The window of opportunity to get on better with Moscow

At the NATO summit in London on 3 and 4 December 2019, there was a lot of talk about Russia and relatively little about Kosovo and Afghanistan, two missions where, acting outside its initial framework, the military structure of the North Atlantic Treaty has not been particularly successful.

Established in 1949, NATO succeeded in its initial objective to protect Western European countries from Soviet predation. 

Since the 2008 Georgian crisis, and more so since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, NATO member countries bordering Russia (Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland) have made no secret of their concern about Russia’s intentions towards them, real or imagined.

They believe that the Kremlin seeks to limit their sovereignty by all means: political intimidation, economic pressure, cyber-bullying, military intrusion – whether naval (submarines in the Baltic Sea and along the Norwegian fjords) or airborne. 

They believe that Vladimir Putin is pursuing a covert project of “finlandising” them, a term coined during the Cold War following the Helsinki-Moscow Treaty of April 1948. They are even considering the possibility of a Russian military invasion of all or part of their territory. As a result they requested, and obtained, the presence of soldiers from the three major NATO military powers (the US, France, the UK).

Their alarm is probably exaggerated, because, in his own country, Vladimir Putin is more of a centrist than an extremist. 

On May 2, 2014, after 31 pro-Russian militants perished in an arson attack in Odessa, he could very well have seized upon this pretext and taken over that port city – a city which is emblematic of Russian revolutionary history. No one in Ukraine would have had the means to prevent it.  And no one in the West would have had the will to do so. But he did not.

It is true that Putin once said: “Anyone who has not been saddened by the disappearance of the Soviet Union has no heart!” But we always forget to quote the second sentence of his formulation: “Whoever intends to restore it has no reason!”. 

Nevertheless, the Poles and the Baltics have a history with Russia that justifies their suspicions. NATO is therefore performing its proper role when, for reassurance, it conducts joint military exercises in these countries.

But if we take a step back, both spatially and temporally, if we look strategically to the future, there is something anachronistic about the current Europe-Russia confrontation. All you have to do is spend a few days in this brilliant capital that Moscow has become, to converse with a few students or young entrepreneurs, to understand that Russians feel culturally European.

To snub Russia, to reject it into the arms of the Chinese, is a cardinal strategic mistake on the part of the Europeans. 

The sanctions that the European Union (EU) has imposed on Russia are harmful to both. Objectively, they only benefit the Americans and the Chinese. It is not true to say that Putin’s obsession is to break up the EU when the Russian central bank currently prefers the euro over the dollar to build its foreign exchange reserves.

This is something Emmanuel Macron has understood. In spite of the grumbling of French neoconservatives aligned with American foreign policy, the President of the Republic has decided to enter into an independent strategic dialogue with Russia.

Does that mean we should disarm when facing Russia? Certainly not! The Russians respect strength. It is no coincidence that de Gaulle made his historic visit to Russia (where he proposed “détente, understanding and cooperation”) in June 1966, just when the French nuclear strike force had become operational.

Between 9 December 2019 and 9 May 2020, an exceptional window of opportunity for the Franco-Russian relationship opens up.

On December 9, a summit on Ukraine will be held in Paris in “Normandy” format between the French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders. The aim is to reach a final settlement of the conflict in Donbass. Kiev and Moscow have already made gestures of goodwill. Will Zelensky grant a general amnesty and cultural autonomy to the Russian-speaking Donbass rebels? Will Putin give Ukrainian ships access to the Azov Sea in return? It’s the only reasonable deal.

Once this issue is settled, Macron and Putin could make great strides in the resumption of Franco-Russian co-operation and celebrate the new friendship on May 9 in Moscow when commemorating the 75th anniversary of the victory against Nazism.

Is this all just a dream? No. It’s Realpolitik.

This article was first published in Le Figaro.

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