Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 12

With only days remaining before U.S. President-elect George W. Bush’s inauguration, Moscow moved this week to solidify its relations with France, a key European country which, like Russia, has had sometimes tense diplomatic relations with Washington. Efforts by these two countries to sustain a warming of relations, which began with last year’s visits to France by both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, continued this week during French Defense Minister Alain Richard’s visit to Moscow. Richard did not meet with Putin, but his two-day stay in the Russian capital did include talks with several key Russian foreign and security policymakers, including Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov, First Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and Richard’s own opposite number, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. The talks appear to have proceeded in a friendly and constructive manner, one which reflected Richard’s characterization of Moscow as a leading strategic partner of France and the European Union.

Richard’s discussion agenda appears to have been a broad one. Russian Defense Ministry officials had been quoted on the eve of his arrival as saying that the Russian-French discussions would center on Russian cooperation with NATO and the European Union and developments in the Balkans. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said after his meeting with Richard yesterday that the two had discussed European security issues, EU-Russian defense ties, French-Russian cooperation in the Balkans and broader global problems. Ivanov, who underscored that this week’s meetings reflected a reactivation of Russian-French relations on a broad front, also said that Moscow and Paris shared “very close positions” on a host of international issues.

But the topic both sides appeared to consider most important during these talks was the challenge Washington is likely to pose to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by forging ahead with the deployment of a national missile defense system. Richard and his various Russian interlocutors made it clear that the two countries have much in common in their joint opposition to the U.S. plans. In that context, the influential head of Russia’s increasingly powerful Security Council, Sergei Ivanov (no relation to Russia’s foreign minister), was quoted as saying that he and Richard had discussed “joint efforts by our countries in maintaining the treaty on Anti-Ballistic Missiles.”

Ivanov also appeared to underscore what he said was Washington’s failure so far to explain either to its NATO allies or to Moscow the details of its missile defense plans. His remark that Moscow would “carefully examine” any forthcoming U.S. proposals in this area and “conduct consultations with the French side taking maximum account of the positions of both sides” seemed aimed at highlighting France’s own differences with Washington on the ABM and missile defense issues. Ivanov’s allusions to Washington’s omission may have simply been an acknowledgment of the fact that the Bush administration is only just taking office now. But it may also anticipate one element of the diplomatic attack Moscow will probably launch against the Bush administration’s missile defense plans: namely, that Washington is moving in a unilateral fashion which ignores the concerns of its European partners.

Aside from the fact that Paris and Moscow will consult on the question of missile defense, Richard and his Russian counterparts reached one other agreement which may not sit too well in Washington. According to Sergei Ivanov, Russia and France will participate in an independent probe–one which might involve the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency–into the health and environmental after-effects of NATO’s use of depleted uranium munitions in the Balkans. The United States may view French support for a Russian push to launch such an inquiry with some disfavor because Moscow clearly hopes to use the depleted uranium issue as a platform both to renew its attack on NATO for the alliance’s 1999 air war in Yugoslavia and to demonize the United States for its leading role in making use of the depleted uranium munitions. Moscow appears to hope that a campaign of this sort will further sharpen tensions in the Western alliance and might also undermine U.S. prestige in the Balkans, a region in which Russia desperately wants to reestablish its own influence.

Richard, not surprisingly, also discussed issues related to defense cooperation. Among other things, he reportedly laid out controversial European plans for the creation of a 60,000-strong European military force, and said that Russia was among the countries which the EU might invite to take part in its operations. The issue of the independent European force is important to Moscow. Russian officials have suggested that they would support formation of the new force as long as it contributes to the creation of a distinct European defense identity–that is, one separate from and not so dependent on NATO. Moscow has also suggested that it would look disfavorably on a European force closely integrated with the NATO command structure and serving to strengthen the alliance. Washington takes the opposite view.

During Richard’s talks with both First Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov–who oversees defense industrial issues within the Russian government–and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, the two sides reportedly agreed to boost bilateral military-technical cooperation. Few details were provided, but Klebanov told reporters that the two countries intended over the next several months to work out a long-term program of cooperation in this area, one which would ultimately see them engaged in joint projects aimed at producing and selling military hardware to third countries. In particular, Klebanov said, the two countries intend to create a special commission which will be tasked with questions related to the modernization and development of new naval weaponry (AFP, Russian agencies, January 17; Reuters, January 16-17).

Whether Richard’s visit to Moscow marks a true turning in bilateral relations remains to be seen. Paris had been among the harshest European critics of Russia’s military operations in Chechnya, and friction on this score had led Putin to pointedly avoid visiting Paris during trips to Europe he made early in his presidency. Relations between the two countries showed some signs of warming, however, when the Russian president did finally travel to France for last November’s EU-Russian summit. France’s criticism of the war in Chechnya was notably muted on that occasion, and–no surprise, perhaps–appears not to have played a significant role in this week’s Russian-French talks (see the Monitor, November 3, 2000).

France’s downgrading of the Chechen situation appears to open the way to closer relations between two countries which do indeed share common views on a number of international security issues. This commonalty of views has been manifested in the degree to which both Moscow and Paris have supported Iraq in UN Security Council deliberations and, as was seen this week, in their joint opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. In addition, France, like Russia, would like to see Europe act more independently of NATO and the United States in the security sphere. But equally important, perhaps, is the fact that France is also the European country which has most enthusiastically embraced the notion that U.S. global domination poses a threat to international security. This particular theme appears not to have been sounded publicly during the talks in Moscow this week, but common Russian and French support for the formation of a “multipolar” world order would appear to provide a potentially powerful reason for the two countries to upgrade their bilateral ties.