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1 Mar, 2010 15:18

France and Russia search for common ground over European security

President Dmitry Medvedev is on a 3-day trip to Paris, where he will meet with his counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, to discuss pressing security issues, including Iran and European defense.

In October 2008, Dmitry Medvedev pleaded Russia’s case for a sweeping change to the way Europe defends its territory.

Speaking at the World Policy Conference in Evian, the Russian president, making reference to the just-finished Georgian conflict, introduced his idea for convening a new conference on security.

“Recent events in the Caucasus have demonstrated that it is impossible to appease or contain an aggressor based on bloc approaches,” Medvedev said, in obvious reference to NATO, which Moscow believes is doing more to threaten the peace in Europe than to ensuring it.  “Irresponsibleadventurous actions by the ruling regime of a small country (Georgia in this particular case) are capable of destabilizing the situation in the world.”

Medvedev then asked the rhetorical question, which echoed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s no-holds-barred Munich speech of the year before: “Is this not proof that an international security system based on unipolarity no longer works?”

The Russian president will certainly enjoy a sympathetic ear to such sentiments when he sits down in the Elysee Palace with French President Nikolas Sarkozy, who is also fond of delivering stern lectures over American “hyper power.”

In January, the French leader delivered a much-anticipated critique of Anglo-Saxon, laissez faire market principles, which have played no small role in turning the United States into the economic powerhouse it is today.

“By placing free trade above all else we have weakened democracy, because citizens expect from democracy that it should protect them,” Sarkozy told a somber audience of bankers, CEOs and world leaders at the Davos Summit, most still reeling from the global financial crisis. “From the moment we accepted the idea that the market was always right and that no other opposing factors need to be taken into account, globalization skidded out of control.”

France, which has a tradition of strong labor unions and generous employee labor packages (which includes a 35-hour work week), has long been on the receiving end of US and British criticism as to the way it chooses to do business. Sarkozy’s speech marked a reversal for the political conservative who had pushed hard for more liberal labor markets during his presidential campaign. The financial crisis, however, has caused France’s economic policies to veer to the left.

Thus, given their similar positions on the question of multipolarity – both in the field of military and economic structures – Medvedev and Sarkozy are practically guaranteed to entertain some truly interesting ideas over the course of the next three days.

“France's principled stance on this matter is very important to us,” Presidential aide Sergey Prikhodko said. “On the whole, the need for such a discussion is not denied.”

Russian-French arms deal irks US

France has added to the merriment of the Year of Russia celebrations taking place across the country by its willingness to sell up to four sophisticated Mistral-class warships at about $700 million dollars apiece to Russia. The deal, which Medvedev is expected to sign into force during his visit, will represent the first major military sale by a NATO member to Russia, significantly beefing up the Russian Navy's capabilities. This sale, however, has raised some eyebrows across the Atlantic.

During his trip to Paris in early February, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed his concerns to President Sarkozy about the sale. The French president defended the deal in his meetings with Gates, reported RIA Novosti, arguing that Russia is a partner.

“One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don't treat it as one,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying. The deal, which will certainly provide a nice boost to the French economy, also suggests that Paris is sympathetic to Moscow’s complaints over NATO’s eastward slide.

Meanwhile, the French Ambassador to Russia Jean de Gliniasty stressed that France was open to military-technical cooperation with Russia.

“Russia is a partner for us,” de Gliniasty told Interfax. “This being so, no taboos or bans exist in matters of military-technical cooperation.”

On other fronts of bilateral military cooperation that suggest France and Russia are on the road to a rejuvenated relationship, French Naval Chief of Staff Admiral Pierre-Francois Forissier will visit the Admiral Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg on March 5, an academy source told Interfax on Monday.

“The admiral will meet with Academy head Vice-Admiral Adam Rimashevsky and tour the Academy, which has been training naval officers for 183 years,” the source told Interfax.

“Contacts between the Russian and French navies acquired new dynamics in recent years. These contacts are an organic part of the bilateral relations at large.” 

Sanctions for defiant Iran?

As veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council – together with the United States, the United Kingdom and China – France and Russia will be discussing ways to address the question of Iran, which has been actively pursuing a nuclear program.

Tehran insists that it is developing nuclear power as a means of providing safe and clean energy to its people, but some countries, notably the United States and Israel, argue that Tehran is really attempting to develop a nuclear weapon.

France and Russia had agreed to a plan by The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that envisioned the two countries accepting batches of Iran’s low-enriched uranium, enriching it to 20 per cent, and then sending the “safe” uranium back to Iran in the form of fuel rods, where it would be used for medical research.

In September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed willing to go along with the plan. But his comments came at about the same time that Iran admitted it had a uranium enrichment plant built into a mountain in the holy city of Qom. Analysts say that Tehran only went public with news of the facility when they began to suspect that the United States was aware of the plant and ready to go public with the information.

On February 10, the Iranian president surprised the international community when he announced to a huge crowd in the center of Tehran that Iranian scientists had enriched uranium to 20 per cent, thereby snubbing the international community.

“I would like to say to you that the day before yesterday the enrichment of fuel at 20 per cent started,” Ahmadinejad announced on the 31st anniversary of Iran's revolution, in Tehran. “I would like to notify you and announce that… our chief nuclear negotiator announced that the produce of fuel at 20 per cent started under the watchful eye of our scientists.”

Nuclear experts say that weapons-grade uranium requires at least 90 per cent enrichment, but achieving 20 per cent is a key step towards weapons grade.

“Iran did not make use of this opportunity [to have its uranium enriched by France and Russia], so at this stage the international community, including Russia, is discussing tactical measures, including Security Council sanctions,” Ambassador De Gliniasty said.

Following Tehran’s successful enrichment, Russia, the United States and France sent the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency a letter expressing their concern over Iran's latest move.

“If Iran proceeds with this escalation, it would raise fresh concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions, in light of the fact that Iran cannot produce the needed nuclear fuel in time” to refuel the research reactor, said the letter, the text of which was made available to RIA Novosti.

The letter to IAEA head Yukiya Amano described Iran's move as “wholly unjustified, contrary to UN Security Council resolutions.”

Russia, a permanent member of the 15-member UN Security Council, has long supported a peaceful resolution to the Iranian problem. But following Iran’s enrichment announcement, it seems the Kremlin may be losing patience with the Islamic republic.

Iran should improve its cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog and new sanctions are not excluded if Tehran fails to fulfill its obligations, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman told reporters on February 15.

“On the subject of sanctions, Russia’s position remains unchanged. Russia still believes that Iran should more actively and broadly cooperate with the IAEA and other countries,” spokeswoman Natalia Timakova told reporters. “If these obligations are not fulfilled no one can exclude the application of sanctions.”

Moscow and Paris will probably find common ground on Iranian sanctions, but the question as to how much and when may remain open for debate.

In conclusion, it seems that the ground is set for a mutually advantageous meeting between the French and Russian presidents. Both nations, given their mutual preference for multilateral solutions, seem “psychologically” prepared to at least open discussions on the framework of a new European security structure; both nations have clearly lost their patience with Iran, and Russia possibly more so than France. After all, it should be remembered that the United States has plans to build an anti-missile shield in Romania to defend Europe against any possible attack from Iran. Such a system, which Moscow rightly views as a potential security threat, would force Russia to respond with its own expensive offensive or defensive system. Finally, concerning Russia’s decision to purchase French amphibious warships, Sarkozy will certainly relish the opportunity to boost French production, especially with the global economic crisis showing no sign of letting up anytime soon.

Robert Bridge, RT