Even though the Russian President’s visit to Paris might improve French-Russian relations, there is no reason to wait for any breakthroughs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and France's President Francois Hollande, arrive to give a joint press conference after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015. Photo: AP
Amidst Moscow’s ongoing confrontation with the West over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s October visit to France has already been met with a great deal of skepticism by some observers. Although the major goal of the visit does not deal with politics — the Russian president is expected to inaugurate a Russian cultural center and Russian cathedral — some warn that Putin will promote his own political agenda, which includes the alleviation of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its policy in Ukraine.
This gives the media plenty of reasons to accuse French President François Hollande of being “malleable”. For example, The Wall Street Journal’s Paris-based columnist John Vinocur sees 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,” Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin told Russia Direct. “Visits to the EU's major countries are viewed with special interest by many, and with suspicion and open disapproval by some."
“So, perhaps the most important thing regarding France is that the visit is taking place at all,” Trenin added. “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.”
France’s pragmatic approach
Today 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 critisism 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,” Trenin said. “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.”
In general, France has been friendlier to Russia than other EU nations, as indicated by Hollande’s previous attempt to foster shuttle diplomacy with the Kremlin.
“Hollande is among the few European leaders, who see Russia as a partner, a friend, not an enemy,” Arnaud Dubien, director of the think tank Observo, which is based at the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Russia Direct. “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.”
Trenin echoes Dubien’s view. “France appears softer on Russia than many other EU members, including Germany,” he said. “Paris is certainly tired of Ukraine and totally disillusioned with it. French companies want economic relations with Russia restored.”
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.
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.
All this might indicate that Hollande’s approach towards Russia is a political tactic to gain votes before the 2017 presidential elections. After all, he is expected to run for the next presidency and the French people have always been divided in their attitude toward Russia. In fact, their support of the sanctions against the Kremlin has been weaker in comparison with other European countries, as indicated by the YouGov survey published in March 2014, shortly after the incorporation of Crimea.
What to expect from Putin’s visit to France
Despite the high expectations for Putin’s visit to Paris, experts are very skeptical that it will bring any breakthroughs. “Before summer many pinned a lot of hopes on this bilateral meeting in Paris,” said Dubien. “Some even speculated 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 [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” – Editor’s note], the prospects of improving Russian-European relations and implementing the Minsk Agreements are not feasible in the near future.
“And many in Europe find it disappointing,” said Dubien. “Although there are still chances for improvement, the Crimean incident came as a very unpleasant surprise, which provoked tensions.”
At the same time, Trenin believes that Paris “will 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.
Despite the numerous assumptions that Putin will try to persuade Hollande to lift the European sanctions during his visit, it won’t be the key topic, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.
“Russia’s relations with the West and France, in particular, are not limited to lifting sanctions,” he told Russia Direct, pointing out that the agenda of the Middle East and Syria is more relevant for bilateral relations and Putin should primarily discuss this with Hollande.
Dubien agrees that the anti-terrorism agenda could bring the 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.
What will be top priority is French-Russian bilateral relations, which are not in the best shape, according to Dubien. At the same time, he admits that they are not worse than the relations with other European countries. This is a good sign, especially given the 2017 presidential elections in France. 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.
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, Lukyanov explains.
“The EU, which the officials planned to establish, failed as a geopolitical project, and Russia does understand it,” he said. “The EU may be transformed, but the countries that comprise it, will remain and Russia will have to deal with them somehow.”
Lukyanov argues 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, Dubien warns, “The perception that a new French president will be pro-Russia is wrong.”
“It is unclear whether Sarkozy will win, given the fact that we have a strong rival, who is more popular, Alain Juppé, the former Prime Minister and ex-Foreign Minister,” the expert explains. “And he 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 for Russia.