Michel Barnier, French Foreign Minister, was in Moscow the other day, having talks with various people and opening a new building for a French high school. There was much talk of the ancient Franco-Russian amity, Diderot in Catherine the Great’s court (where the unfortunate man caught cold and died), Russophile French writers, Francophile Russian writers and so on.
Curiously, there was no mention of a particularly important episode in Franco-Russian relations, the first Great Patriotic War of which Russians still speak with justified pride. In the late autumn of 1812 Napoleon, after a series of swift victories (and a series of treaties and alliances beforehand) took Moscow as the Russian army retreated.
While the French army occupied the deserted city, a still unexplained fire started and the place burned down. Napoleon found that his army was over-extended and started a painful retreat back to western Europe. Harassed by the Russian peasants who formed themselves into guerrilla bands, pursued by the regrouped Russian army, the Grande Armée suffered grievous losses.
The Russian army, on the other hand, pursued the French across Europe. By spring 1814, with Tsar Alexander I at the head, it was entering Paris. No mean achievement that. (Of course, it must be noted that it then went back and spent thirty years fighting the Chechen leader Shamil in the mountains of the Caucasus. Plus ça change …)
Anyway, none of this was mentioned. Instead, M Barnier talked much of the future Franco-Russian amity. It is, apparently, part of the French world view that there should be many centres of power, not one. Fair enough, but somehow, when it comes to real negotiations, European foreign policy gets forgotten and it all becomes French foreign policy.
M Barnier is very anxious that certain East European states do not get too uppity with Russia any more than they do with France. He intends to go to Kiïv later this week to tell the newly sworn-in President Yuschenko this.
“We want to tell the Ukrainians what I already told Poland last week: you have to respoect Russia. We can’t have tensions between Ukraine and Russia, because we need Russia.”Who we are, is not clear, but presumably the knowledge that Russia possesses a great deal of gas and oil, cannot be too far from M Barnier’s mind. It is good to know that countries fighting for freedom and democracy will always have a stauch ally in France.
Actually, President Yuschenko or President Kwasniewski do not need lessons from French politicians on Russia and how to deal with it. Yuschenko is going to Moscow immediately to discuss various problems. What M Barnier proposes to do, should either of those countries, or any other post-communist state does not respect Russia, is rather a mystery.
Still, this is all of a piece with west European attitudes to that much-vaunted European concept of freedom. President Putin’s policy is ever more autocratic and his interference in Ukraine, as we have pointed out before, was the first, so far unsuccessful, step in a new power game that he intends to play in the former Soviet Union. It would, perhaps, be more sensible and more ethical, to wait a little before rushing in there and trying to force various countries to submit to this.
Another problem is that as between the two, Putin, seems to be leaning towards Germany. There are stronger economic ties there; Germany buys far more of the gas and oil; and Putin speaks German, having learnt it as a serving KGB officer and is a personal friend of Chancellor Schröder’s.
The French government is trying hard to create various structures and links but as one expert at the French Institute for International Relations said, “they don’t have that much to talk about”.
On the other hand, Ivan Safranchuk at the Moscow-based Centre for Defence Information (guess who they are reporting to), thinks that
“Germans are regarded as hard-working and efficient. But the French have strategic vision in the same way that Russians do.”Largely, it is a vision that involves close relations with some very nasty dictators and selling arms to them. These dictators usually happen to be anti-western, which may suit the Russians. Does it really suit the French?