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Monday, 29 May 2017

Putin Near Paris

President Putin is today due to visit France, where he will open an exhibition on Franco-Russian relations over three centuries and have lunch with President Macron in a house once lent to Peter the Great of Russia during his study-tour of western Europe.

Macron will go into the meeting with a list of conversational objectives, all of which will be to some extent constrained by his commitment to the European Union. The French president's smirk during last week's Trump tirade against those members of NATO who under-provide for their defence spending will have been copied into Putin's file; together with a reminder that France [unlike the UK] has a truly independent capability to deliver nuclear weapons. Britain's nuclear missiles are under joint American-UK control; France's are entirely at the disposal of M Macron. This alone makes France a 'power', and the commitment that Macron has expressed to a closer EU must be set alongside that independent capability. France is also one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, which alone will justify the two presidents comparing their positions on the major global issues that have recently been on the Council's agenda, and those that might appear there soon.

France was, in effect, the colonial power over Syria from 1919 to the nineteen-fifties, under the Franco-British carve-up of the Arab lands that were separated from the Ottoman Empire as a result of the First World War. More recently, France has played little active part in the awful war in Syria, as the Russian commitment to the Assad regime has been increasing. France has huge background knowledge and understanding of the country, and the opinion of the French establishment [of which Macron is a selected product] may be helpful to Putin as he looks through the murk that is deepening in Syria as Trump appears to be more willing to take more military action against Assad. France's role in helping to keep the EU states [and NATO, as such] out of that conflict can be useful to Putin; and reinforcing the pressure for a benign neutrality of 'Europe' towards Russia will be well worth the visit.

Closer to home, for Putin, are the questions of Ukraine and Crimea. France has supported the NATO and EU policies of utter opposition to the recent Russian seizure of the Crimea, including the imposition of sanctions. The French economy has suffered slightly from the loss of trade with Russia that has resulted from the sanctions; and gained no benefit from them. There may be time in the two presidents' wide-ranging discussion to exchange hints on how that standoff could be resolved.

Russia regards Ukraine as an integral part of a single homeland. Kiev, now the Ukrainian capital, was the centre of the first city-state that grew into Russia. Moscow [the Grand Duchy of Muscovy] is a much more recent development; and deep in Russian history and sentiment are the sense that Moscow and Kiev belong together in a single state. The fact that the people who speak Ukrainian were abominably brutalised during Stalin's collectivisation of agriculture made many of them willing, at first, to welcome the German invaders in 1942 as liberators. Within a year most people recognised their mistake: the racist brutality of the Nazis exceeded  even what Stalin's police had imposed, and thus the eventual Soviet victory was welcomed; at first. Then the Communist regime imported ethnic Russians who had been made homeless by the war to rebuild the shattered industrial cities, especially in the Donbas, adding linguistic complexity to the situation within the Soviet Republic of Ukraine [which, along with Belarussia was a given a separate seat in the UN, alongside Russia, as an inducement for Stalin to join the organisation]. The separate soviet republics had no independent power anyway, until the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics simply fell apart when Gorbachev lost his grip. Then the former soviet republics gained international recognition as sovereign states, as that term was generally understood in international law. Colonel Putin and his colleagues in the KGB watched, aghast, as the Baltic states, the Balkan states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and even Putin's former workplace East Germany joined NATO and applied to be admitted to the EU.

While Belarus was consolidated as a puppet state to Russia, Ukraine made attempts to establish itself as a significant, independent European power; but fell prey to corruption, faction and alien interference. Russia would like the Ukraine to form a close federating with Russia, accepting Russian foreign and defence policy. France has joined with its allies in opposing Russian attempts to push that situation along. There is every reason to expect that Putin will push Macron to take a more pragmatic view of the Ukrainian [and thus the Crimean] situation than have his predecessors; and it would be interesting to know what quid-pro-quo Putin is able to offer France on that delicate topic.

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