In Moscow, Macron found a different, tougher Putin

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2 mins read
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow

By Michel Rose

PARIS – Russian President Vladimir Putin spent much of his marathon talks with France’s Emmanuel Macron this week on the Ukraine crisis reciting grievances that date back to the end of the Cold War, two sources in the French leader’s entourage said.

In the first detailed read-out on Monday’s meeting in Moscow from the French delegation, the sources said Macron had been struck by how different Putin was to the man he had met in his summer residence on the French Riviera three years ago.

“(Putin) gave him five hours of historical revisionism,” said one of the two sources, describing how the Kremlin leader laid out his belief that the West had broken commitments to Russia since 1997 with the enlargement of NATO to include former Soviet bloc states.

“So he goes on for hours rewriting history from 1997 on. He drowns you in these long monologues. And the president (Macron) kept on going back to the issues of the day,” said the source.

The French comments came as Russia, which has massed more than 100,000 troops near its borders with Ukraine, held military exercises https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/wrapup-1-russia-starts-belarus-military-drills-amid-new-diplomacy-ukraine-2022-02-10 in neighbouring Belarus and the Black Sea and Western leaders renewed their warnings of a major conflict.

“These more than five hours of talks make us realise how different the Putin of today was to the Putin of three years ago,” said the source, who was briefed on the contents of the Macron-Putin talks and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Kremlin spokesman did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters about the French assessment of Putin’s state of mind.

‘TOTAL DISREGARD’

Putin himself has spoken of growing frustration at what he calls Western failures to heed Russia’s security concerns.

“You know, we have tried to talk to them about avoiding certain actions for 30 years now. What we get in response is total disregard for our concerns,” the Russian leader said at a joint news conference with Macron on Monday.

Putin’s own actions make clear he has become more hawkish, including his crackdown on domestic opponents, the pressure on independent journalists, and now the massive military deployment near Ukraine.

But the Macron meeting marked a rare opportunity for a Western leader to spend an extended period of time in Putin’s company and to gauge, eyeball-to-eyeball, his state of mind.

For the duration of their talks, the French leader, was alone with Putin, with no aides and only one interpreter.

Macron had travelled to Russia to try to calm tensions between Russia and Western states over Ukraine. Washington has said the Kremlin is preparing for an invasion of its smaller neighbour, though Moscow denies such plans.

According to the first French source, Putin returned repeatedly during the talks to the issue of the 1997 NATO agreement that paved the way for three ex-Soviet bloc states – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – to join the alliance.

Putin, the sources said, described the agreement as a betrayal of earlier promises from the alliance not to expand. NATO members deny any such promises were ever made.

Putin also dwelled on the 2014 Maidan Revolution – which saw the flight of a pro-Russian leader amid mass street protests – and on the 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s president.

“He says it was a coup and that Zelenskiy is controlled by the United States,” the first source said.

The election of Zelenskiy, who replaced a similarly Western-leaning president, was described by monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as fair and held with respect for fundamental freedoms.

After Monday’s talks, Macron told his team that when he had hosted Putin in France in 2019, the Kremlin leader had seemed “less tough and less focused on history” than this time round, according to a second source.

It was not immediately clear what this evolution in Putin’s state of mind might spell for Ukraine.

Macron told reporters as he flew out of Moscow he believed there was a real prospect for stopping escalation, though he said it was too early to point to any concrete undertakings from Russia to step back, and there were still real risks that armed conflict could break out.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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