Scandal in Paris
Vladimir Putin risks losing his closest Western ally over Syrian war.
With U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping up pressure on Russia, French President Francois Hollande was always President Vladimir Putin’s closest friend.
It was, after all, the Frenchman who stopped off to talk to Putin in Moscow at the height of military actions in the Donbass in December 2014. A year later, following the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris, the French president chose Moscow as the place to talk common counterterrorism strategy. In the economic sphere, not a single French company has left Russia during the crisis, according to Pavel Chinsky of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce.
Yet today, Russian-French relations are in an uncertain state, threatened by the dramatic cancellation of Putin’s Oct. 19 state visit to Paris.
The state visit was a year in preparation. Aside from negotiations on Syria in the Elysee Palace, the Russian president was due to open a new extravagant Russian Orthodox Church on Quai Branly, close to the Eiffel Tower. Putin was also scheduled to pay a visit to a Russian avant-garde exhibition in the Pompidou Center, which had been donated to the museum by Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin.
But it was not to be. After Moscow’s veto of a French resolution at the United Nations,which called for an end to the bombing of eastern Aleppo, it would have looked indecent for Hollande to meet with Putin. The French president had little choice but to back out of the meeting, according to political analyst Vladimir Frolov.
France re-evaluated and downgraded the terms of the visit. Hollande would still talk Syria with Putin at the Elysee. But the French president would not participate in the opening of the Russian cathedral. In an interview on French television on Oct. 10, the French president publicly intimated that Russia could be responsible for war crimes in Syria.
In Russian eyes, all of this amounted to humiliation, says political analyst Mikhail Troitsky. So Moscow cancelled, or, rather, “postponed” the visit. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted Putin had “no problems” with the cancellation.
Soon enough, several French politicians came to the Kremlin’s defense. Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that Hollande should “naturally” have welcomed his Russian counterpart. Thierry Mariani, who controversially led two delegations of French parliamentarians to Crimea, told Russia Today that Hollande was the “stooge of American politics.”
The incident is unlikely to have any significant impact on the Syrian crisis or Russia’s relationshiop with the West. “The situation simply can’t get much worse,” explains Frolov.
“The war in Syria has been a source of tension between Russia and France since the early 2010s, well before the conflict in Ukraine,” says French political scientist Laure Delcour. But, unlike the war in eastern Ukraine, these tensions did not immediately translate into significant deterioration in relations Last year’s Russian military intervention in Syria changed this.
In a parliamentary debate on the Syrian crisis, the British government backed the French demarche in the strongest terms. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Russia was “in danger of becoming a pariah nation.”
Russia’s public poise doesn’t appear to be too threatened by developments, however. If anything, it looks as if Moscow is upping the ante. On Oct 11, Reuters reported that Russian jets had resumed heavy bombing of eastern Aleppo.
The New Cold War is now no longer a lazy figure of speech, says political expert Andrei Kolesnikov: “The Russian president is scheduling a Cold War of a new type, and distinct from the previous incarnation, when both sides kept nuclear weapons but understood the impossibility of using them.”
One other possible entry in Putin’s schedule are Normandy format talks on Ukraine.
It is yet to be seen if they will go ahead.
The French president had little choice but to back out of the meeting, according to analysts.