The French leader’s visit to Moscow is important because it embodies the kind of diplomacy that is required to restore harmony to the West’s relationship with Russia: a pragmatic exchange between equals based on interests not ideology.

France's President Francois Hollande, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin enter a hall for their news conference following the talks in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, November 26, 2015. Photo: AP

In New York in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the creation of “a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism” including Russia and the West. At the time, Western leaders mainly dismissed this as grandstanding. On Nov. 26 in Moscow, however, French President François Hollande appeared to agree: “Our enemy is Daesh, Islamic State, it has territory, an army and resources, so we must create this large coalition to hit these terrorists.”

What are we to make of this? Will a “grand alliance” against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) centered on a Franco-Russian core help the West bring Russia in from the cold and, in these tense days following Turkey’s provocative destruction of a Russian bomber, help check any downward spiral in Russia-NATO relations?

In meetings with Hollande in Washington several days earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama, nominally leader of the Western alliance, tried to be as polite as he could. The United States, he said, would “wait and see” before committing to a tactical alliance with Russia over ISIS.

In reality, a rapprochement between Russia and the United States is exceedingly distant. The degree of hostility in Washington and among Europe’s “new Atlanticists (to borrow a term from Chatham House expert Richard Sakwa) to cooperating with Russia should not be underestimated.

Writing earlier this month, for example, former NATO General-Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated his call for Western governments to maintain a united front against what he calls “Russian aggression” in Ukraine, including by “helping Ukraine improve its defense capabilities” and arming Kiev. To Rasmussen, what are needed are policies capable of “compelling Russia to engage constructively with the West."

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Just as Hollande was appearing in Washington, former high-ranking Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas published a stinging indictment of Russia as a “fundamental” challenge to “the international system, to democracy, and to free market capitalism.”

“The problem we in the West have,” she went on, “apart from ISIL [Islamic State], is Russia.”

The only problem with that argument is that as far as ISIS concerned Putin is largely right. Russia’s interests and the West’s converge (and in a way Turkey’s plainly do not); Moscow’s strategy for defeating or at least containing ISIS makes better sense (since it is being executed in support of professional land forces, namely the Syrian Army); and only its air campaign in Syria is actually consistent with international law, flying over Syrian sovereign territory at the invitation of its UN-recognized government.

Mutual misunderstandings

Russia was quick to seize the opportunity for common cause that ISIS’s Nov. 13 attacks in Paris created: It sent an Alsatian puppy to replace the police dog killed when French commandos crushed ISIS’s terrorist nest in the northern Paris suburb of St Denis.

But when Western commentators claim, as they have done over the past week, that Russia might somehow be persuaded to “join” the West’s anti-ISIS coalition, they would do well to remember Putin’s heavy emphasis in his speech in New York on the traditional Westphalian vision of the sovereign equality of states. What Russia wants — and has done, consistently, since first Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev consented to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 — is to be treated by the West as an equal.

Indeed, it deserves emphasizing that Western diplomacy with Russia will continue to fail — and instead will continue to antagonize and provoke — until it learns that Russia wants a cooperative relationship with the West, but not at the price of accepting the West’s definition of its interests.

In this sense, Hollande’s visit is important not because it seals a rapprochement between Russia and the West (which it alone cannot effect) or because it consolidates the coordination of French and Russian airstrikes over Syria (which it seems it will do) but because it embodies the kind of diplomacy that is required to restore harmony to the West’s relationship with Russia: a pragmatic exchange between equals based on interests not ideology.

This is the kind of old-fashioned diplomacy that Western governments must decide consistently and ingenuously to pursue over the long term if they are to replace confrontation with cooperation with Moscow, and not just in regard to Syria in the immediate impulse to review existing Western policy there that has followed the Paris attacks, but also in Ukraine.

Much ink has been spilt on the “Eurasianist” ideology that supposedly drives Putin’s “imperialistic” foreign policy. But the problem is that Western policies have pushed Russia closer to China and other members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the world’s leading developing economies, none of which has followed the West in applying sanctions). It also confirmed for many Russians the difference in values that separate what they see as a hypocritical and individualistic West from a more conservative and communally-minded Russia.

Yet in Putin’s heart of hearts, as in many Russians’, it remains true that Russia’s president and its people see their country as fundamentally European in history, culture and geography — and Hollande’s visit will be particularly appreciated for this reason. (The Russian imperial court and upper classes after all spoke and thought in French for centuries; when in 1812 Napoleon invaded, many struggled to understand how they could be so cruelly betrayed by their adoptive mother.)

The challenge is that the Europe to which Russia seeks to return no longer exists. Russia wants to be recognized as a Great Power — and, specifically, a European Great Power — on a continent whose peoples have come to take the denial of power politics as a defining element of their modern identity, expressed in that fundamentally liberal, greater peace project that is the European Union.

Having rediscovered the cultural and spiritual inheritance denied to them by Communism, Russians feel bewildered when on visits to London, Paris and Berlin the Christian values and traditions they consider quintessentially “European” seem to be suppressed in the name of a post-modern political correctness that they cannot identify with.

What’s in it for France?

As the home of the deeply anti-clerical 1789-95 revolution, France is more secular and post-Christian than almost any other European country. But as far as regards Hollande’s appearance in the Kremlin, France has traditionally harbored deep reservations about that vision of a “liberal,” rules-based world order under benign U.S. hegemony more or less taken for granted in the Anglosphere.

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While sharing a commitment to democracy and human rights (which as the droits de l’homme were, after all, first proclaimed in French), France has never renounced the right to protect its national embodiment of either through the hard-nosed pursuit and use of power. The French invented raison d’état too.

Neither a “post-national” state the way Germany is nor reflexively Atlanticist in the manner of the United Kingdom, France — more than any other country in Europe — is capable of reasoning in terms of that pre-1914 vision of European order as a concert of national interests. 

When the present confrontation with the West erupted over Ukraine last year, Russia turned first to Germany as its natural mediator. German Chancellor Angela Merkel — more liberal and more Atlanticist than any of her predecessors — famously opined that Putin was living “in another world.”

Yet it’s one, it seems, in which France can still navigate. On Ukraine, France has until now played a supporting role to Germany, but for a sympathetic hearing of Russia’s case, Hollande’s pilgrimage to the Kremlin suggests Moscow has also been right to try to engage Paris as much as possible. Indeed, Hollande earlier this year declared his willingness in principle to consider lifting Ukraine-related sanctions against Moscow.

Of course, Hollande’s “shuttle diplomacy” would scarcely have been conceivable without the attacks in Paris a fortnight ago and it remains far too early to imagine Franco-Russian (let alone Russo-Western) cooperation extending further than ISIS and Syria for the foreseeable future.

Yet there is a real sense in which it hard not to see, not just Ukraine, but also the Eurozone crisis as the ultimate backdrop to Hollande’s visit. Though between the White House on Nov. 24 and the Kremlin on Nov. 26, Hollande made time to welcome Merkel to a flower-laying ceremony at the Place de la République — not far from where most of ISIS’s victims were slain at the Bataclan concert house — the elephant in the room is Germany.

For since the outbreak of the euro crisis in 2009, France has chafed at Germany’s self-appointed right to the leadership of Europe and the mainly, in the eyes of traditionally statist Paris, wrong-headed and deflationary policies Berlin has imposed in its effort to remake the continent in its image.

France may not have Germany’s deep pockets but it remains deeply aware that it retains what post-1945 Germany has never been allowed to acquire: highly capable expeditionary forces, an independent nuclear arsenal and a permanent seat in the UN’s Security Council at the world’s highest negotiating table — the late 20th-century trappings, that is, of a traditional European “great power.”

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By reaching out independently and demonstratively to Russia, France is not only retracing a well-trodden route to a historical ally in balancing an over-mighty Germany (suggesting that power politics have not so much been eliminated as suppressed). Rather, it is announcing that, in the troubled, early 21st-century Europe dominated by Berlin-made solutions to crises over Ukraine, the euro and refugees, France is back. (In a possible sign of this, Italy’s Matteo Renzi signed on to France’s “grand coalition” on Nov. 26.)

All the same, coordinating the bombing of terrorists in the Syrian desert is one thing. Only time will tell what Hollande’s visit will mean not only for the future of Russia’s relations with the West but also for the configuration of power and influence in Europe as a whole.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.