On February 8, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Almost immediately afterward, confusion ensued due to conflicting claims from Macron and the Kremlin about what was agreed upon.
Macron, ahead of his later meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Putin provided assurances that there would be no military escalation. A French official later reported that Russian troops in Belarus, ostensibly there for joint exercises, would return to their bases in Russia once their drills were completed on February 20.
The Kremlin later denied both claims.
Addressing reports in the Financial Times about the French claims, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:
"Of course, The Financial Times was wrong, essentially wrong. Given the current situation, Moscow and Paris could not have struck any deals. It is simply impossible."
Peskov suggested that France could not have made any such agreements.
“Because France is both an EU member and currently holding EU presidency, what’s more, France is a NATO member, where it doesn’t hold leadership – another country holds this bloc’s leadership,” he said. “So, what kind of deals can you talk about?"
On the one hand, it is difficult to know what actually transpired between Putin and Macron without a public transcript. On the other, while Peskov is correct that France cannot speak for NATO, his assertion that NATO’s leadership is held by “another country” is false.
No single country in the 30-member alliance “holds this bloc’s leadership.” Decision-making is done by consensus after consultation and discussion among all member states. Any NATO member can veto a decision. This has happened several times: most recently, Hungary vetoed Ukraine’s bid to join NATO’s Cyber Defense Center.
Russian officials have long portrayed NATO as being led by the United States, its largest contributor, but that is not true.
In 2002, the Bush administration began calling for military action against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. While several NATO members, including the U.K., Poland and Spain, joined the U.S.- led coalition that eventually invaded Iraq in 2003, key NATO members France and Germany opposed military action against Iraq and did not contribute forces.
Turkey, also a NATO member, refused to let U.S. military forces transit its territory to invade Iraq. Despite the participation of some NATO member states, the organization as a whole played no part in the decision to invade Iraq or the invasion itself.
So while France cannot speak for NATO unilaterally, neither can any other alliance member state.
Since last autumn, Russia has built up over 130,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders. At the same time, President Putin and Russia’s diplomats have made repeated demands for “security guarantees,” specifically an agreement barring Ukraine from NATO membership. So far, NATO and EU leaders have remained firm in refusing to alter NATO’s open door policy.