Russia-France: The New Alliance That Could Change Europe

After standing alone in Europe for nearly a century, Russia seems to be developing its first real European partnership in generations. France may seem an unusual choice, but the interests of the two nations could intertwine with surprising elegance, and there is a long history of French-Russian involvement. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is in Paris this week meeting with French Paris Nicolas Sarkozy. The pair's much-publicized jaunts about Paris seem designed to demonstrate the two leaders' personal friendliness.

The two have reached a number of agreements. France is selling Russia four amphibious assault ships. The largest-ever arms sale by a NATO member to Russia, the deal is still relatively small--but carries huge political significance. Americans, who typically see Russia through the lens of the long-ended Cold War, forget that Russian military strength has loomed over Europe since the Great Northern War of 1700. Sarkozy seeks to demonstrate that Russian military strength is no longer a threat to Europe. Similarly, Medvedev secured a massive contract of Russian natural gas to France, deepening Western Europe's reliance on Russian energy. Business leaders from both countries are also meeting in Paris, highlighting the trip's economic emphasis.

Perhaps the most striking sign of an emerging Franco-Russo axis is the wave of reports that Russia may finally agree to sanctions against Iran. Months of U.S.-led international courting for Russia's United Nation vote on sanctions have been fruitless. There's no guarantee Russia will follow through, but this may be its firmest commitment yet. The sanctions announcement was made not by a Russian official but by Sarkozy, an indication of the French president's apparent role in securing Russian cooperation. The natural gas deal may have been a factor, as Iran is the world's second largest producer after Russia and a potential competitor for contracts.

Sarkozy has been courting Russia for some time. During Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, which threatened to entrench an isolated and violent Russia against a suspicious Europe, Sarkozy met Medvedev ahead of Russian withdrawal. In the French city of Evian, Sarkozy avoided the hard-line hawkishness sometimes expressed in U.S. politics towards Russia, instead emphasizing shared economic and security interests with Russia. The leaders ultimately called for incorporating Russia into European security pacts, which, like NATO, were originally designed for the explicit purpose of opposing Russia. Whether or not such an agreement ever materializes, the suggestion alone marked a departure from the West-against-Russia attitudes that have defined European politics for so long. Medvedev's trip to Paris demonstrates that the Evian accords were more than just passing rhetoric.

So why is Russia cozying up to the land of Napoleon? As is often the case with sharp political reversals, economic necessity drives Russia's pursuit of a partnership with France. Russia has a vast labor supply equipped for factory labor and energy production but a global economy that is uninterested in factory goods or energy. Within Russia, unemployment has gradually ballooned to 9.2%, with manufacturers cutting jobs for 21 consecutive months. If sustained unemployment has severe political implications in the U.S., it is absolutely dire in Russia. In the country's sweeping central plains, plant closures or unemployment often lead to demonstrations that can be difficult to control. In recent weeks, local police refused to quell furious demonstrators in Irkutsk, forcing the Russian military to intervene. In Samara, police shut down roads for fears that angry autoworkers would cause violence.

French companies, which command massive manufacturing contracts, can help. In November, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met "on a regular basis" with officials from French automaker Renault about increasing production in Russia's economically troubled--and politically turbulent--central valleys. That Putin, no humble man, would appeal to a French automaker speaks to Russia's dire need. Strengthening diplomatic ties with France, and ensuring that the relationship emphasizes trade as Medvedev is doing this week, could do much to stabilize or even liberalize Russia in the long term.

An enduring French-Russian partnership could realign European politics. As with the U.S. and China, economic interdependence can be a deeply stabilizing force, but it can also complicate diplomacy. The U.S., wary of upsetting an important trade partner, has softened criticism of China's human rights record, all the while hoping that an ascending Chinese middle class will liberalize the country's politics. As France and Russia become more enmeshed, French politicians will have more power to exert against Russian civil rights abuses, but may be less willing to do so. Other Western European states, willing to confront Russia but wary of angering the French as well, may hesitate to intervene. The partnership also threatens to alienate Eastern European states, which have positioned themselves as allying with Western Europe against Russia. Maybe so, but as France and Russia become closer, there are clear benefits for the U.S., too. Pulled closer to the West, Russia will have to consider global opinion on decisions such as sanctions against Iran. If French diplomacy can turn Russia towards the West, it will have succeeded where decades of American hardliners have failed.