The three-day summit held this week in Paris between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has exceeded all expectations, marking a turning point in a deepening Franco-Russo alliance. In an abrupt turn away from past human rights criticism, Sarkozy is making a clear move to get ahead of Germany and Italy in order to make France the preferential partner of Russia in the EU.
In between the visits to art exhibits at the Lourve and saccharine statements of mutual admiration, the summit was underscored by several major business agreements, including the controversial decision to sell to Russia not just one, but four Mistral class assault ships for $2 billion -- the first sale of its kind from a NATO member in history.
Some observers are dismissive of the arms sale given that the ships are stripped of military hardware ("It's an empty hull, just the same as a civilian ferry," said one ambassador to Charles Bremner at the Times), but Russia's neighbors are very worried - especially given a Russian admiral's comment that these kind of amphibious vessels would have permitted the 2008 invasion of Georgia in just 40 minutes instead of two days. NATO's reaction has been to urge calm, while at the same time announcing military exercises over the Baltic Sea.
On the other end of business, French energy titan GDF-Suez signed a deal with Gazprom for a 9% stake in the Nord Stream pipeline, which, as Ariel Cohen points out, "follows a close pattern in Russia's diplomatic playbook: Moscow grants selective access to Russian energy resources as a reward for political cooperation--and often times lobbying on behalf of the Kremlin." The GDF-Gazprom deal also seemed oddly timed, as though the Russian state-owned energy company were still coasting on 2008 gas prices, instead of the current reality of contract renegotiation and spot market pricing.
While the fast friendship and personalism between Sarkozy and Medvedev are important, the motives behind the alliance have been obscured (for example, it is difficult to believe that anyone expects progress toward Iran sanctions). Taking the advice of Jean-David Levitte, the key architect of France's new Russia policy, Sarkozy is acting in concert with other European leaders to make a public show of support and preference for Medvedev over Vladimir Putin, and thereby encourage change from within the government in Russia.
In reality, it is the perfect example of how well the ruling diarchy works in Russia to disaggregate critical EU states and sow divisions on the continent. With frequent speeches about democracy, anti-corruption, legal nihilism and rule of law, Medvedev represents everything that Europe wants Russia to be on the surface, without actually having to pursue any such ideals in practice. For many European leaders, the Medvedev brand provides a convenient excuse - the easiest way to launder their pandering to Moscow for multi-billion-euro arms and energy contracts without sacrificing the pretense of values.
In a recently published book by Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the problems with this "bilateralization" of Russia's relations with Europe is closely examined. He notes that "Russian companies enable the Kremlin to engage in a policy of state capture abroad by increasing its political influence with government officials, business leaders, and political parites in a wide array of European countries. (...) For Berlin, Paris, and Rome, commercial pragmatism tends to trump any geostrategic calculations, thus reducing the effectiveness of the EU's long-term political impact."
This does not necessarily mean that confrontation is the preferred policy. France should be an ally and a friend to Russia, and like everyone else, the country is perfectly free to purchase energy resources and sell arms under rules established by international treaties. However a good relationship with Russia shouldn't require the conspicuous abandonment of democratic values and the subjugation of other EU members and allies to Moscow's newly declared sphere of influence--such concessions are not good for European interests in the long term.
There are fears that Sarkozy's current rhetoric toward Russia is reaching an embarrassing level, drawing comparisons with the former Chancellor of Germany Schröder, who took a job with Gazprom upon leaving office. During his banquet speech in Paris with Medvedev, Sarkozy showed that he had fully swallowed the bait of Russian reform: "Your attachment to the rule of law, to the respect for legality, for judicial security, for the defence of human rights greatly helps the rapprochement between our nations."
When we hear this kind of statement on the exact same day that a cop who murdered a journalist is released from prison after serving only three months, how can we take Sarkozy seriously on Russia ever again?
Friendships and cooperative alliances are good, but totally losing sight of reality is another matter. And after a show of obsequiousness like this, it will be hard to feign surprise over the next disappointment in the relationship.