President Biden has accused Vladimir Putin of committing genocide in Ukraine and has said that his actions were trying to wipe out the idea of a Ukrainian identity.
President Macron has not been as willing to accuse Russia of genocide, saying that an “escalation of rhetoric is harmful”. When you consider that both Macron and Biden are being presented with the same evidence and intelligence as to what it is happening in Ukraine, there must be some reason as to why they have reached such opposing conclusions.
Biden initially stumbled into his ‘Putin must go’ comment at end of his Warsaw speech last month. His aides corrected him, but he has since deliberately and repeatedly gone much further by accusing Putin of war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere.
This makes it near-impossible for Biden to ever be in same room as Putin ever again. He will never again be able to meet to discuss the economy, Covid-19, Afghan, terrorism, Iran or any other issue.
Biden’s assertion has no legal standing, but it has huge ramifications, not just for his presidency but for all future presidencies too. No Democrat successor, or any conventional Republican President, will be able to engage, talk to or ever meet Putin. This is a dramatic break-up, even when considering the Cold War era. That doesn’t mean that Biden’s comments have no legal merit, just that they haven’t been legally tested. But the crimes outlined in the Rome Statute, Part, Article 6(e) do appear to be happening in significant numbers.
The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC was in Bucha last week and said that there’s “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the court are being committed.”
While I was a minister at the FCO and was responsible for UK policy on Russia, we always factored how to ‘get back into the room’ with Russia after a disagreement because we had certain shared objectives. Biden has decided on an alternative route with very significant consequences.
Which brings us to Macron. He is currently campaigning for his political future and for France’s destiny, both as the leader of a post-Brexit/post-Merkel Europe and as the opponent of a Putin-aligned candidate. And with the new European Commission line-up, he is more powerful, and French is increasingly the lingua franca.
Macron sees utility in being the enabler of a future peace agreement – after all, this conflict will stop at some point. But he cannot meaningfully shuttle back and forth between Paris and Moscow if he’s (a) out of power and/or (b) declared Putin a perpetrator of genocide.
This is difficult terrain for French politics. Macron is still recovering France’s position in Rwanda almost three decades after that horror. But he faces an opponent in Le Pen who is less likely than a conventional conservative to attack him for going soft on Putin. After all she is still paying back her Russian loan which bankrolled her campaign from the 2017 election. Everyone from the Communists to the Gaullists are now backing Macron, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Macron’s gambit is that someone will have to bring about a deal between Russia and Ukraine. As the self-embodiment of the European project, he is applying for that role, supplanting the Turks, Israelis or (less likely) South Africans as potential bridge builders. The latter seem too aligned with Beijing to be credible interlocutors.
Critics will assert that Macron’s overtures to Putin are akin to Thatcher & Reagan’s ‘constructive engagement’ with apartheid South Africa. Seductive as that feels as a comparator it lacks substance. Unlike then, Macron’s starting point is not how best to manage a decades long transition from Putin. Macron is also actively arming Putin’s opponents.
The differences on this between Biden and Macron are not a schism. And while deeply uncomfortable for international democrats, myself included, and Macron, it may have utility. The war will stop, either with Ukraine’s military defeat or by a combined hard and soft power defeat of Russia.
A post-war isolated Russia (with or without Putin) will be determined to retake its seat at the top table – it will remain a permanent member of the Security Council. Ostracised, it will change facts on the ground to force the West to re-engage by proxying new problems where Russia becomes an indispensable component of the solution to the problems that they themselves engineered. The world is littered with possibility for Moscow including in Moldova, Syria, Georgia, Lebanon, Bosnia, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Mali.
Macron’s position may change in the face of continuing Russian brutality. But his current calculation is that someone will oversee that post-war process and then the world will have to engage with Russia’s leadership. Increasingly he sees this as his role. And in doing so he can fulfil his ambition of a geopolitically pivotal France and EU. But first he must beat Putin’s candidate.