MOSCOW/PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Monday that Europe and Russia should try to overcome their mutual distrust and work towards improving relations, while cautioning that it was still too early to lift EU sanctions against Moscow.
The European Union imposed the sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and its support for pro-Russian armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But there have been signs of a modest thaw in the standoff, and on Saturday Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners in a carefully-negotiated rapprochement that drew Western praise.
“The time has come, the time is right, to work towards reducing the distrust between Russia and Europe, who ought to be partners on a strategic and economic level,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Moscow after the first Russian-French Security Cooperation Council since the annexation of Crimea.
“It’s not yet the time to lift sanctions. (But) we are seeing a new state of mind compared to that of the last few years, which we are pleased about,” he said at a joint news conference with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Since he came to power in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron has sought to fill a void left by the declining influence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel overseas and Brexit Britain’s domestic chaos and assume the mantle of Europe’s go-to leader on international affairs.
The French leader has been keen to show Russia it is not an ostracised power even if Europe and the Kremlin have sharp differences over matters including Iran, the Syrian conflict and Ukraine.
But France’s diplomatic overture to Russia is likely to create tensions with some other EU countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, which feel it is wrong to start re-engaging with Russia while it still controls Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine remains unresolved.
“Our divisions hurt our shared interests,” Le Drian added, before telling Lavrov that Russia must play its part. “This dialogue will only be productive if it is reciprocated and produces tangible, concrete results.”
Macron has preferred to bring leaders who have antagonised France’s Western allies into the fold rather turn his back on them - with mixed results.
His efforts to mix charm and diplomatic barbs to sway U.S. President Donald Trump’s thinking over issues such as Iran, climate change and trade have borne few concrete results.
Likewise, he has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the gilded Palace of Versailles and his summer residence on the Riviera, where in August he at once chided Moscow for its crackdown against anti-government street protests and called for a rapprochement between Europe and Russia.
Lavrov said Moscow and Paris would continue efforts to save the Iran nuclear deal and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said he had invited his French counterpart Florence Parly and France’s top military brass to attend next year’s Moscow Red Square parade. Neither expounded on how Russia’s future relationship with Europe might look.
London-based think-tank Chatham House said Macron risked a “slippery slope to accommodating Russia’s interests” if he pursued dialogue for the sake of dialogue.
“The French president’s assumption that he can find a way to bring Russia into the fold (or in from the cold...) is mistaken because Russia does not want to be brought in, even if it says it does. And certainly not on the EU’s terms,” London-based think-tank Chatham House wrote.
Reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow and Richard Lough in Paris; writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Gareth Jones, Michel Rose and Philippa Fletcher