France said the time had come to start bringing Russia in from the cold as senior ministers held talks in Moscow on Monday for the first time since the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said a landmark prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine at the weekend had created a “window of opportunity” to ease tensions.
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“The time is right to work towards reducing the distrust between Russia and Europe, who ought to be partners on a strategic and economic level.”
He welcomed “a new state of mind, which we have not seen for several years.”
He stressed, however, that it was still too early to lift international sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 over Crimea and its support for armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Le Drian and Florence Parly, the French defence minister, held talks with their Russian counterparts as part of France’s ongoing efforts to reset relations with Russia. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, invited Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, to his summer residence on the Riviera last month in a gesture towards ending Moscow’s isolation.
Mr Macron wants to take the lead on bringing Russia back into conversation with the West despite tension over Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and its policies on Iran and Libya.
France is also concerned about Russia’s role in the Central African Republic, a mineral-rich former French colony torn by sectarian violence. Russia is training government troops and says it wants to restore peace, but the French fear that it may exploit resources and create further instability.
Downing Street believes Mr Macron’s efforts to broker a rapprochement are premature given Moscow’s role in the Skripal poisonings, which prompted further international sanctions last year.
EU member states such as Poland also distrust overtures to Russia while it still controls Crimea and the conflict continues in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Macron’s critics at home accuse him of burying allegations that Russia attempted to meddle in France’s 2017 election and showing weakness towards Moscow as Mr Putin cracks down on dissent at home.