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There was little doubt Emmanuel Macron had walked into the grizzly bear’s den.
Seated at the far end of an enormous conference table in one of the Kremlin’s ornate meeting rooms, complete with gold-trimmed curtains and an elaborate inlaid wooden floor, the French president offered his opening thoughts on a tense military standoff at the Ukrainian border.
From the other side of the table, Macron’s host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, sat nearly immobile, offering his guest an icy death stare.
Hanging in the balance are the 130,000 Russian troops menacing Ukraine, which Putin refuses to remove until Western allies meet his demands that they roll back their presence in Eastern Europe — requests that have largely been rebuffed as nonstarters. Macron has taken it upon himself to try and negotiate with Putin, and Monday was his chance to personally cajole the Russian leader into taking what the Elysée has called a “path to deescalation,”
Putin had a black earphone in place to translate Macron’s French, but it was not entirely clear he was listening as the French president declared, “This dialogue is necessary because it is the only one which, in my view, makes it possible to build real security and stability for the European continent.”
It is, of course, far from the only dialogue currently running for Putin, who makes no secret of his intention to restore the superpower greatness of the Soviet Union. He has another set of talks ongoing with the U.S. president, a format he clearly believes is the one that will deliver “real” decisions one way or another.
As Macron spoke, Putin barely blinked. He kept his arms at his side or in his lap. At several points, he tapped one foot or the other. But mostly he just stared.
Only at the end, as Macron said he was “delighted” to have had the meeting and signaled he was wrapping up, did Putin finally nod and give a slight twitch at the corners of his mouth — a grimace for many but nearly a smile for the Russian leader.
Putin then used his opening remarks to frame the conversation entirely on his terms, as he typically does.
Knowing the French president’s craving to be at the center of the international conversation, Putin flattered Macron repeatedly.
“What I would especially like to emphasize,” Putin said. “I, of course, understand that we have a common concern about what is happening in the field of security in Europe, and I want to thank you for the fact that France invariably takes the most active part in the development of fundamental decisions in this area.”
In recent days, senior Elysée officials have stressed that their boss is the only one with whom Putin can have such “profound” conversations. And they have emphasized that Putin regards Macron as a valuable interlocutor — a status that the U.S. White House, for instance, never seems too preoccupied about.
Putin returned to the ego-boosting: “It must be said that all these years, as I just said, France has been taking an active part in resolving fundamental issues of European security. Your predecessors did the same.”
But Putin also craftily defined certain events to push his agenda. He referred to a “Georgian attack on South Ossetia” and to “the intra-Ukrainian crisis in the southeast of the country” — a crisis that most of the world believes was instigated and sustained by Russia. Putin also stressed the need for “ensuring equal security in Europe,” with the obvious implication being that the security situation is currently unequal — at Russia’s disadvantage — and needs to be rebalanced.
And finally, before heading behind closed doors with the French president, Putin seemed to play on the fears of other Western officials who seemed concerned that Macron is freelancing and potentially too eager to grant concessions to the Russian strongman, rather than steadfastly insisting that he withdraw the troops and heavy weaponry now massed on Ukraine’s borders.
“We discussed all these issues over the phone in sufficient detail,” Putin said. “I know that you have your own thoughts on this matter, and I am very glad to have the opportunity to meet and discuss all this in such a personal format.”
It was only the first act in their drama, with a news conference still to come.