A few hours after his return from Versailles, Vladimir Putin chose to give an interview to the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro.
With hardly veiled resentment, he took issue with his host, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, and rebuffed him on the major points of contention that came out during their May 29 press conference: Syria, Ukraine, and interference in the French electoral campaign.
In Versailles, Putin listened sternly to Macron’s moral lesson about Ukraine and human rights in Chechnya, said little, and looked impatient to leave. Now, he played the deciding match—without the contender, on his own terms, and at the new Russian Orthodox center he had belatedly opened on the banks of the Seine.
Vladimir Putin’s methods are well-known to seasoned Russia observers. He denies established facts—like Damascus’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. He angrily dismisses foreign leaders’ positions on the Ukrainian conflict. And he speaks insincerely about the Russian state media’s smear campaign against Macron and the hacking of his movement’s website and emails.
Oddly, Putin strongly defended his right to welcome Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin during the presidential race.
The new French president is learning the hard way what it costs to have a “very frank and direct” exchange with the master of the Kremlin. The Russian president has spent seventeen years at the helm. Macron, meanwhile, is taking his first steps in international power politics and probably misread his guest’s reasons and expectations for this meeting.
Putin was seeking honor and respect, recognition of his stature as dean of the “concert of nations,” and also a benign French response to his aggressive military policies for “restoring legal order and peace” in Syria and Ukraine. He was taking an opportunity to make a comeback on the European stage, after the G7 summit in Sicily held without him.
Putin was not looking for a frank, honest discussion on issues of war and peace. And he certainly did not expect Macron to open the press conference with strong criticisms of state violence against gay men in Chechnya and to hint that he, Putin, should fix this.