Russia and France: a Dialogue on Strategic Perspective

_ Ivan Timofeev, PhD in Political Science, Director of Programs at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Head of “Contemporary State” program at Valdai Discussion Club. Paris. March 4th 2016. Published for debate. The position of the author may not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Continental Cooperation.

In late 2015, a team of French senators issued an extensive report titled “Relations with Russia: Searching for a Way out of the Political Deadlock” (Les relations avec la Russie : comment sortir de l’impasse?) based on the outcomes of discussions with participation from French and Russian diplomats, politicians, experts and civil society leaders. The paper not only outlines the key shifts in Russia-France relations in the wake of the Ukraine crisis but undeniably goes beyond the boundaries of the current situation. On the one hand, the authors uncover the deep-rooted causes of the drastic deterioration in the dialogue between Russia and the West, while on the other they suggest solutions for handling the most complicated issues and defining the basic principles to be employed by the West for interacting with Moscow.

The report insists on the need to approach Russia simultaneously along the tracks of containment and dialogue, with economic and force-based containment needed to make the Kremlin duly honor the opinions of Paris and other European capitals. At the same time, the isolation of Russia cannot be driven to the cutoff point, since otherwise no solutions could be found for acute problems and the climate would only worsen.

In fact, the combination of containment and dialogue seems typical of many European countries and the United States, while the carrot-and-stick proportion tends to alter depending on the circumstances. The French approach appears quite balanced, although a Russian reader is sure to see in it many unsavory judgments. But the chosen drive toward a solution does deserve close attention. Of course, the arguments of the French senators should come under rigorous scrutiny, both by appraising their proposals on the dialogue and their vision of drawbacks in the bilateral relationship, since both areas appear full of nuances and details.

Prior to analyzing the paper, it appears sensible to make clear that the containment-and-dialogue mixture is fraught with major weaknesses. Of course, the French attitude should be accepted understandingly, as it has been shaped by the utterly negative media background on Russia, the approaches of French allies, and the unpredictable future. Admittedly, some role to this end can be ascribed to the harsh moves made by Moscow, many of them a product of circumstances.

Nevertheless, the duality of containment and dialogue seems more tactical than strategic, since this policy fits with an episodic interaction of tackling matters of a general nature or prevention of further escalation. This approach would hardly untangle the entire complex of problems underlying the Ukraine crisis. And it would hardly help stop the snowballing stream of threats and challenges of the new kind, including those emanating from the Middle East. What relations between Russia and France as well as other Western states need is a more ambitious goal, i.e. a drastic rearrangement of the European security system with the participation of all interested parties. As of today, such a statement may appear utopian, since its implementation would imply extremely lengthy and arduous efforts. But in order to avoid further decline and additional crises, the work must be launched jointly and straightaway. To this end, France with its political clout, diplomatic traditions and longstanding experience of cooperation with Russia, might become an essential partner. And the report offers several constructive points that could make up the basis for progress along these lines.

Primarily, this relates to the appeal to integrate Russia into the new system of the Concert of Europe, a step seen by the authors as something extremely urgent to be implemented through a series of steps.

First, the French senators suggest developing a distinct and comprehensive strategy toward Russia, which is needed to make Western policies stable and predictable, for Russia as well. The strategy should be based on partnership in a multipolar world, restoration of mutual trust, and adherence to strategic independence both for Russia and France. At the same time, the approach should hinge on a proper understanding of the Russian mentality and strategic culture.

Second, the authors would like to resume the Europe-wide debate on security and economic development on the continent, which essentially means a return to a discussion of the basic principles for cooperation in Europe similar to the 1975 Conference that could be propped up by the OSCE. The attitude seems levelheaded and constructive. On the one hand, the world has definitely changed since the times of the Helsinki Conference, while on the other it appears hardly proper to reject the immense baggage of the OSCE and the available institutional structure. The authors believe that the dialogue should result in a palpable agreement, which appears quite rational despite future hurdles in its negotiations and implementation.

Interestingly, the report sees a major cause of the current European crisis in the failure to closely integrate Russia into the European common space for security and development. Paris has been launching such initiatives since early 1990s but these are still to be realized, among other things because of objections from allies including Washington.

In our opinion, this experience must be heeded in a most meticulous manner. Negotiating the new principles for security and cooperation in Europe, much work should be done about the U.S., NATO and EU states that are most unfriendly as far as Russia is concerned. Sometimes they are pretty radical and too emotional, with a major negative role played by the old and new stereotypes, fears and contradictions. Russia often pays in kind only to make things worse. However, these countries are not likely to grasp the new principles in absence of a dialogue and compromise.

Third, the authors call for assisting the implementation of the Minsk accords and the Ukraine settlement, which at first glance seems tactical but is in essence a strategic proposal. With the Ukraine situation unresolved, any sort of substantive agreement on security in Europe appears unlikely. Besides, the solution will hardly involve only the implementation of the Minsk accords. Hence, the authors’ commitment to a consistent and sensible settlement of the Ukraine crisis for the common good should be welcomed by the Russian side.

Fourth, the paper suggests exchanges with Russia within a wide spectrum including social, cultural, educational and scientific contacts, as well as an economic partnership because the sanctions have badly damaged both sides, with many areas of cooperation unrelated to Ukraine shut down. The authors are quite right suggesting that the situation should be rectified, with a sizable push given to broadest possible interaction in the educational, trading, economic and humanitarian spheres. Visa lifting must remain the strategic goal of the process, while softening of the visa regime is to be set as an intermediate objective.

Fifth, Russia and France must closely cooperate in countering international terrorism, the overall task placed among the priorities for a future European security system. At the same time, bilateral cooperation seems by no means less important, because both Russia and France have been in the terrorists’ crosshairs. The countries have accumulated unique practices for neutralizing this threat, so cooperation in counterterrorism should be decisively separated from problem areas of the bilateral dialogue.

Along with the above issues, the authors reasonably propose to initiate cooperation between the EU and EEU, underlining that the latter extensively employs the practices of European integration, while the potential for bilateral cooperation appears fairly high. In fact, the advancement of this potential is hampered by the web of political differences including the Ukraine crisis. However, the Eurasian Economic Union is neither a Russian project nor the new USSR but is rather a state-of-the-art international organization with equal roles for all members, although Russia is its unquestioned economic leader. Cooperation between the two unions may open basically new opportunities for the EU-Russia bilateral format because the positions of any member state can be averaged by compromises with other participants, which implies a more balanced and depoliticized dialogue with outside actors like the European Union.

Some of the ideas presented in the report appear debatable.

First of all, there seems to be every ground to contend with the perception of Russia as a country building its foreign policy predominantly on force and using interventionist policies. In fact, this is the premise employed to maintain that containment must make an intrinsic element in dealing with Russia. The cause could be found in the fact that containment has been never taken off the Russia agenda, which provided Moscow with grounds to believe that Westerners regard force as a key component of international relations, with containment retained in their foreign policies. The expansion of NATO, use of force in Yugoslavia, intervention in Iraq and the Libya operation – all these were seen exactly through the abovementioned lens, although Russia and France criticized the American intrusion in Iraq. The same applies to the hybrid forms of interference, with Russia frequently presented as the hybrid war initiator. At the same time, Moscow is sure that these methods have been long used by the West in the post-Soviet space. The statement is also arguable but both stereotypes keep escalating mutual mistrust.

After the Cold War, Russia and the West regrettably failed to resolve the “security dilemma,” so the bilateral relationship did not obtain an effective institutional foundation despite the dramatic decrease of the war threat. We faced a paradox: when institutions seemed plentiful and Russia was either represented at many platforms or cooperated with them, the arrangement would not handle and sometimes would even exacerbate the problem of uncertainty and mistrust. The expansion and strengthening of NATO with Russia kept on the outside was also an error that has damaged the OSCE. The Western strategy appears quite understandable, since NATO is an institutionalized structure. And expanding such an organization is much easier than erecting one from the ground level. At the same time, bureaucratic rationality could not resolve the “security dilemma” in relations with Russia.

At the subconscious level, the Western approach was permeated with containment, which has been only proven by a series of conflicts – from Georgia to Ukraine – to fully unveil the problem.

It seems to imply that the current bet on containment and balance of forces may achieve only tactical results, with decades and centuries required to build cooperation on these principles. In short, si vis pacem, para bellum, the paradigm we may employ in years to come. However, something should be done, as containment may go either up and down, while the common task is apparently prompting the need to check escalation and change over to the downward trend. As a minimum, we could start with the prevention of dangerous incidents in air and at sea, and to this end France could use its clout in the Euro-Atlantic institutions.

No doubt, the report contains other debatable or unpolished points, one of them the Russian peace enforcement operation against Georgia in 2008. The authors interpret the five-day war as an example of Russia’s interventionism and a key stage in the evolution of Moscow’s foreign policy paradigm.

The construal appears erroneous. First of all, the report omits the reference to Heidi Tagliavini’s Commission that provides a fairly unbiased assessment of the events in question. The French senators forget that the fighting was unleashed by the regime of Mikheil Saakashvili who is in fact currently non grata in his homeland. Prior to the war, Tbilisi had been militarizing the country for several years running. One may debate nonstop Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the Kosovo precedent does make the matter at least polysemantic. However, one thing is quite clear – Russia cannot be qualified as an aggressor because it was only trying to preserve the status quo.

More than that, despite the direct clash, absence of diplomatic relations and preservation of the red lines in bilateral relations, Russia and Georgia have managed to gradually restore the dialogue. Permanent interactions on the foreign ministry level are underway (the Karasin-Abashidze Commission) to visibly minimize the damage inflicted by the conflict. Georgia has returned to the Russian market, while Moscow has understandingly responded to Georgia’s association with the EU, successful domestic reforms and diversification of foreign trade. Tbilisi’s partnership with NATO is still an irritant, although causing no aggravations. Finally, of major significance seems the support of the political dialogue on the level of foreign policy experts (the Istanbul Process), universities and the clergy, which implies that the consequences of political predicaments are reparable. And France did a lot to quell the crisis at its peak, while Russia and Georgia later did a lot to minimize the damage.

The Russian reader would hardly remain listless when the report touches on counterterrorism in the Chechen Republic. The French version in the spirit of the alleged interventionism is absolutely unacceptable, since both wars were tragic results of the state of post-Soviet Russia, its grounds existing long before the Soviet Union disintegrated. The collapsed statehood in early 1990s only unveiled the deep-rooted problems. Both wars definitely caused mass violations of human rights, but dozens of thousands had to leave the republic before the war, leaving behind their homes and property and sometimes losing their lives.

Even more important appears the fact that by late 1990s, Chechnya had been developing into a safe haven for international terrorists. And the French authors should remember that the second Chechen war began with the intervention of several thousand thugs in the neighbor Dagestan. The Russian forces fought back shoulder to shoulder with the Dagestan militias, while later Chechen groups joined the fighting on the side of the federal troops. One can hardly imagine the response of Paris to intrusion of heavily armed gang as large as a full-scale brigade under the banners of radical Islam. Or imagine a series of callous terrorist acts similar to hostage-taking at the Dubrovka Theater and the Beslan secondary school, or cold-hearted bombings of residential buildings, subways, airports and railway stations. (Unfortunately, such cases do become a reality, while Russia as any other country understands the feelings of the French and is eager to render every support.) The response would have been extremely tough, and Russia would have given France full-scale political support. Today, the situation in Northern Caucasus is far from ideal, but it was the place where the proliferation of international terrorism was checked.

The report also seems to exaggerate some aspects of society-to-state relationships in Russia. The Orthodox Church has positively revived after the breakup of the USSR, but its role should not be overestimated. Many in the EU do regard the EEU as a counterbalance to the Eastern Partnership, but the integration attempts began back in the 1990s with absolutely different motivation. Russia has been quite active in reforming its armed forces, but apart from acquiring better readiness, they have largely shed hazing, slavery and organizational defects that had been bitterly criticized by the West. Russia in partnership with China, India and other countries has been really trying to set up new international institutions, but the move only reflects the existing misbalances in the global economy and partiality in world politics. Russia is obviously working to diversify the gas pipeline routes to Europe in order to bypass crises in relations with transit states, but this is being done also to protect Western consumers. Russia is definitely sensitive about its contribution in defeating fascism, but critics of the USSR policies have never been persecuted in Russia, while the report insists otherwise. Moreover, many documents have been unclassified in the recent years to provide the historians with an opportunity to analyze the WWII events, frequently to confront the official versions used in Russia and in the West.

There are many more issues that require extending an open and fair-minded interaction of Russian and French experts. The absence of contacts begets a lack of knowledge to let in stereotypes moving in both directions. And there are as many stereotypes and prejudices in the Russian debate on the Western doings, which are being run in the media and become entrenched in the public opinion to later affect the political decisions. The situation would hardly suit both sides, while the French report offers a suitable launching pad for a dialogue that should go ahead with as many participants as possible.

Source: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/

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