Macron-Putin Summit – Putin Draws A Line While Biden Draws The Laughs

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Feb 9, 2022 04:55 PM +05:30 IST
Macron-Putin Summit – Putin Draws A Line While Biden Draws The LaughsMacron with Putin.
Snapshot
  • While a wistful Putin was persistently threatening war against NATO, Biden delivered a 'promise' for the ages.

On 7 February, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was ripping the Congress party to shreds in the Lok Sabha, for daring to insinuate that provinces might have sovereign rights to some extent, an important meeting with global consequences was going on in Moscow, Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron was on a brief state visit. He hoped to try and defuse prevailing tensions between Russia and the West, by engaging with his host, President Vladimir Putin, before flying on to the subject matter of their conversation – Ukraine.

As things stood, the Western mainstream media narrative was that Russia was all set to invade Ukraine. While the reasons rarely feature with requisite prominence in public, and focus remains on how many troops the Russians are amassing along their border with Ukraine, the truth is rather different.

There is every chance that Russia will indeed invade Ukraine for three primary reasons: first, to prevent Ukraine from joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); second, to prevent NATO from placing missile systems so close to the Russian heart; and third, to ensure the safety of a large Russian population in Ukraine. Moscow sees these moves as an aggressive attempt by NATO (led by America) to encircle Russia, and contain it by entering into the Russian sphere of influence, much as NATO successfully did in the early days of the Cold War.

They also deeply resent being formally declared as a principal adversary by NATO, in writing, in fundamental policy papers, military planning, and strategic doctrines.

For a better perspective on what Ukraine as a NATO member would mean to Russia, readers may contemplate the outrage if Mexico were to enter into a military alliance with China, and formally declare America as their principal adversary (outlandish, of course, but you get the point).

The Macron-Putin meeting was held immediately after Putin’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on 4 February, when both Russia and China jointly called for a halt to NATO expansion.

At the same time, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington DC, for talks with American President Joe Biden on this burning issue. If the press was right, it might just be war between Russia and NATO, with the world being treated to the unthinkable sight of Russian tanks menacingly roaring westwards once again, like they did under the legendary General Zhukov in January 1945.

Scary stuff indeed. But Europe is badly divided, for once, on an elemental question: is Russia truly the enemy, or not? Many European politicians fear that the Americans might be pushing Russia too hard, and that if matters actually descended into conflict, the Americans, for all their present cowboy swagger, might not, in fact, be able to protect Europe, or prevent Russian forces from walking in.

These are the points Putin stressed repeatedly with remarkable candour, in the joint press conference following his talks with Macron. He made it absolutely clear, in no uncertain terms, that if NATO and America persisted on this path, it would be war.

It was a direct message to the heads of NATO countries, and to political parties there, who are deeply concerned that Biden just might push Europe into a war it cannot win (and certainly doesn’t need). As the joke goes, ‘NATO will defend the West to the last Ukrainian’.

But Putin wasn’t smiling. “Are we to go to war with NATO? Well…if NATO keeps growing towards us, it is a threat…” (The full press conference is worth watching, if readers want to understand the situation in further detail. Link here)

He added: “If NATO tries to change the situation [the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine]…by military means…it will be a conflict”

Then, with a disarming, wistful smirk, Putin rhetorically asked a reporter: “Do you want this war? Do your readers, do your audience, want this war? This war between Russia and NATO? This…is how it will happen, if events run this way.”

He also admitted to an element of disappointment, that the West had not responded to Russia’s three formal queries: on Ukraine joining NATO, on NATO’s plans to place missile systems closer to Russia, and on NATO’s plans to reverse their expansion.

“It’s like we never asked those questions, because they [the West] have responded on other [trivial] matters,” Putin said with an exasperated shrug.

But, Putin was also restricted in how much more he could say, because, after all, Macron was present in the hall as his guest. So, to save Macron’s face, Putin said that the French President had made a few ‘interesting’ proposals, which Russia would evaluate. But before concluding, Putin reiterated that he still awaited clear answers on the three questions posed by Russia to the West.

Strangely, Putin’s words, which should have been headline news, largely received step-motherly treatment in the Western press. Most of the focus was instead on Macron’s efforts to achieve a compromise.

In a surreal turn, The Guardian didn’t just gloss over Putin’s blunt speech, they also reported on the two fine Russian wines served during a grand seven-course banquet at the Kremlin. (For interested readers, the list included a Chardonnay, and a Rebo from the Divnomorskoye estate. Both were of 2015 vintage).

The once-venerable Time magazine’s contribution to serious journalism included a breakdown of the banquet menu, which is how the world learnt that the two leaders had pear tarts with vanilla ice cream for dinner.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Washington DC, the pot was getting stirred rather furiously. Answering a question on what America would do to the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia invaded Ukraine (a project which is extremely crucial to the West’s energy requirements), Biden replied: “We will bring an end to it”.

The reporter, though, was cleverly persistent: “But how will you do that exactly, since… the project is within Germany’s control?”

Biden’s reply was one for the ages: “We will…uh…I promise you, we will be able to do it”. That was it. No details; just a promise. Worse, Biden had just committed to infringing German sovereignty to keep his promise, while the German Chancellor was standing beside him in the same room. This was even more surreal than the wine list reportage, and, unbelievably insulting to the Germans.

But like Putin’s vital message in Moscow, this royal gaffe too was glossed over by the Occidental media. The pity, and danger, is that citizens in the West will now be too uninformed to properly debate either the merits of Putin’s warnings, or the terrible risks of such unilateral American adventurism.

However, the graver inference is that these are not editorial choices. The Western press is perhaps missing the point willfully. If they are to be true to their salt, then, at some point, they will have to openly admit that there is, in fact, no scope for compromise.

If NATO tries to make Ukraine a member state, or positions missiles along Russia’s periphery, or tries to reverse the annexation of Crimea, it will be war.

Similarly, if America blocks Nord Stream-2, Western Europe’s energy sector will be hit, there will be power shortages, and monthly bills will soar.

What are the Europeans getting themselves into, by so obediently following the Americans up the escalation ladder, against a force as powerful as Russia? They are talking about world war and economic chaos with the nonchalance of an ingénue. Where there should have been a surfeit of thoughtful headlines, there was only spin.

This is where rational Americans and Europeans need to look at their own past, since the recent Russia-France summit meeting has an interesting history, stemming from the last decade of the Cold War.

The ice between the Soviet Union and NATO was actually broken in October 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev visited president Francois Mitterrand in Paris for a series of discussions.

That is when the West first began to realise that Gorbachev’s intentions were real, and that he commanded enough political authority within the Soviet Union, to negotiate a peace. Mitterrand expounded upon the 1985 summit to a curious American audience, in an interview in New York, in July 1986. It is only then, that American president Ronald Reagan was able to stand in West Berlin, in 1987, and famously call upon Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall”.

Reagan was smart enough to seize the opportunity provided by the Mitterrand-Gorbachev meeting in 1985, and rid the world of the Soviet menace. Can Biden do the same following the Macron-Putin summit, and rid the world of a needless second Cold War, or, will he instead continue on his present headstrong course of confrontation, and create a new menace for the world?

We don’t know yet. But, while Biden makes up his mind (or Europe, and what’s left of rationality in America, makes it up for him), he would do well to remember that obstinacy is for infants, not sage leaders.

Further reading: Putin speech transcript.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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