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Sarkozy's Russian Gamble

Kenneth R. Weinstein

The news from France is always interesting, especially under President Nicolas Sarkozy. He is the most pro-American French leader since the days of the Fourth Republic and last year returned his country to NATO’s military command structure. On the world stage, only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been more articulate in warning of the profound global threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

All this makes it only more astonishing that Mr. Sarkozy is at the same time cozying up to Russia. On Monday he will host President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a summit in the Normandy beach resort of Deauville. Particularly worrisome is the meeting’s focus on a new security architecture that would, as the Kremlin noted, allow the three nations to “develop their partnership for forming a common European security and cooperation space.”

This cooperation is not just idle talk. France has already announced his intent to sell as many as four (as yet unbuilt) Mistral warships to help modernize Russia’s navy. Moscow has acknowledged that the 26-hour war with neighboring Georgia two years ago exposed weaknesses in Russia’s tactical arsenal, and that the large Mistral helicopter carriers would have enabled them to achieve their military objectives in minutes rather than hours. It was Mr. Sarkozy himself, then acting as European Union President in August 2008, who negotiated the cease-fire agreement with Moscow, a cease-fire the Georgians claim has been frequently violated by Russia.

Given that Moscow would most likely deploy the Mistral amphibious assault vessels against the weak republics of the “near abroad,” such as Georgia, President Sarkozy’s determination to go through with the sale is troubling.

France’s behavior is also puzzling given Russia’s role as Iran’s premier enabler. Moscow’s strategic perspective vis-a-vis Tehran seems to have little in common with France’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Sarkozy would not be the first French president to play the Russian card. Charles de Gaulle already dreamed of a Europe united “from the Atlantic to the Urals.” In expelling the NATO headquarters from Paris and withdrawing from its integrated military command, de Gaulle declared his independence from the Cold War consensus led by Washington. Mr. Sarkozy might well be contemplating a mirror image of the recent past: In the absence of strong leadership in Europe from the Obama administration, it might well suit France’s historic temperament to shift the balance of power eastward.

But Nicolas Sarkozy was elected on quite a different platform. Prior to assuming the presidency, he had been a leading critic of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies in the “near abroad.” Mr. Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, now rumored to be leaving the government, sought to set aside France’s historic practice of realpolitik in favor of an emphasis on human rights in French foreign policy. The last thing Mr. Putin’s Russia needs is diplomatic validation for its expansionist habits.

President Sarkozy cannot be unaware of these dangers, and thus far, has governed French foreign policy with a some measure of courage. He might see himself as a bridge between the Atlantic and the Urals, exercising some restraining influence on a Russia still in post-Soviet recovery. Or he might have something altogether different in mind.

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