On June 26, leading Russian publications enthusiastically reported on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s meeting with his French counterpart, Edouard Philippe, in Le Havre. They noted that trade has grown despite sanctions, that French companies continue taking part in projects in Russia, including in the oil-and-gas sector, and that preparations for a Russia-France forum of small and medium-sized businesses are underway under the aegis of the Russian-French Economic, Financial, Industrial and Trade Council.
First, the haste and pride with which the Russian media covered this event show once again how important we consider ties with the Old World, and how uncomfortable Russia feels about sanctions, the lack of contacts and the less frequent or halted dialogues in many areas. Russian representatives admit this regardless of the statements from the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry to the effect that Russia is not alone and that those who impose sanctions on Russia are in the minority. It is the essential importance of contacts with Europe that leads to such extensive coverage of trips to Russia by even marginal European politicians, as well as all official visits by the president, prime minister and ministers of Russia to the Old World. This is why there were victorious celebrations of the return of Russian deputies to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Second, in modern France and Russia, decisions are made by the presidents rather than the prime ministers. In the case of Paris, some restrictions are imposed by the European Union (EU). In this context, France can only direct EU policy to a certain extent, meeting with serious resistance from Russia’s traditional opponents. Moreover, the five points that form the foundation of Brussels’ policy toward Russia is not a long-term strategy for building relations with Moscow, but merely a set of rules on what to do in the absence of dialogue with Russia. The EU does not have a long-term strategy toward Russia; it is only offering to resume previous relations with Moscow. Russia is proudly rejecting “business as usual” but does not suggest any alternative paradigm of relations. In this context, Medvedev’s visit to France can hardly change anything. There is a need for strategic changes that will also determine the speed of resolving the Ukrainian issue.
Third, the prime ministers of Russia and France mostly deal with economic issues, but freedom of maneuver is seriously limited in this respect as well. As an EU member, France must carry out the restrictive measures that the union has imposed and diligently extends. In other words, economic ties can only be encouraged in the areas that do not fall under sanctions or the administrative burden linked with these sanctions may be reduced. US secondary sanctions against companies that want to operate in the US and violate US sanctions serve as an additional red light for French private companies. It is still unclear how secondary sanctions may be applied, and in most cases, European commercial companies prefer to wait rather than establish contacts with Russian partners.
In Russia, the main problems are the burden of administrative barriers, the pursuit of import substitution, corruption and the unattractive investment climate in general. The Medvedev-Philippe meeting will hardly change anything in this respect as well. It is necessary to carry out meticulous work inside the country.
Does this mean that Medvedev’s visit is useless in the current context? No, dialogue at all levels is important as such, for clearing up positions and promoting understanding as a whole. In the long-term perspective, this facilitates trust that will play a key role when sanctions pressure grows weaker and the time comes to restore the potential of ties. But the regular, daily work of officials of different ranks, starting with the lowest level, MPs, justices and entrepreneurs, is much more important and productive than high-level blitz visits. This is exactly how trans-national and trans-governmental contacts are being enhanced. It is these contacts that create a foundation for durable relations and help get rid of stereotypes. We will have to wait to see how Medvedev’s visit will affect these ties.