Dr. Abdul Ruff
Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting Paris next month to inaugurate a Russian cultural center and Russian cathedral. Outwardly there are no political or economic or even security (anti-terrorism) agenda, some experts have expressed serious skepticism that Putin would not make a trip just for a small things and world therefore promote his own political agenda, which includes the alleviation of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its policy in Ukraine. Russia is till reeling under the notorious sanctions form USA and Europe and the retaliatory sanctions form Moscow have not alleviated Moscow’s serious economic worries.
Amidst Moscow’s ongoing confrontation with the West over Ukraine, Russian President’s October visit to France has already been met with a great deal of debates in media and government circles in the west, beyond France.
The visit gives the media that plenty of reasons to accuse French President François Hollande of being “malleable” because, they argue, the visit as an “ignominy” because it offers “an authorized podium” to Putin. After the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s visits to EU member states are anything but routine. “Visits to the EU’s major countries are viewed with special interest by many, and with suspicion and open disapproval by some.” Since the break in relations with the West, Putin has traveled to France for international gatherings, such as the D-Day celebration or the UN climate summit. A bilateral visit, of course, carries much more substance.
In general, France has been friendlier to Russia than other EU nations, as indicated previous attempt to foster by Hollande’s shuttle diplomacy with the Kremlin. It means that France is looking for a positive dynamic in its relations with Moscow and making all necessary efforts to alleviate tensions, but there is a lack of goodwill in the Western environment. French companies want economic relations with Russia restored.
Sept-11 hoax and western-Russia unity
The day after 9/11, NATO announced that it interprets the terrorist acts against the USA as an attack on all 19 members of the Alliance. But France questioned the rationale and the hidden agenda of Washington for attacking Iraq.
True, terrorist attacks in USA brought Russia closer to USA while terrorist attacks in France moved Paris closer to Moscow. In fact Sept-11 hoax brought all anti-Islamic nations together to fight Islam and Muslims.
France’s pragmatic approach to all issues is significant. It avoids overdoing terror gimmick beyond certain limit and does not fully trust USA. Hollande seems to be driven by pragmatic calculations after a series of terrorist attacks in 2015-2016 in Paris and Nice. This is the reason why he changed his rhetoric and toned down his criticism toward Russia. All this makes him a sort of contrarian among the NATO members, which remain intransigent and reluctant to cooperate with the Kremlin regardless of common threats like Islamic terrorism.“The recent terrorist attacks against the French people underscore the importance of security cooperation with Russia…And Paris has not entirely forgotten its past habit of acting as a great power in its own right… For France, Russia isn’t an adversary, isn’t a threat,” Hollande said during the NATO Summit in Warsaw. “Russia is a partner that can sometimes, as we saw in Ukraine, use force. … It’s absolutely not NATO’s job to weigh in on the relationship that Europe has with Russia.”
Indeed, France is one of the EU countries, which has been trying to maintain dialogue with the Kremlin regardless of the risks of being strongly criticized by its Western counterparts. French parliamentarians and businessmen have paid numerous visits to Russia and Crimea since the sanctions came into force. In the wake of the Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine, a number of French parliamentarians visited the Crimean peninsula in late July 2015. Former French President and current leader of the Republicans party Nicolas Sarkozy paid a two-day visit to Moscow on October 28-29, 2015, not to mention Hollande’s meeting with Putin in Moscow in late November 2015 in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. French companies want economic relations with Russia restored. Likewise, French Senate President Gerard Larcher paid a visit to Moscow in early April 2016. He admitted that the sanctions on Russia had serious implications for France, which has lost access to Russian markets. Finally, France’s parliament – the National Assembly – voted against prolonging economic sanctions on Russia and adopted a resolution calling on Paris to reassess the nation’s sanctions policy towards Moscow on Apr. 28.
The war on terror launched by France after the deadly attacks Nov. 13 in Paris resembles the anti-terrorism campaign of the USA after the Sept. 11 hoax in 2001. It remains to be seen if France is going to repeat the mistakes of former US President George Bush. Regular citizens realized that the US led war on terror has made Europeans more insecure than ever and even in the heart of Europe they cannot feel completely safe.
Recently, meeting the French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russian and France continued developing relations in all spheres against all the odds. “Despite all the difficulties, the relations between our countries are developing,” Putin said at a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. “We develop them practically in all directions, including the government level, business contacts and inter-parliamentary dimension,” the Russian president said. He noted that France was one of Russia’s key partners in Europe and the whole world. Putin offered the French foreign minister to discuss bilateral relations and key international issues at their meeting. French Foreign Minister said French President Francois Hollande expects to see the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, in October 2016.
Thus visiting is going to happen.
Some commentators speculate that the French President sought to use this visit to reinvigorate the debates on lifting sanctions against Moscow and normalizing the French-Russian bilateral relations and Russia-EU relations. However, after the mysterious Crimean incident the prospects of improving Russian-European relations and implementing the Minsk Agreements are not feasible in the near future.
According to the allegations of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), released in early August, Ukrainian saboteurs were preparing terrorist attacks in Crimea, while Kiev sees such accusations as “fantasies”. Although there are still chances for improvement, the Crimean incident came as a very unpleasant surprise, which provoked tensions.
The French government is adjusting its security priorities. France is now ready to take up arms and launch a military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) All this is looking more and more like the aftermath of 9/11hoax in the USA. The War on Terror is a phrase coined by former US President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. 14 years later, “France is at war, ”uttered François Hollande, the President of France, after Paris was targeted by terrorists on Nov. 13, 2015.
Historical ties and antagonism
Russia’s longing to be a part of Europe Is not accidental and after the collapse of mighty USSR. France and Russia were crucial states in the European balance of power. France–Russia relations date back to early modern period, with sporadic contact even earlier, when both countries were ruled by absolute monarchies, the Kingdom of France (843–1792) and the Tsardom of Russia (1547–1721). Diplomatic ties go back at least to 1702 when France had an ambassador (Jean-Casimir Baluze) in Moscow. Following Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War, the foundation of Saint Petersburg as the new capital in 1712, and declaration of an empire in 1721, Russia became a major force in European affairs for the first time.
After the French Revolution, Russia became a center of reactionary antagonism against the revolution. The French invasion of Russia in 1812 was major defeat for France and a turning point in the Napoleonic War. Russia was again hostile when the Revolutions of 1848 broke out across Europe. France’s challenges to Russia’s influence led France to participate in the Crimean War, which saw French troops invade the Crimean peninsula.
Imperial Russia’s foreign policy was hostile to republican France in the 19th century and very pro-German. Russia cautiously began a policy of rapprochement with France starting in 1891 while the French for their part were very interested in the Russian offers of an alliance. In August 1891, France and Russia signed a “consultative pact” where both nations agreed to consult each other if another power were to threaten the peace of Europe. In 1893-94, French and Russian diplomats negotiated a defensive alliance meant to counter the growing power of Germany. The alliance was intended to deter Germany from going to war by presenting the Reich with the threat of a two-front war; neither France nor Russia could hope to defeat Germany on their own, but their combined power might, which in turn was meant to deter Berlin from going to war with either Paris or St. Petersburg.
Tashkent in its turn would be the base from which the Russians would invade Afghanistan as the prelude to invading India. Despite their alliance, both Russia and France pursued their own interests. In 1908-09 during the Bosnia crisis, France declined to support Russia as a quarrel in the Balkans with Austria supported by Germany threatening war against Russia over Bosnia did not concern them. The lack of French interest in supporting Russia during the Bosnia crisis was the nadir of Franco-Russian relations with the Emperor Nicholas II making no effort to hide his disgust at the lack of support from what was supposed to be his number one ally.
In 1911 during the Second Moroccan Crisis, the Russians paid the French back for their lack of support in the Bosnia crisis by refusing to support France when Germany threatened war against the French over Morocco. Further linking France and Russia together was a common economic interests. Russia wished to industrialize, but lacked the capital to do so while the French were more than prepared to lend the necessary money to finance Russia’s industrialization. By 1913, French investors had put 12 billion francs into Russian assets, making the French easily the largest investors in the Russian empire. The industrialization of the Russian Empire was largely the result of a massive influx of French capital into Russia.
On March 16, 1902, a mutual pact was signed between France and Russia. Japan later fought Russia in the Russo-Japanese war. France remained neutral in this conflict. During World War I, France was allied with Great Britain and the Russian Empire. The alliance between the three countries formed the Triple Entente. However, after the Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government in 1917, Russia left the war.
France’s bilateral relations with the Soviet Union have experienced dramatic ups and downs due to Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and France’s alliance in the NATO. Previous Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev made a visit to France in October 1985 in order to fix the strains in the Franco-Soviet relations. Nevertheless, France’s bilateral activities continued with NATO, which furthermore strained the bilateral relations between France and the Soviet Union.
After the breakup of the USSR, bilateral relations between France and Russia were initially warm. On February 7, 1992 France signed a bilateral treaty, recognizing Russia as a successor of the USSR. As described by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the bilateral relations between France and Russia remain longstanding, and remain strong to this day. During the 2008 Georgia-Russia War, Sarkozy did not insist on territorial integrity of Georgia. Moreover, there were no French protests when Russia failed to obey Sarkozy’s deal to withdraw from Georgia and recognizing governments in Georgia’s territories. One of the major news has been the sale of Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Russia. The deal which was signed at 2010, is the first major arms deal between Russia and the Western world since World War II The deal has been criticized for neglecting the security interests of Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia.
Before Syrian Civil War, Franco-Russian relations were generally improving. After years flailing behind Germany and Italy, France decided to copy them by emphasizing the bilateral relationship. Ever since the financial crisis took hold, European powers have been forced to court emerging markets more and Moscow meanwhile wanted to diversify its own economy. President Hollande summed up the attitude towards what some said Putin’s repressive array of new laws during his first official visit to Moscow in February 2013: “I do not have to judge, I do not have to evaluate”.
The French press highlighted that ISIS is the first common enemy that France and Russia fight shoulder to shoulder since WWII. A Russian newspaper recalled that “WWII had forced the Western World and the Soviet Union to overcome their ideological differences”, wondering whether ISIS would be the “new Hitler”. François Hollande and Vladimir Putin agreed on ordering their respective armed forces to “cooperate” with one another in the fight against the ISIS. The French President has called upon the international community to bring “together of all those who can realistically fight against this terrorist army in a large and unique coalition. The French-Russian bombing cooperation is considered to be an “unprecedented” move, given that France is a member of NATO. Russia tried to be a part of NATO with French help but USA remains unimpressed by Moscow’s love for capitalism and imperialism.
Western sanctions, Russian response
The West, inspired by the super power USA, subjected Russia and companies to batches of sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, after Russia incorporated Crimea in mid-March 2014 after a coup in Ukraine in February that year. New, sectoral, penalties against Russia were announced in late July 2014 over Moscow’s position on Ukrainian events, in particular, what the West claimed was Russia’s alleged involvement in hostilities in Ukraine’s embattled south-east.
Russia responded with imposing on August 6, 2014 a ban on imports of beef, pork, poultry, fish, cheeses, fruit, vegetables and dairy products from Australia, Canada, the EU, the United States and Norway. The Russian authorities have repeatedly denied accusations of “annexing” Crimea because Crimea reunified with Russia voluntarily after a referendum, and Moscow has repeatedly dismissed Western allegations that it could in any way be involved in hostilities in the south-east of Ukraine.
France had said it was ready to facilitate the preparation of a decision on lifting anti-Russian sanctions which will be discussed at EU’s summit at the end of June or beginning of July. But It could do much on the issue.
Despite the high expectations for Putin’s visit to Paris, experts are very skeptical that it will bring any breakthroughs. Generally, France pursues a neutral foreign policy. France’s decision not to ask for NATO support after the terrorist attacks in Paris makes the point clear. France has the capacity to accommodate the counter arguments of the opponents.
Interestingly, French-Russian bilateral relations are not in the best shape, but they are not worse than the relations with other European countries. This is a good sign, especially given the 2017 presidential elections in France.
But President Hollande’s approach towards Russia could be a political tactic to gain votes before the 2017 presidential elections perhaps against Sarkozy. After all, he is expected to run for the next presidency and the French people have always been divided in their attitude toward Russia.
On its part, Russia hopes that the next French president could reinvigorate ties with Moscow and seek to establish closer relations at the bilateral level instead of improving relations with the EU in general. Putin visit could promote that goal. But the EU may be transformed, but the countries that comprise it, will remain and Russia will have to deal with them somehow.
Sarkozy seems not to be very enthusiastic about improving relations with Russia. His tough stance toward Russia is rather close to the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. So, it remains to be seen if Hollande’s departure from the presidential office will be good or bad for Russia.
Given the fact that the EU puts itself into opposition to Russia and is faced with a serious transformation in the aftermath of Brexit, Russia finds it more convenient to find common ground on a bilateral level with separate European countries that are relatively friendly to Moscow and have a history of successful partnership. Moscow believes that it would be reasonable now to build up the relations with important European stakeholders such as France, taking into account the diplomatic approach of Paris and its readiness to come up with a compromise. However, the perception that a new French president will be pro-Russia is wrong.
The same applies to Trump as well.
Many agree that the anti-terrorism cum anti-Islamism could bring the Western nations together. It became a matter of political routine for Paris-Moscow bilateral relations. The two leaders will discuss it and, probably, look at the problem from a different angle. Yet it is also hardly likely to be the key topic during the Russian president’s visit to France.
Despite the numerous assumptions that Putin will try to persuade Hollande to lift the European sanctions during his visit, it might not be the key topic. Russia’s relations with the West and France, in particular, are not limited to lifting sanctions. The agenda of the Middle East and Syria is more relevant for bilateral relations and Putin should primarily discuss this with Hollande.
Paris may not break ranks with EU or NATO solidarity, and won’t take steps that lead to the cancellation of the sanctions. Yet, Putin’s visit underlines the following trend: nations are no longer isolating Russia, but re-establishing links with it.
Even though the Russian President’s upcoming visit to France might improve French-Russian relations, there is no reason to wait for any breakthroughs.