“Vladimir, firstly one thing!” says President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks to make a point to his Russian counterpart. “Listen Emmanuel,” interjects the Russian leader.
One of the final calls between the presidents of France and Russia, just four days before Putin issued the order for Moscow to invade Ukraine, is filled with tension, occasional expressions of respect and moments of the bizarre.
With Europe’s peace in question, it even ends with Putin saying that he was supposed to be playing ice hockey and was conducting the conversation from a sports hall.
In a hugely unusual glimpse into a confidential telephone call between heads of state, Macron and his team were filmed at the Elysee taking the call and the footage will now be broadcast as the centrepiece of a documentary “A President, Europe and the War” on the French president’s handling of the Ukraine war to be broadcast Thursday on France 2 TV.
The call took place on the morning of February 20 as the French leader made what turned out to be a fruitless attempt to stop Russia from going to war. He also proposed a summit with US President Joe Biden that Russia would turn its back on.
Macron has been praised by admirers by keeping open a channel to Putin, with whom he sought to cultivate a relationship to the point of inviting the Kremlin chief to his summer residence in 2019.
But detractors fear the French leader’s eagerness for dialogue was exploited by Russia and Kyiv has been troubled by his insistence that Russia should not be left humiliated when the war comes to an end.
“I would like you to first give me your reading of the situation and perhaps quite directly, as is our habit, tell me what your intentions are,” Macron asked Putin bluntly at the start of the conversation.
“What can I say? You yourself see what is happening,” retorted Putin, accusing Ukraine of rupturing the Minsk accords that reduced the scale of a conflict that erupted in 2014.
He lambasted the pro-Western Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, falsely accusing Kyiv of seeking a nuclear weapon.
“In fact our dear colleague Mr Zelensky is doing nothing” to apply the Minsk accords, Putin alleged. “He is lying to you,” he added, also accusing Macron of seeking to revise Minsk.
“I don’t know if your legal advisor has learned law! As for me I just look at the texts and I try to apply them,” snorted Macron.
Putin then argued that the propositions of separatists in eastern Ukraine should be taken into account. “But we don’t care about the propositions from the separatists,” snapped Macron.
But despite the tension Macron also sought to play the role of mediator, saying he will urge Zelensky to “calm down everyone” not just in the Ukrainian armed forces but on social media.
“Do not give in to provocations of any kind in the hours and days to come,” he told Putin.
As they have always done in their conversations both men use the informal form of “you” to address each other.
The call ended with Macron suggesting to Putin a summit with Biden. Putin did not object but also did not appear interested in fixing a date while insisting that the meeting should be fully prepared.
The Elysee then briefed reporters that an agreement in principle had been reached for a summit between Biden and Putin but this never took place.
The final words were relatively cordial. “Thank you in any case Vladimir. We will stay in touch in real time. When there is something, call me,” said Macron. “I thank you Mr president,” said Putin, suddenly slipping into French.
It was then that Putin revealed to Macron what was also on his mind.
“To be honest, I wanted to go play ice hockey. Here I am talking to you from the sports hall before starting the physical exertion. But first I will talk with my advisors.”
Macron would speak to Putin again the day later, on February 21. But on February 24, Russia launched the invasion, sparking a war that is still raging even if Moscow failed in its apparent initial aim of taking Kyiv.
The president undertook further calls with Putin even after the invasion began, including on February 24 itself, but the exchanges have now dried up.
He has always insisted that diplomacy was the right thing to do but also faced criticism for finally making a trip to Kyiv to back Zelensky only last week and not before.
“We did not convince him and he invaded Ukraine,” Macron told the film makers. “I thought that we could find, through confidence and intellectual discussion, a path with Putin,” he added.