Vladimir Putin told Emmanuel Macron he would rather ‘play ice hockey’ than hold peace talks

·6 min read
Vladimir Putin told Emmanuel Macron he would rather “play ice hockey” than make a decision on whether to meet Joe Biden over averting war - Gerard Julien
Vladimir Putin told Emmanuel Macron he would rather “play ice hockey” than make a decision on whether to meet Joe Biden over averting war - Gerard Julien

A contemptuous Vladimir Putin told Emmanuel Macron he would rather “play ice hockey” than make a decision on whether to meet Joe Biden over averting war in Ukraine just four days before he invaded.

The Russian president’s dismissive aside came at the end of a tense and often surreal nine-minute conversation with Mr Macron to be aired in a documentary on Thursday on France 2, the main state TV channel.

According to C A Vous (It’s Over To You), the France 5 chat show that broadcast the first excerpts, the documentary also airs another conversation between Mr Macron and Boris Johnson just two days before the invasion.

In it, the Prime Minister expresses his reservations about Mr Macron’s attempts at dialogue with the Russian autocrat, telling him: “Every time we talk to Vladimir Putin, I get the impression he is more aggressive, I find we sound a bit weak. He wants to get what he wants. He won’t stop there.”

A President, Europe and the War gained unprecedented access not just to the French president and his advisers in the run-up to the Ukraine war but also to the PC Jupiter, the nuclear bunker and crisis command centre under the Elysée Palace in which no previous journalist had filmed a head-of-state.

Under fire over claims he has been too accommodating to Mr Putin, whom he has spoken to dozens of times before and after the invasion, Mr Macron clearly decided the best way to show a more nuanced reality was to invite cameras into his inner sanctum.

"Vladimir, firstly one thing!,” Mr Macron can be heard saying at the start of the conversation, which 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. "Listen Emmanuel," cuts in the Russian leader.

Both men use the informal form of "you" to address each other.

Putting it bluntly, the 44-year-old French president asks: “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.”

"What can I say? You yourself see what is happening," retorts Mr Putin, accusing Ukraine of violating the Minsk accords that reduced the scale of a conflict that erupted in 2014.

He lambasts the pro-Western Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, falsely accusing Kyiv of seeking a nuclear weapon.

“Rubbish”, Mr Macron’s influential Elysée diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, can be heard exclaiming.

"In fact, our dear colleague Mr Zelensky is doing nothing" to apply the Minsk accords, Mr Putin alleges. "He is lying to you," he adds.

Mr Putin then argues that the propositions of separatists in eastern Ukraine should be taken into account. "But we don't care about the propositions from the separatists," snaps Mr Macron.

"I don't know if your legal adviser has learned law! As for me I just look at the texts and I try to apply them," snorts Mr Macron. “I don’t know which legal adviser could tell you that in a sovereign country, legislative texts are proposed by separatists and not by democratically elected authorities.”

“That’s good,” one diplomatic adviser can be heard saying.

“It’s not a democratically elected government,” responds Mr Putin. “They gained power through a bloody coup. People were burned alive. It was a bloodbath. And Zelensky is one of the culprits.”

Despite the tension, Mr Macron also seeks to play the role of mediator, saying he will urge Mr 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 tells Mr Putin.

The call ends with Mr Macron suggesting to Mr Putin that he hold a summit with Mr Biden, the US president.

Mr Putin is non-committal, saying it would need to be fully prepared. In fact, it never took place despite Elysée briefings that it was on the cards.

'To be honest, I wanted to go play ice hockey'

However, almost as an afterthought, the Russian president drops a cynical final aside.

“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 advisers,” he adds.

Unperturbed, Mr Macron says: "Thank you in any case Vladimir. We will stay in touch in real-time. When there is something, call me.”

“I thank you Mr President," says Mr Putin, suddenly slipping into French.

Mr Macron would speak to Mr Putin again the day later, on February 21. But on February 24, Russia launched the invasion.

That night, the documentary once again had access to Mr Macron’s first exchange with Mr Zelensky after Russian missiles hit Kyiv.

"And now they are in Kyiv. They are fighting in Kyiv,” says the Ukrainian president.

“They are with special forces and helicopters or…?,” asks a worried Mr Macron.

“Yes, aeroplanes and helicopters, everything. We see it in the media, we see everywhere, a lot of them,” responds his Ukrainian counterpart.

“Do you have any idea how many civilians were killed already?,” asks Mr Macron.

“No, thousands…,” is the answer.

“And what about you, are you in security yourself?”

“I think so,” Mr Zelensky responds.

The president made further calls with Mr Putin even after the invasion began, including on February 24 itself, but the exchanges have more or less 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 Mr Zelensky only last week and not before.

The president made further calls with Mr Putin even after the invasion began, but exchanges have more or less dried up - Francois Mori
The president made further calls with Mr Putin even after the invasion began, but exchanges have more or less dried up - Francois Mori

When asked by C A Vous presenter Anne-Elisabeth Lemoine why Mr Macron kept trying to talk sense into Mr Putin when even his closest diplomatic advisor admits that “lying is an integral part of Putin’s strategy”, journalist Guy Lagache said the French president told him: “It is true that he has his own logic but if we can make minds move a little, then it can have an effect.”

However, in an interview just a few days ago when Mr Macron finally travelled to Kyiv, Mr Macron conceded: ”We did not convince him and he invaded Ukraine.”

“I thought that we could find, through confidence and intellectual discussion, a path with Putin," he added.

Asked whether he thought Mr Putin was a dangerous man, he said: “I will never tell you what I think.”

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