French President Jacques Chirac’s high-profile, three-day visit to Russia this week appeared to signal a further improvement in ties between the two countries, but intensive talks involving him and President Vladimir Putin nonetheless revealed continuing differences on some key international and bilateral issues. For Moscow, the greatest success of the visit was probably a joint statement that embodied in several important respects long-standing Russian criticism of U.S. missile defense plans and of the Bush administration’s disparagement of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Moscow could draw less satisfaction, however, from disagreements between the two countries that continued to arise over Chechnya, over the Kremlin’s assault on press freedoms in Russia, and over policy with regard both to the Balkans and to NATO enlargement. For all of that, Chirac’s criticism of Russia in these areas was notably muted, suggesting that the French leader remains intent on improving relations grown quite tense in recent years thanks to vigorous French criticism of Russia’s war in the Caucasus.
Indeed, despite the success of this week’s talks, relations between Putin and Chirac may remain the least friendly of those between Putin and any major Western leader. It is worth remembering in this context that Putin pointedly avoided visiting Paris in the months after his election victory last year, even though he launched himself into an at-times-frenetic diplomatic schedule that took him to a number of other European capitals. Despite reported pleas from Paris for a meeting, Putin did not travel to the French capital until late October, when he attended an EU-Russian summit and, at last, held bilateral talks with the French government. Those talks were an apparent success for the Kremlin. Despite the publication just before Putin’s arrival of several human rights reports condemning the brutality of Russian military operations in Chechnya, Chirac reportedly hardly broached the subject with his Russian counterpart. Meanwhile, the two sides used the Putin visit to highlight what they said was their common approach to a number of international issues, and focused particularly on their joint concerns about U.S. missile defense plans. Both men confirmed their adherence to the idea that the ABM treaty must be preserved (see the Monitor, November 3, 2000).
This week’s talks followed what was in some respects a similar script. The two sides issued a three-page joint statement on strategic security, which, while it did not specifically mention U.S. missile defense plans, did state that all currently functioning defense agreements and treaties much be strictly observed. That obvious reference to maintaining the ABM treaty was bolstered by other statements in line with Moscow’s thinking on the subject, including one saying that strategic equilibrium may not be replaced through a system that “opens the way toward a new rivalry,” and another calling for an international conference on rocket technology transfers–a project Moscow has long pushed. Chirac, meanwhile, was quoted as saying that Moscow and Paris also share common views on a number of international issues, including the importance of creating a “multipolar world system, [and] joint responsibility for security and responsibility for the situation in the crisis areas of Europe.” The joint statement led Vladimir Lukin, a State Duma deputy and a former ambassador to Washington, to say that, while relations between Russia and France have not become “radically closer,” they have “converged.” In that Lukin was quoting the French and Russian leaders themselves. In their remarks to the press on July 2 Chirac said that he and Putin had achieved “considerable convergence” on many issues and Putin said that their views “almost coincided.”