Recently, NATO and the European Union have made significant efforts to engage with Russia as an important partner for both France and the wider EU. Thomas Gomart, director of the Russia/Newly Independent States Center at the French Institute of International Relations, analyzed relations among the EU, NATO, and Russia, at a presentation hosted by the Carnegie Moscow Center. Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin moderated.

French Positioning

  • France’s evolving role: In 2009, France entered into full membership in NATO’s integrated military command structure for the first time in more than forty years, leading to a dramatic change in its positioning within NATO, explained Gomart. With the presidency of the G-8 and G-20 this year, France now holds a key position in a number of international organizations.
  • Lack of vision: Even as France’s international role is increasing, the country currently lacks the kind of holistic vision for the Euro-Atlantic area that existed under President François Mitterand in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gomart argued. However, there is certainly a political wish and ability to adapt to the present-day context.

EU, NATO, and Russia

Relations with Russia are very important to France, and it is also in France’s interest to establish better relations between Russia and EU and NATO, said Gomart. The current positive atmosphere between Russia and the West—with less anti-Russian rhetoric in the West and diminished anti-Western sentiment in Russia—offers an opportunity to move relations forward.

  • Russia and EU: The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, made the EU more transparent and effective. In the wake of the Lisbon Treaty reforms, Gomart explained that the inevitable rapprochement between Russia and the West is already underway, without europeanization of Russia or “russification” of Europe. However, there is also a risk of joint-marginalization of Russia and EU with the development of U.S.-China relations.
  • Russia and United States: The New START Treaty is a crucial step forward in U.S.-Russian relations. Under this treaty, the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers will be reduced by half.
  • Russia and NATO: Gomart argued that NATO does not pose a threat to Russia. NATO has significantly improved its relations with Russia in recent years, including gaining Russia’s support for NATO efforts in Afghanistan, opening the possibility for missile defense cooperation, and halting NATO expansion in the post-Soviet space. This more positive relationship creates opportunities to allocate political resources—otherwise dedicated to relations between Russia and the West—to more global challenges. Gomart suggested a new paradigm is emerging that could allow Russia and NATO to gradually integrate their missile systems into a truly cooperative missile defense space that spans the Euro-Atlantic region.
  • Main challenges in post-Soviet space: Potential instability in Georgia and Moldova could quickly derail the rapprochement between Russia and the West, Gomart warned, just like the Georgian war in 2008. There is still some potential for Ukraine to prove a stumbling block in Russian-Western relations, as it did during the European gas crisis of 2009, for example. At the same time, improved relations between Russia and Poland have created a very positive atmosphere. Gomart recommended that Russia replicate its approach to Poland with its estranged Baltic neighbors.

The French Perspective

  • Bilateral relations with Germany: Relations with Germany are one of France’s top priorities within the EU. According to Gomart, it is not the euro that is causing tensions within the EU, but rather public debt and markets that play on differences between European states. Germany, with its strong annual economic growth and its role as a significant exporter, has taken the lead on financial security and other major issues within the EU, Gomart said. This makes strong French-German relations central to improving governance in the EU.
  • Bilateral relations with the UK: France sees the United Kingdom as its other key ally in the EU, Gomart said. The two countries are both nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council. Together, they shoulder 50 percent of NATO’s defense spending in Europe and 65 percent of military resource spending. After strained relations between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, bilateral relations have taken a turn for the better. Gomart called the November 2010 Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty a huge step forward for the two countries. Under the treaty, France and the UK will implement a number of security initiatives, including the installation of a joint maritime task force and cooperation on next-generation nuclear weapons.

Outside the Euro-Atlantic Area

  • Iran: France sees Iran as a threat, which has led President Nicolas Sarkozy to focus on Iran’s nuclear program. According to Gomart, it was unfair of President Sarkozy to single out Iran for nuclear deterrence as per the prevailing nuclear doctrine a single country cannot be singled out or held responsible for such actions. Iran continues to be a point of tension in Russian-Western relations and Gomart argued that Iran should provide security guarantees to ease international concerns.
  • Afghanistan: The NATO-led war in Afghanistan has reached a deadlock, Gomart said. The stability of this region is important for security in Central Asian countries, especially those that border Afghanistan, like Tajikistan. Additionally, Russia is concerned about the evolution of events in Pakistan because of the spill-over of the displaced Taliban from Afghanistan.
  • Recent events in Middle East: The recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries have proven difficult for traditional powers like the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and the UK to react to. Both Tunisia and Egypt are very important allies for France; in Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean, established in 2008, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was Sarkozy’s co-chair. France’s close relations with the former regimes of both Tunisia and Egypt are causing some problems. French diplomats must now account for the fact that the French minister of foreign affairs, who has since been replaced, was on holiday in Tunisia when the protests began, while the French prime minister spent his last Christmas vacation in Egypt.

Looking Ahead

  • A new entente: A new constructive partnership among Paris, Moscow, and Berlin will help better engage Moscow in Europe, Gomart argued.
  • Nuclear disarmament: Nuclear disarmament will not be a straightforward process; there are a wide range of views on the topic across the Euro-Atlantic area. For example, Turkey views the Iranian nuclear threat very differently from the other countries. Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy would like to see all nuclear weapons removed from European soil, while France, the UK, and the United States continue to structure their security policies around nuclear weapons. For those three countries, arms control does not necessarily mean the end of nuclear weapons, Gomart said.
  • Turkey: The June 2011 elections in Turkey will be very interesting, Gomart said, and they should be carefully observed, since Turkey is a NATO member and interested in joining the EU.