In France, a documentary was aired with fragments of telephone conversations between the presidents of Russia and France, which took place shortly before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On the morning of February 20, 2022, four days were left before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron, who spearheaded Western diplomacy to dissuade Russia from sending its troops into Ukraine concentrated on its border, was on the last pre-war phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During the conversation, lasting about one hour and 45 minutes, Macron’s diplomatic aides were in another room at the Élysée Palace – closely monitoring the conversation over a speakerphone, scribbling notes and sending direct messages to the president in a tense atmosphere.
The two presidents addressed each other by name and “you”. “Vladimir, I would like you to first tell me your vision of the situation and, perhaps, directly, as usual, tell me about your intentions,” Macron asked Putin.
“What can I say? You can see for yourself what’s going on,” Putin replied, accusing Ukraine of violating the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements that were meant to end the war against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Putin went on to speak about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom he accused of wanting to acquire nuclear weapons, agitating Macron’s advisers. “Our dear colleague Mr. Zelenskyy is doing nothing to implement the Minsk agreements,” Putin said. “He is deceiving you.”
Macron’s team footage, showing the delicate exchange between Macron and Putin, is a key part of the French documentary ‘President, Europe and War’, directed by journalist Guy Lagache. He has been working at the Elysee Palace for more than five months.
The documentary was aired on French television at the end of June. In January, the French took over the presidency of the EU Council, so initially, Lagash intended to take a picture of the work of the European Union. But when the risk of conflict in Europe began to mount, he changed his plans accordingly.
The documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at Macron’s frantic last-minute diplomatic efforts and his frequent calls and meetings with Putin to prevent him from waging war against Ukraine, which later proved fruitless.
While Macron has been praised for his diplomatic tenacity and for keeping an open communication channel with Putin, his critics say he was overconfident in his power of persuasion and naively thought he had any influence over Putin.
“I don’t know where your legal adviser studied law”
At one point during the February 20 conversation, Macron raised his voice when Putin accused him of seeking to renegotiate the Minsk agreements. The Russian leader said the proposals of the separatists in eastern Ukraine should be taken into account.
“I don’t know where your lawyer studied law,” Macron said, eliciting giggles from his aides, “to argue that in a sovereign country, legal texts are proposed by separatist groups and not by democratically elected authorities.”
“They (the Ukrainian government . – Ed. ) are not democratically elected,” Putin replies. “They came to power as a result of a bloody coup. People were burned alive; it was a bloodbath. Zelenskyy is one of those who are responsible for this,” the Russian president said, referring to the fire in Odesa’s House of Trade Unions in 2014, which killed pro-Russian activists.
“I wanted to go play hockey”
Despite friction, Macron plays the role of mediator in resolving the conflict. He told Putin, “You have to help me a little. The situation is very tense.”
Macron vows he will urge Zelenskyy to “calm everyone down”, not only in the Ukrainian military but also on social media, and urged Putin to call for restraint on his troops massed on the border, “If you want to give dialogue a chance, you have to calm the region.”
Finally, Macron invited Putin to hold a summit with Joe Biden in Geneva. Putin agreed in principle but said he would talk to his aides, insisting that the meeting must be carefully prepared.
Emmanuel Bonn, head of the Élysée diplomatic service, complained that Putin “always lies.”
There is a strange moment in the end when Putin brings the conversation to an end, “Thank you, Emmanuel. It is always a pleasure for me to talk with you because we have a trusting relationship.”
“I don’t want to hide anything from you; I wanted to go play hockey. Now I’m talking from the gym before doing my exercises,” says the Russian leader. “But I assure you, I’ll call my assistants first.”
The summit with Biden never took place. The day after his call with Macron, Putin recognised the two separatist republics Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), in eastern Ukraine.
Macron telephoned EU leaders, including a sceptical Boris Johnson, who told him, “Every time you try to negotiate with him, he does something more aggressive.”
Macron responds, “I think we were right to negotiate because now he has the burden and obviously the responsibility for it.”
When Russia launched the special military operations against Ukraine a few days later, Emmanuel Bonn, head of Elysée diplomacy, tried to reach his Kremlin colleague Yuri Ushakov on his cell phone but received no answer.
Days after the beginning of the Russian military operations, which led to massive EU sanctions against Russia and a dramatic change in German defense policy, Macron was on the phone with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, asking the German leader about his morning conversation with Putin.
“One aspect that impressed me more than all the talks was that he (Putin, Ed.) never once complained about all the sanctions,” Scholz says in English. “He didn’t raise the issue.”