Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 206

After nearly a year in which he studiously avoided visiting France, Russian President Vladimir Putin this week wound up a triumphant visit to Paris which enabled him to boost ties with European leaders and repair previously strained relations with the French government. The visit included both an EU-Russian summit meeting and bilateral talks between top Russian and French officials. France, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, had been in bad standing with the Kremlin because of strong French criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya. But that is not to say that French leaders were uninterested in a visit from Putin. As one European newspaper put it, French President Jacques Chirac had endured ten months of rejected invitations from the Kremlin–not to mention the spectacle of Putin meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton three times and paying friendly official visits to both London and Berlin–before the Russian president was finally welcomed in the French capital (Irish Times, October 31). Against this background French leaders apparently made sure that the bloody conflict in the Caucasus would not ruin the mood: The issue was said to have barely been broached during Putin’s meeting with Chirac.

Indeed, some Russian newspapers apparently reveled in what they suggested was one of Putin’s major diplomatic victories. They argued that Europe’s mounting energy crisis–and the concomitant imperative to procure additional supplies of gas from Russia–had “brought Russia and the European Union closer together” and served to quiet European criticism of the war in Chechnya (AFP, October 31). At least some French papers apparently agreed. The daily Liberation ran a story headlined “Mission Accomplished for Putin in Paris,” which said that the Russian president had “burnished the coat of arms of Russia without giving away any ground on Chechnya.” Le Monde likewise observed that Putin had made no concessions on the Chechen war. It reported that the ex-KGB agent had once again ruled out political dialogue with the Chechen leadership–people he described as terrorists and kidnappers “up to their elbows in blood.” Noting that “Russian authorities intend to conduct a dialog only with interlocutors chosen by themselves,” the newspaper rightly observed that this policy “reduces the chances of a political dialogue [over Chechnya] to zero” (Reuters, November 1).

That the war in Chechnya might prove to be a more contentious issue during Putin’s visit to Paris was suggested by the publication of two human rights reports on the eve of his arrival in France. Both the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Human Rights Watch reported new findings condemning the brutality of Moscow’s military operation in the Caucasus. FIDH, in a report entitled “Chechnya: a year of unpunished crimes,” charged that torture was becoming more generalized in Chechnya while the number of detention camps operated by Russian authorities there was actually growing. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, published a report based on interviews with thirty-five former detainees in Chechnya. It detailed a “ghastly cycle of abuse” at the hands of Russian servicemen which includes electric shock and other forms of torture, systematic beatings, arbitrary imprisonment and frequent extortion of money from prisoners’ families” (Reuters, Los Angeles Times, October 26). With such abuses in mind, French intellectuals launched several protests against Moscow’s human rights record in Chechnya and several hundred demonstrated in central Paris on October 29, the day of the Russian-EU summit talks (Reuters, October 31).

European concerns over Chechnya were expressed in the joint EU-Russian statement issued at the conclusion of the summit talks. It consisted of but one sentence, however, and was crafted to avoid ruffling Russian sensibilities. That sentence stated the two sides’ agreement “on the necessity and the urgency of seeking a political solution while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” The emptiness of the statement was exemplified not only by Putin’s rejection, mentioned already, of talks with the Chechen leadership, but also by the fact that Moscow has pledged to European governments for a year now that it would seek a political settlement of the conflict. There has been no move in that direction. Putin added insult to injury during a press conference with Chirac and the president of the EU Commission by denying that the war in Chechnya continues today (Irish Times, October 31).

Considerations of Chechnya aside, it was difficult to tell what sort of practical impact this week’s Paris talks will have. With regard to the EU-Russian summit, the two sides apparently looked into an EU proposal for a sharp increase in European energy imports from Russia over the next twenty years. Russia already provides 20 percent of the gas and 16 percent of the oil consumed in the EU, and Russian and EU leaders are apparently looking to double that amount over the next two decades. A working group will reportedly look at the plan, which would involve billions of dollars in European investment in Russia (Reuters, Irish Times, October 31).

In addition to the energy proposal, the joint statement said that the two sides had also reached an agreement to begin discussions on how Russia might contribute to the EU’s new common security and foreign policy, including the planned creation of a military rapid reaction force. Moscow has repeatedly expressed interest in the proposed 60,000-strong European rapid reaction force, but has urged that this force aim at advancing the development of an independent European security identity rather than be seen as an augmentation of NATO military power. The secretary of Russia’s increasingly powerful Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, suggested in Paris that Moscow will continue to look at the rapid reaction force in this light. He implied that Moscow sees the force as a possible counterbalance–one involving non-NATO member states–to the Western alliance (Reuters, November 1).

European leaders were said to be heartened, meanwhile, by Putin’s claim that Moscow is prepared to embrace EU expansion plans. The Russian president also expressed his acceptance of the notion that EU expansion could ultimately bring trade and other benefits to Russia as well. He said that EU trade now accounts for 35 percent of Russian trade and that this figure could rise to more than 50 percent after the EU has absorbed members of the former Soviet bloc (Reuters, October 31). In the past Russian leaders have been more ambivalent about EU enlargement, seeing it as preferable to NATO expansion but nevertheless as a possible threat to Russian economic and political interests.

Putin’s visit has apparently also had a salutary effect on French-Russian ties. Chirac and the Russian leader suggested that the two countries share common views on a number of international issues, including aspects of the Middle East peace process, the settlement of the Kosovo conflict, and the need to promote a multipolar world order (Reuters, October 31). Moscow and Paris will attempt to boost relations further during a visit to France by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in December, Putin said on October 30. France lags behind the United States and Germany in terms of direct investment in Russia, but Chirac suggested that the situation should start to turn around thanks to agreements reached with Putin on bilateral projects ranging from high technology to aerospace and aviation (Reuters, October 31). That France’s business elite may not have been quite so enthusiastic about the immediate prospects for Russian-French economic interaction was suggested, however, by the fact that Putin’s October 31 meeting was attended by only about half of the fifty business leaders who had been invited (Segodnya, November 1).

In addition to the security issues already mentioned, Putin’s visit to Paris afforded the Russian leader a fresh opportunity to highlight the relative commonalty between Russian and European views on U.S. missile defense plans and the threat that they pose to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This is a theme Moscow has introduced frequently over the past year to exploit differences between Washington and its NATO allies on the issue, and Putin made it clear in remarks just prior to his arrival in France that it would be featured in his upcoming discussions. Indeed, in calling for preservation of the ABM accord, Putin was quoted as saying that Moscow believes “the position of Europe, a position of principle, on preservation of the foundations of the international security, may play a very positive role.” Putin’s remarks were borne out in Paris when he and Chirac together confirmed their adherence to the idea that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty must be preserved (Russian agencies, October 26; Reuters, October 31).