#geopolitical fridays: France, Russia and all that

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Pictured above: French President Francois Hollande shakes hands
with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a summit on the Ukraine
crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters


On 12 November, when Paris was still enjoying the illusion of normality, I attended The Russian-French Forum “Schism or Reconciliation?”, a conference organised by the Institute Jean Lecanuet, IRIS, the Observatoire franco-russe, the Senatorial Group of French Russian Friendship, and hosted by the French Senate.

What struck me was the urgency and fervor with which former French
government officials, parliamentarians, civil servants, experts and
pundits in attendance pleaded for a speedy rapprochement with Russia –
even before terrorist violence had struck at the heart of the French
capital.

From all the panels (you can have a look at the programme here),
I detected nary a voice of caution – Justin Vaïsse, director of the
Policy Planning staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs came
closest by reminding the audience that despite the fact that Russia was a
player to be reckoned with, it was still guilty of violating
fundamental treaties and principles of international law, and that its
recent pronunciations and acts with regards to nuclear weapons
were more than worrying. But the overwhelming consensus seemed to be
that Russia had been badly treated since the end of the Cold War, that
one could not expect Russians to be anything other than Russians, and
that a new basis for a closer relationship between France and Russia
urgently needed to be established.

 I agree on the need to work with Russia on issues of mutual
interest. I also concede that European-Russian relations might have
suffered from the drastic reduction of personnel allocated to this task
on the European side. But I rather resent French echoes of a familiar
Russian tune, a tune that portrays Russia as the eternal victim of
western schemes. It is a warped world, in which integration into a
European security architecture is seen as loss of sovereignty,
consultation is perceived as “Diktat”, and in which strategic
cooperation equals encirclement.

Under Putin, a major shift occurred  in Russia’s foreign policy and in her relationship vis-a-vis
its own population. What has appeared to many as a necessary
reaffirmation of the Russian state, externally and internally, is in
many ways a response to a policy failure of massive proportions: Ever
since Perestroika, the Soviet Union, then Russia, had been trying to
catch up economically with the West as a way to achieve strategic parity
in the economic, military and political field – to no avail. Economic
transformation, which would have allowed Russia to compete eye to eye
with the West and China simply did not happen, for a variety of
reasons. 

Russia’s response to this conundrum has been outlined in a brilliant paper*
by Stephen R. Covington, who serves among others as International
Affairs Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) at
Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), read NATO military
command. In “Putin’s choice for Russia” published August 2015, Covington describes two simultaneously occurring Russian movements – one from frozen to liquid, what concerns Russian foreign policy, and one from liquid to frozen, regarding
Russian domestic policy. Both phenomena need to be taken into account
in isolation and in combination when trying to make sense of Russia
today.

From frozen to liquid: Russia has grasped that its current
strategic environment is not playing to its strengths. Its response is
therefore to undermine the existing European security architecture by all means available (emphasis mine). A little flavour as to what this might entail can be read here.
But it is important to stress that the Russian deconstruction arsenal
is in constant evolution, and that whatever works will be used. To sum
up: Russian strategy is to be a rule-breaker, in order to become a
rule-maker imposing a new security system more conducive to Russian
interests.

From liquid to frozen: At the same time, a strategic campaign is waged internally to prevent any domestic change, de facto
freezing Russian political life. Russia’s governing circles are
obsessed with potential popular protest and interpret any internal
dissent as the precursor to colour revolutions, instigated and
orchestrated from abroad.

So what does this mean for France, a country which can look back on a
long history of alliances with Russia? It can safely be argued that if
not for Russia taking heavy casualties in both WWI and WWII, the destiny
of France would have been quite different – witness one of the Paris
Metro stations named “Stalingrad.” Both countries are united by a
certain instinctive anti-Americanism, and they need each other to play
in the league of the “bigs”, to play themselves up, if you will.

Memories
of past alliances and plans for future coalitions aside – In Russia,
France is dealing with a country that is willingly uprooting the
architecture of a security system that lies at the foundation of
France’s position in the world. And which is putting a lid on democratic
politics at home. Caution when dancing with the Russian bear.

* Covington, S.R.  Putin’s Choice for Russia. Cambridge, Mass.: Report for Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 2015.

Johanna M

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