Nearly one year after hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin at Versailles, French President Emmanuel Macron went to St. Petersburg. The French leader, who is addressing the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Friday, held direct talks with his Russian counterpart Thursday, during which the two discussed the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, and, perhaps most pressingly, how to salvage the Iran nuclear deal both France and Russia are party to.
Such a visit would have been awkward just two months ago. At that time, tensions between Moscow and Europe had reached Cold War-era heights after a former Russian spy was poisoned with a rare nerve agent on British soil—the kind of attack the U.K. and its allies alleged only Russia could have pulled off, despite repeated denials from Moscow. The row ultimately resulted in the expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats from capitals across Europe and North America. Russia issued tit-for-tat expulsions in response.
But that was then—this is now. President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, has put Europe between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, it could resign itself to watching its signature diplomatic achievement crumble. On the other, it could attempt to salvage the deal, even if it means exposing its businesses to U.S. sanctions. So far, European leaders appear to have opted for the latter, committing themselves to maintaining the agreement, even if it means doing so without Washington. “As long as the Iranians respect their commitments, the EU will of course stick to the agreement of which it was an architect,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said last week, adding that the bloc will “do what we can to protect our European businesses” from U.S. sanctions penalizing companies that do business with Iran. This includes introducing regulations that would prevent European companies from complying with the sanctions (but as my colleague Krishnadev Calamur points out, it’s not entirely clear how effective they will be).