French President Emmanuel Macron has shown interest in reviving efforts to broker peace in eastern Ukraine, but analysts say winning over Russian leader Vladimir Putin when they meet on Monday will not be so straightforward.
Macron and Putin are expected to discuss issues ranging from the Iran nuclear programme to the conflict in Syria's Idlib province, but it is the standoff in Ukraine and its implications for Russia's relations with France, the European Union and other Western powers that carry the most symbolic weight.
The encounter comes five days before Macron heads to the southwestern French city of Biarritz to host the G7 meeting of major economies, formerly known as the G8 until it excluded Russia in 2014 over Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Following the annexation, war broke out in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists that has killed an estimated 13,000 people and resisted Franco-German efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire.
In addition to exclusion from the G7/G8, Russia was placed under EU sanctions, but so far has refused to budge on this or other issues upon which it faces pressure from other players on the world stage.
Zelensky election an 'opportunity'
France appears to perceive the arrival of new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May as a fresh opportunity to play a role in resolving the conflict.
Zelensky has offered to meet Putin for talks and has been in regular contact with the Russian president in recent weeks.
“President Zelensky has made offers to which, it seems to us, president Putin should respond in an encouraging way,” a French official told AFP agency. “The election of president Zelensky gives us some room to manoeuvre.”
“The end of the conflict in the Donbass is one of the priorities of Volodymyr Zelensky, who spoke of it with Emmanuel Macron in June,” Anastasiya Shapochkina, associate professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, told RFI.
“Macron and his entourage confirmed this would be the most important point in diplomatic talks Russia and France.”
It is not given, however, that Putin will be receptive to Macron's vision of things.
“France would like to break the impasse in relations with Russia, but everything depends on the attitude of the Russians,” French philosopher and journalist Michel Eltchaninoff told RFI.
“It's a risky wager on the part of Macron, and it may even be impossible, since Putin is not really trustworthy when it comes to international agreements.”
It is also difficult to imagine what Macron would be able to propose to Putin, with Russia remaining obstinate on so many issues.
“Macron is trying to have a discussion with him, but he might not be in a strong enough position to get results,” says Christine Dugoin, an analyst with the CapEurope think tank.
“If you are offering too many things, you appear weak, and being weak when you want to negotiate with Moscow is not a good position. But if you are not doing anything, you are not in a position to make a deal.”
Reading Moscow's position
If France resists offering too much, Macron's meeting with Putin appears as a nothing-ventured, nothing-gained gesture that could gauge Moscow's preparedness to move in areas in which it has previously been reluctant to budge.
“The fact remains that Russia is under sanctions, that it is excluded from the G7, that it wants to play an international role and return to international political life. Macron always has these fundamental arguments,” Michel Eltchaninoff says.
Pro-Russian separatists' agreement to a prisoner swap with Kiev in July suggest that Moscow is receptive to proposals and to making goodwill gestures, but Moscow also knows that the EU will want to see much greater progress in Ukraine.
Anastasiya Shapochkina believes Russia's return to the international community, including the G7, depends on realising the goals of the Minsk accords, the previous Franco-German attempts to broker peace that rarely brought about a lasting ceasefire.
“The Minsk accords didn't work – we see it regularly on the frontline,” says Christine Dugoin, who underlines Moscow's importance in the conflict. “Everybody knows that a ceasefire is not obtainable without Russian support.”