As France and Russia meet over Ukraine, what are the prospects for easing tensions?

French President Macron met with Russian President Putin Monday in an effort to head off a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. What are the prospects for French-Russian talks, and how are these talks viewed by the rest of Europe? Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to diplomatic efforts under way to defuse the Russian-generated crisis over Ukraine.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After French President Macron's meeting with Russian President Putin today, what are the prospects for easing tensions? And how are these talks viewed by the rest of Europe?

    For that, we turn to Heather Conley, president of German Marshall Fund of the United States, which focuses on improving transatlantic relations. She was a State Department official on European affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

    Heather Conley, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So we heard from Vladimir Putin today during his press conference with Emmanuel Macron. And Putin said that some of Macron's ideas could represent future diplomatic steps.

    Is that the sign that the prospects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have been lessened?

  • Heather Conley, Former State Department Official:

    Nick, it's really unclear.

    We're not entirely sure what proposals President Macron was bringing to Moscow. He said in an interview before his departure for Moscow that he was looking for a so-called new balance between sovereignty and peace.

    President Macron has been really investing in his personnel relationship with Vladimir Putin. Going back to 2019, he initiated a strategic dialogue. He also is about to run for reelection in April. So President Macron sees a very unique opportunity here to promote a European approach to this crisis.

    He has been, I think, very disturbed that the United States and Russia were seemingly to manage European affairs over his head, over European heads. So this was a way for President Macron to about directly to Moscow, use that investment over the last several years.

    But he seems to be very interested in accommodating Russia's concerns about its security guarantees. But he walks a very delicate balance, because he also travels to Kyiv tomorrow to talk to the Ukrainian government, but he can't sell out Ukrainian sovereignty.

    So, unclear what those five hours of talks produce, but it is clear that Vladimir Putin would like to tease this out. He continues to escalate and flow forces towards the Ukraine border to apply pressure on President Zelensky and his government. Meanwhile, he is trying to achieve some divisions within Europe and potentially some transatlantic divisions, if President Macron creates a proposal that, in fact, can't be accepted by other members of the NATO alliance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK, well, you suggested yourself that Macron feels like he — the U.S. has gone over Europe's head and that he is trying to — quote — "accommodate" Putin. That is not what the United States wants right now.

    So is this moment a moment of transatlantic division, of Macron freelancing?

  • Heather Conley:

    Well, again, we don't have privy to that.

    We know President Macron did speak with Joe Biden yesterday before his trip. So, hopefully, there was some conversation. We know, certainly, that the White House is very interested in de-escalation, in diplomacy. President Biden certainly reaffirmed that after his meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

    So this is certainly a moment, but, again, at what cost? And, again, we have other European allies, particularly those allies that border Ukraine, border Belarus, that see this increased military escalation, they are very wary of potentially what President Macron is proposing.

    So I think we have to be very clear-eyed about what he is able to achieve.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Macron is emphasizing talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine to discuss agreements known as the Minsk Accords from 2014-2015 that focus on trying to reduce violence in Eastern Ukraine along the border.

    And, today, President Putin said there was no alternative to those Minsk agreements. So, is that format a path towards de-escalation?

  • Heather Conley:

    Well, that has been a format that, unfortunately, has not produced diplomatic benefits.

    In fact, if anything, the cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine, in Donbass, has been violated every day repeatedly since the Minsk agreements were formed. There were some moments of promise, of prisoner exchanges, some humanitarian checkpoints to allow citizens to cross between the line of contact.

    But, unfortunately, the Minsk agreement just hasn't produced. If anything, the way the agreement was sequenced, meaning that the Ukrainian government has to give greater autonomy, decentralization to the occupied territories of Central Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian government has to give them, basically, a vote, free or autonomy, and then, only then, can other issues be addressed — will be addressed.

    This applies enormous political pressure on the Zelensky government, pressure that he might not be able to survive. And this is in part what the Kremlin wants, between the force accumulation its borders, the covert hybrid activities inside, and applying a great deal of diplomatic pressure on the Ukrainian government.

    Vladimir Putin is hoping that this government may topple, and then he can perhaps find another candidate that would be much more supportive in Kyiv of Russia's goals and objectives for Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Heather Conley, thank you very much.

  • Heather Conley:

    Thank you.

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