Because each and every step you take is making your position weaker. Because the Russians are working over our heads with the Germans, with the French, with the United States."

Any deal is not guaranteed to last. The short post-Cold War history of Ukraine-Russian bilateral relations is already littered with broken promises. The 1991 Belavezha Accords recognized Ukrainian territorial integrity, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum promised Ukrainian security in exchange for its nuclear warheads.

Russia agreed that its Black Sea fleet would leave the Sevastopol port in Crimea by 2017, an agreement nullified by the 2014 annexation of the peninsula. The first Minsk agreement, too, collapsed after Russian-backed separatists said they would no longer abide by the deal.

"I don't see why a new document signed with the Russians will be better than anything else which has already been signed," Prystaiko said.

NATO or Not?

Ukraine's dream of NATO membership—always a long-term one—is looking increasingly unlikely, even if public statements from alliance leaders and members remain supportive.

At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, member states agreed that both Georgia and Ukraine would eventually join the alliance. Neither has received a Membership Action Plan—a vital step on the path to full membership. Per alliance rules, no country can join while its territory is occupied by external powers.

"What is important is the agreed language and the commitment of NATO. What we lack now, frankly speaking, are the political decisions," Galibarenko said.

"I will not hide the fact there is no consensus now among the member states on how and when to grant Ukraine the Membership Action Plan and then the future membership.

"The countries of the eastern flank of Ukraine, the Baltic states, Poland, Romania. These are our most staunch supporters in NATO."

But some of the alliance's most powerful members—including the U.S., France, and Germany—are thought to be at best cool on Ukrainian membership. President Joe Biden said in January that "the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely."

Ukraine's future membership is now at the heart of the East-West standoff. Putin has made it the biggest, and potentially costliest, move the West can make.

Anti-interventionists on both ends of the political spectrum have adopted Kremlin talking points condemning NATO expansion, framing Russia's latest military intimidation as a defensive anti-imperialist posture and NATO-Ukraine coordination as Western warmongering.

But for those along Russia's frontiers—whether members of the alliance already or not—NATO offers the promise of security.

"In this part of the globe there is nothing else than NATO," Prystaiko said. "The only alternative is the Russian bloc. And we've seen how it worked."

The ambassador continued: "Each and every nation which is trying to get into NATO is escaping, fleeing like mice, from Russia. We have to settle on something which will allow us to safely develop. And, unfortunately, that's the EU and NATO."

There remains wiggle room in Ukraine's NATO status, without locking Kyiv out of the transatlantic collective security umbrella.

"An agreement could be reached where, for example, Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, but striking abilities, striking forces are not positioned on Ukrainian land," Prystaiko said.

"I believe that's good enough. It will allow our nation to take its own geopolitical course, it will allow NATO to remind everyone of the rights of its members—not with somebody from the outside deciding who can do what—and at the same time, we will to some extent respect Russian security concerns."

The existence of a democratic Ukraine, though, poses an existential threat to Putin and his autocratic allies. For all its problems, Ukraine offers a model for Slavic, Orthodox democracy accountable to its people.

"We're building our independent institutions, we're building our anti-corruption policies, we're building the proper judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and so on," Zalishchuk said.

"Free media, freedom of gatherings and expression, and so on. This is beyond the imagination of Putin, that this kind of country, this kind of entity can border Russia. Because ultimately, it's a threat. It's a personal threat to Putin himself.

"To argue that Putin is really worried about NATO getting closer to Russia, this is pure manipulation. We know very well that despite the strategic goals chosen by Ukraine, it will still take us years to get closer to NATO.

"While Russia is trying to renegotiate the world order, the West is trying to negotiate the escalation in Ukraine. We need to talk about a long-term and comprehensive strategy of what we do with Putin."

Ultimately, Prystaiko said, Ukraine must chart its own path.

"Ukrainians can't rely on anybody," he said. "They have to understand themselves, and find out whether we have enough strengths as a nation to actually claim the rights to be a nation.

"I'm not blaming anybody. That's our destiny, whether we find these strengths. Or whether everybody will call us Russians again in a generation or two."

Ukraine soldier training in Kharkiv Ukraine Russia
A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman of the 92nd mechanised brigade takes part in live-fire exercises near the town of Chuguev, Kharkiv region on February 10, 2022. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images