Scan­dal in Paris

Vladimir Putin risks los­ing his clos­est Western ally over Syr­ian war.

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK - Ola Ci­chowlas­chowlas@ime­ and Mikhail Fish­man­man@ime­

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.

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