PARIS — Around a table much smaller than the 20-foot-long oval slab across which he confronted President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow, President Emmanuel Macron gathered a few journalists this week to confide that the crisis in Ukraine was taking up “more than half my time, the bulk of my time” because the world stands “at a tipping point” of history.
The table was some six miles up in the air, on the presidential plane that whisked Mr. Macron to Moscow, Kyiv and Berlin this week, where he warned of “irreversible” damage if Russia invaded Ukraine, and said it was imperative “not to surrender to fate.”
Mr. Macron is convinced that the current crisis, marked by Russian revanchism after its perceived humiliation by the West, reflects a failure to rethink Europe’s collective security after the end of the Cold War. On that, at least, he and Mr. Putin seem to agree. The formidable task before the French president is to figure out what could possibly replace it, and convince others, including the United States, of its virtues.
By the end of the week, the standoff with Russia, which conducted military exercises all around Ukraine’s borders, looked as menacing as ever. Yet just nine weeks from a presidential election, Mr. Macron has made the risky bet that he can coax Mr. Putin toward dialogue and that French voters will be more taken with his global stature than alienated by his inattention.
If he fails, he risks not only losing their votes and their confidence, but also damaging his prestige and that of his country by being seen abroad as an overreaching leader.
Wary of that perception, he has taken great pains to coordinate his efforts with other European leaders, some of them skeptical, and with President Biden. A 75-minute conversation on Friday among Western leaders displayed a united front behind attempts to persuade Russia “to de-escalate the crisis and choose the path of dialogue,” the European Commission said.
Mr. Macron was 11 when the Berlin Wall came down. Mr. Biden was 46. Some divergence of view is probably inevitable. Mr. Macron sees no reason that the structure of the alliance that prevailed over the Soviet Union should be eternal.
“The question is not NATO, but how do we create an area of security,” he said. “How do we live in peace in this region?” Part of his goal in Moscow, he suggested, had been to prod Mr. Putin away from a NATO obsession — that Ukraine should never join the alliance — toward another “framework.” He said he had told the Russian leader “the framework you propose is false.”
To turn up at the Kremlin, facing the man who has put a gun to the head of the West with 130,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border, was necessary, Mr. Macron argued. Opening another diplomatic avenue, more flexible than the exchange of letters between Russia and the United States that Mr. Macron repeatedly dismissed as useless, gained time by locking in meetings in the coming weeks. The two leaders are expected to speak again on Saturday.
Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West
The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
Over more than five hours on Monday, the two leaders confronted each other. Mr. Macron said he hammered on “the guarantees he could give me on the situation at the border” to such a degree that Mr. Putin at one point said he was being “tortured.”
Mr. Putin, with equal insistence, attacked NATO’s expansion east since 1997 and the aggression this constituted.
Asked about the much mocked long table, Mr. Macron said, “Well, it was hardly intimate.”
The Kremlin has disputed that Mr. Macron won any concessions, but said there were “seeds of reason” in his approach, in contrast to attempted British diplomacy, which was dismissed by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as a conversation between “the mute and the deaf.”
What Mr. Macron’s new framework might be for Ukraine’s security and Europe’s is unclear. But it appears that it would somehow offer Ukraine ironclad guarantees of its sovereignty and independence in ways that left NATO membership as a mirage, as it simultaneously satisfied Russia that Ukrainian security had not been strengthened at the expense of Moscow’s.
In effect, Mr. Macron believes that some sleight of hand is conceivable that would at once leave Ukrainians free and secure to look West for their future, and Mr. Putin free to continue thinking the two countries form one “historical and spiritual space,” as the Russian leader put it in a 5,000-word disquisition on “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published last summer.
This is a hybrid concept, but not atypical of its proponent. Over the years, Mr. Macron has become known as the “at the same time” president for his constant juggling of different sides of questions — first in favor of reducing France’s reliance on nuclear power, now in favor of increasing it — and for his intricate dissection of issues that sometimes leaves observers wondering what he really believes.
That he believes passionately in the European Union, and the development of Europe as a more independent power, is unquestionable. It is one issue on which he has never wavered, and now he seems to think the hour of reckoning for that conviction has come.
If nothing else, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany meeting with Mr. Putin in Moscow next week, Mr. Macron has made Europe count in this crisis, alongside the United States. That is more than can be said for Britain.
“Through its major states, Europe has returned to a stage from which it seemed to have been marginalized,” Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador, commented in a paper published this week by the Institut Montaigne.
Mr. Macron has had to work hard to keep doubtful European states, particularly those that once lived under the Soviet yoke, aligned with his diplomatic efforts. With France currently holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, he has tried to reach out to everyone — one reason his days are consumed by Ukraine.
His schedule will have to shift somewhat in the coming weeks. Mr. Macron has not yet declared his candidacy for re-election as president, but will almost certainly need to do so in the next couple of weeks. The deadline is March 4, and the first round of voting April 10.
For now, Mr. Macron leads in polls, which give him about 25 percent of the vote, with three right-wing candidates trailing him and splintered left-wing parties far behind. Among the rivals to his right there is significant support for Mr. Putin’s strongman image and his denunciation of Western “decadence,” so engagement with the Russian leader also serves Mr. Macron politically.
Although he is the favorite to win, the likelihood of a high abstention rate among French people disillusioned with politics and the strong appeal of the far right make Mr. Macron’s re-election anything but certain. If Mr. Putin ignores his diplomacy and does invade Ukraine, all bets will be off.
Éric Zemmour, the far-right insurgent in this election, said last month that Mr. Putin “needs to be respected,” adding that “Putin’s claims and demands are completely legitimate.” He also said, “I think NATO is an organization that should have disappeared in 1990.”
Marine Le Pen, the perennial nationalist and anti-immigrant candidate, said last year that “Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence.”
“By trying to violate this sphere of influence,” she added, “tensions and fears are created, and the situation we are witnessing today is reached.” Ms. Le Pen refused to sign a statement issued last month by far-right parties gathered in Madrid because it was critical of Mr. Putin.
Their stances demonstrate the gulf that separates far-right French admiration of Mr. Putin from Mr. Macron’s engagement. The French president’s conviction that Russia needs to be part of a new European security architecture is combined with resolve that Ukraine maintain its sovereignty.
If Mr. Macron has caused unease through his criticism of NATO, he has held the line on not ceding to the Russian leader’s demands.
Asked when he would turn his attention to declaring his candidacy, Mr. Macron said: “I am going to have to think about it at some point. You can’t do over hasty things. You need the right moment.”
If he does not find that sweet spot, Mr. Macron’s diplomacy, and his ideas of reinvented European security, may come to nothing. What may be doable in a second five-year term leading France will certainly not be doable by April 24, the date of the second round of the election.