20 years under Putin: a timeline

The terrorist attack on the Paris headquarters of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing social and political reaction to this tragedy in Russia make an in-depth analysis of current bilateral relations between Russia and France particularly timely. In this article, Tatiana Stanovaya and Ksenia Semenova take a closer look at Russia’s new policy of double standards.


In early January, French president François Hollande (right) became the first European leader to call for the sanctions on Russia to be lifted, if there is progress in the peace process in Ukraine. There are other politicians and businessmen in France who are interested in continuing their businesses with Russia. Photo: kremlin.ru


On January 7, 2015, France’s attention was riveted by a horrifying tragedy when three armed gunmen attacked the editorial staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for having published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. In all, twelve people died in that terrorist attack, which was one of the deadliest in the country since the 1960s and has come to be called “a French September 11.”

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the common goal of fighting terrorism and Islamic radicalism helped to improve relations between Russia and the West, a shift that the Kremlin leadership still keenly remembers. Following the January attacks in Paris, Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed his profound condolences to the people of France, stating that he “strongly condemned the cynical crime and reiterated Russia’s readiness to continue active cooperation in combating the threat of terrorism.” It is obvious that Putin was not just abiding by the official diplomatic etiquette. Improving the relationship between France and Russia will allow the Kremlin to attain certain goals. Putin is aware that by mending relations with one of the leading EU countries, he will be able to weaken the West’s unified position toward Russia, whose economy has lately been under considerable duress.

Even before the January attack, the strained relations between Russia and France were showing signs of improvement. In early December, after a two-day trip to Kazakhstan, French president François Hollande made an unplanned stopover in Moscow, where he met with President Putin at Vnukovo Airport—the first European leader to visit Russia since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis. In early January, on the eve of the new round of peace talks, President Hollande spoke in favor of lifting sanctions against Russia, stating that President Putin “has already paid dearly enough” for his actions. According to Le Parisien, the French president believes that Putin’s statements can be trusted. “Mr. Putin does not want to annex eastern Ukraine. I am sure. He told me that. What he wants is to remain influential. He does not want Ukraine to become a member of NATO. Mr. Putin does not want to have NATO’s command outposts at Russia’s borders,” Hollande told the newspaper.

In the meantime, the Kremlin is putting a lot of effort into consolidating its influence on European policy by meticulously and successfully developing cooperative ties with far-right movements in France and other European countries, largely by offering them generous financial support. Interestingly, in November 2014, the French ultranationalist Front National (FN) received a 9-million-euro loan from the First Czech Russian Bank after many futile efforts to find sponsors in other countries. In return, Putin’s friends in Europe have been vocally supportive of Russia. In March 2014, a group of European political experts and politicians visited Crimea during its independence referendum, which allowed the Kremlin to formally meet the requirements of the process of land annexation. Among others, the group included Mateush Piskorski, general director of the European Center for Geopolitical Analysis; Fabrizio Berta, a member of the right-wing Forza Italia Party; Silvio Berlusconi, Forza Italia leader and Putin’s long-time friend; Márton Gyöngyösi, a member of the Jobbik Party, the Movement for a Better Hungary; Johann Gudenus, a member of the Freedom Party of Austria; and Louis Bernard de la Barre de Danne-Pontvianne, a member of the French Front National. The epithets used by mass media to describe these parties range from “ultranationalist” and “neo-fascist” to “racist,” “anti-Semitic,” and “homophobic.”

It is difficult not to notice the similarities in the approaches employed by Russia and France in their efforts to build and develop mutually profitable bilateral relations, since both countries actively resort to the policy of double standards.

Putin’s most charismatic fellow ideologist in Europe, however, has been Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s FN. She has long been Putin’s outspoken admirer, calling him a patriot and a guardian of the Christian heritage of European civilization. In an investigative article entitled “The Tsar System,” Libération newspaper exposed the Russian agents of influence in France and stated, “The love of the Front National towards Putin raises a lot of suspicions about Russia’s financing of the former, which they receive by sending their party delegates to Moscow.” Admittedly, Marine Le Pen denies that these funds are a payment for her support of the Kremlin’s policies; however, the history of members of other far-right European parties supporting Putin cannot be ignored. For instance, Bela Kovacs of the Hungarian Jobbik Party was accused of having received funds from the Russian intelligence service, which prompted Hungarian authorities to ask the European Parliament to suspend the official immunity granted her by her membership of that body. Similarly, Tatjana Ždanoka, a member of the Latvian Russian Union (Latvijas Krievu savienib), has been accused of being an agent of influence for Russia.

There is another important area of cooperation between Russia and France that Putin can maneuver to his advantage as well. It is the area of business. The situation surrounding the Mistral-class warship contract is one of the most debated topics at the moment. France previously built two Mistral-class warships for Russia but suspended their delivery in the wake of the recent Western sanctions. Should France default on its contractual obligation to Russia, it will face a significant blow to its financial status and reputation. According to many reports, Russia plans this February to file legal claims against France for its failure to fulfill the deal, and to seek a hefty fine that could amount to billions of euros.

In addition to the Mistral deal, France shares a number of other important economic interests with Russia. These include energy giants such as Total, Électricité de France, and GDF-Suez; French aircraft manufacturer Airbus; and retail group Auchan. These companies appear to be set to condone the Kremlin’s questionable policies in order to maintain their cooperative relationship with Moscow. In early September, top officials from these companies met with Russian State Duma Speaker Serghei Naryshkin, who was visiting Europe on special invitation from Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe president Anne Brasseur, despite the fact that his name was on the sanctions list of Russian officials banned from entering the European Union. The meeting was devoted to discussion of the long history of cooperation between France and Russia and the lifting of the sanctions against Russia.

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is quite telling in that it exposes the attitudes and behaviors of both sides. For example, although Russian authorities have officially expressed their support for France during these trying times, many pro-Kremlin politicians and state-run media companies have conveyed a different take on the situation, which can be succinctly summarized by one phrase: “Blame yourself.” While expressing his condolences to France, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, made a point of calling on the international community “to protect freedom of speech without double standards.” In the meantime, Russian state-owned media channels have fallen silent about the threat by Roskomnadzor (the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications) to launch criminal prosecutions against mass media companies that publish the Prophet Mohammed cartoons. Nor are they reporting about the suddenly robust activities of Christian Orthodox radicals who are openly supporting the terrorists who slew the French journalists.

In an interview with the state-run media channel Russia, Jean-Maurice Ripert, the French ambassador to Russia, said that he “was emotional but not surprised” by the outpouring of sympathy expressed by dozens of Russian people who came to the French embassy in Moscow. Perhaps he did not know that some of them came to support France with the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” and were instantly detained by the police for the unauthorized meeting. Perhaps he did not want to know about it.

It is difficult not to notice the similarities in the approaches employed by Russia and France in their efforts to build and develop mutually profitable bilateral relations, since both countries actively resort to the policy of double standards. While Russia is aware of its own flaws, it is ready to disregard those of France, and vice versa. Despite their cooperation in the areas of combating Islamic radicalism and furthering the interests of their large businesses, closer relations between Russia and France do not make the issue of Russian aggression in Ukraine less pressing. Moreover, another critical issue is the deepening distrust of the West toward Putin and Russia in general. The Kremlin is making another strategic mistake in hoping to use new leverage provided by closer ties with France to influence the European Union. Similarly, France will also be making a mistake by following Moscow and using the double standard policy, thus expanding the boundaries of acceptability and letting the Kremlin run unchecked.