After a lengthy period in which the attention of the Kremlin and of Russian diplomats was directed in large part away from the West, President Vladimir Putin put the focus back on Europe over the past fortnight as he completed a successful four-day visit to Paris. Putin’s visit included summit talks with European Union leaders on October 29 aimed at boosting trade relations between Russia and the EU and, particularly, at advancing plans to increase Russian energy exports to European countries. But Putin’s visit was also intended to mend fences with France, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, and with that goal in mind Putin held bilateral talks with French leaders and delivered an address to French businessmen. Relations between Paris and Moscow had been on the slide for nearly a year because of French criticism of Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya. To demonstrate its irritation with France, Putin had pointedly avoided traveling to the French capital. The Kremlin boycott prevailed despite repeated invitations from French President Jacques Chirac and despite the Russian president’s scheduling of numerous high-profile meetings with other Western leaders.
Chirac and other EU officials made certain that Chechnya did not ruin the atmosphere during Putin’s Paris visit, however. An EU-Russian joint statement made nary a mention of the conflict in the Caucasus, while news reports suggested that the bilateral Russian-French talks had also steered around the subject. The avoidance of recriminations over Chechnya reprised a pattern which has been evident over the past year, one in which leading European governments have gradually abandoned their criticism of the Russian war effort and focused instead on improving relations with the recently installed Putin administration. The latest whitewash of the Chechnya issue came despite the release of two reports on the eve of Putin’s Paris visit, each of which described in harrowing detail the continuing brutality exhibited by Russian troops in the Caucasus republic. French human rights groups also tried to force discussion of Chechnya during Putin’s visit, apparently to no avail.
Considerations of Chechnya aside, it was difficult to assess the long-term practical impact of Putin’s Paris visit. During 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. The joint EU-Russian statement, meanwhile, said that the two sides had also reached an agreement to begin discussions of 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 force, but has insisted that it should further European independence from the United States rather than augment NATO military power.
Putin’s visit apparently had the desired 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. In addition, the two men confirmed their adherence to the idea that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty must be preserved. A number of European governments share Russian concerns about U.S. plans to develop a national missile defense system, and Moscow has tried to use the issue as a wedge to divide the United States from its European allies.