Facing a rising China, Russia looks to boost Europe ties

The leaders of France, Germany, and Russia will meet this week in Deauville, France, as a first step toward fostering closer ties.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (c.), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (r.) and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev listen to national anthems in Deauville on Oct. 18. Merkel and Medvedev are in Deauville to attend a tripartite summit between France, Germany, and Russia.

Is Russia ready to join Europe? Is Europe ready to embrace Russia?

The leaders of France, Germany, and Russia meet for dinner this evening in the French coastal town of Deauville in a German-led initiative that could start to anchor Russia more firmly in Europe.

Analysts say that Russia needs a solid partner at a time when it faces stiff competition in the east from a rising China. Also, the Deauville meeting comes ahead of a key Lisbon NATO meeting next month setting future policy in which Russia will not play a role.

So the Deauville event is partly a reassurance by two key European states that Russia’s interests are being taken to heart.

But it may also signal more. The meeting builds on a surprise initiative in June by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that would give Moscow a foreign policy tie to the EU.

Over two days, starting this evening with a dinner at Cicero’s, a favorite sea-food restaurant of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the three will discuss visa policy and open borders, the nuclear threat of Iran, Russia’s pathway to membership in trade organizations, and whether Russia can play a role in a European missile shield – all as prelude to closer ties.

Russia reset

“This is the European equivalent of the [Obama administration] ‘reset’ on Russia,” says Francois Heisbourg of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “The only possibility for an EU policy on Russia is if the French and Germans agree. Russia desperately needs modernization. If they don’t get that they will become a third rate petro-monarchy like so many others.”

Yet a subtheme will be a French and German probing of how Russia might harmonize its current border policies and basic values with those of Europe. Medvedev is expected to counter with a proposal to reduce tensions created by Russian troops in the Transnistria region abutting Moldova, a neighbor of EU member Romania.

Germany has built close ties to Moscow for many years and supported a modernization of Russia seen as key to its economic emergence – often with eyebrows raised in other EU nations. The tripartite meetings of France, Germany, and Russia began under Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in the early part of the decade along with French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin – partly in opposition to the US policy to invade Iraq. But Merkel stopped them.

Getting things done

Now, however, Ms. Merkel appears ready to support Medvedev’s policies to open to the West – and to support the Russian president personally as a leader who can get things done on the international stage.

“Germany wants to be much more involved in security issues in Europe,” says Thomas Gomard, a Russian specialist at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also been supportive of the move, though the French have been characterizing Deauville as more of a “brainstorming session” and part of a process that will take time.

"Russia presently seems to us to be rediscovering the merits of a cooperative attitude with Western countries," a Sarkozy adviser told Reuters news agency. "It will be the occasion ... to consolidate this positive evolution."

Alexander Rahr of the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin argues the meeting is part of a move to support Medvedev politically and to create economic and political relations at a time when “People have forgotten about Georgia and the war or feel there is nothing that can be done. If Russia joins an initiative to build a common defense that puts Russia closer to the West on Iran and starts an important security tie.”

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