Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Nov. 26-27 for the 14th meeting of the Russo-French Commission on Bilateral Cooperation. Russia sees France as the continental European power it has the least leverage over, and is hoping to use business and military deals to increase its influence in Paris. Doing so would help Russia push back against the United States in its periphery and help drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will visit French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Nov. 26-27 for the 14th meeting of the Russo-French Commission on Bilateral Cooperation. The agenda will include Russia's potential purchase of a $600 million helicopter carrier vessel based on France's Mistral (L 9013), investment by French automaker Renault in Russia's Avtovaz and potential energy investments. Putin's trip to France comes as Russia undertakes massive economic and political reforms. Headed up by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Economic Minister Alexei Kudrin — and so far supported by Putin — the reforms are meant to attract Western capital and know-how to bolster the beleaguered Russian economy. France and Germany form a key part of this strategy, as Moscow looks to form strong relationships with Berlin and Paris that will give it a stake in Russia's economic well-being and thus increase Moscow's political influence over the European continental heavyweights. Russia sees France as the continental European power over which it has the least leverage. Italy and Germany depend on Russia for energy, but France has a powerful nuclear sector that supplies it with energy. Therefore, Russia hopes that by giving France lucrative and strategic assets within Russia, it can secure Paris' political acquiescence. Putin's charm offensive on Sarkozy should therefore be seen as complementary to his ongoing courtship of Germany. With Paris and Berlin warming to Russia, Moscow will have a much easier time pushing the United States out of its periphery and achieving its ultimate goal of driving a wedge between Washington and its European allies. Russia and France traditionally have had very good business relations. France was one of the first Western powers to invest in Russia in the 19th century, particularly in railroad development. Paris is far enough from Russia geographically to not greatly fear Russia's rise to power, and it is not powerful enough on its own to dominate global, non-European trade routes. Paris sees Russia as a market where it has a comparative advantage over many of its Western allies. In Paris, Putin is likely to talk to Sarkozy about a potential "strategic partnership" — a term that Putin has used to describe the relationship between Russia and Germany. A key item on the agenda will be the possible sale of a helicopter carrier based on the Mistral, which is moored in St. Petersburg and is conducting joint drills with Russian helicopter crews. The sale would be the first time that Russia has made such a large purchase from a NATO member state, and would also be the first significant foreign military technology for Russia, which has built most of its systems. Putin will also talk energy with Sarkozy. France and Russia do not have many direct energy links, since France relies on its indigenous nuclear energy. However, French energy firm EDF is interested in joining the Gazprom-ENI South Stream natural gas project, and GDF Suez is hoping that it will be able to wrap up its talks about joining the Nord Stream project by the end of the year. By luring EDF and GDF Suez to its two main natural gas pipeline projects, Moscow hopes it can coax France into a symbiotic relationship. French energy giant Total will undoubtedly come up in talks as well. It already owns a quarter of the Shtokman natural gas field in Russia's Barents Sea and is eagerly anticipating involvement in the energy privatizations announced by the Kremlin. Finally, Putin will ask Renault to up its 25 percent stake in the largest Russian automaker, Avtovaz. Putin hopes that an injection of cash from Renault will rejuvenate the slumping Russian automotive manufacturing industry. A commitment from Renault would be a good way to overcome the loss of investment from Canadian auto-parts manufacturer Magna, a deal that fell through when U.S. automaker GM refused to accept a joint bid from Magna and Russian state-owned bank Sberbank for German automaker Opel. France might not ever become as economically dependent on Russia as Germany is, but Moscow can still use investment opportunities and potential military deals to woo Paris. The question is whether Paris will take the bait and become politically amenable to Moscow.