On 5 August 1914, just a few days into the First World War, the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, met the French ambassador to St Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, and promised him that the Russians would come to France’s aid by attacking Germany. According to the Frenchman, the Grand Duke finished their conversation with a flourish, announcing, ‘God and Joan of Arc are with us! We shall win.’
The Franco-Russian alliance dated back to 1892, and by 1914 had become an extremely tight one. The Russians fulfilled their promise and attacked German East Prussia in August 1914, an assault which ended in catastrophic defeats at Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies’, the Grand Duke told the French military attaché, General de la Guiche.
Today, Russia and France are getting back together again. According to RT:
The Russian president has issued orders for Russia’s Moskva cruiser, covering the Russian base in Latakia from the Mediterranean Sea, to work together with a French naval group led by flagship Charles De Gaulle, a 26 fighter-jet aircraft carrier, which is departing for Syria this week. ‘The French naval group, led by the air carrier, will soon reach your area of operations. We need to establish direct contact with it, and treat it as an ally,’ the Russian president said. ‘We need to develop a joint action plan for both sea and air operations.’ The Kremlin said that the parameters for a joint mission had been agreed upon by Putin and French President Francois Hollande, following a personal phone call. ‘The two leaders focused their attention on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in combating terrorism,’ a Kremlin statement said. ‘This includes closer ties and joint operations between the military command and intelligence services of Russia and France in Syria.’
‘Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa,’ French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening, ‘Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible.’
As these quotations testify, Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria is already reaping diplomatic dividends. It is no longer possible to talk of Russia being ‘isolated’. If Franco-Russian efforts to coordinate their military campaigns bear fruit, then the West will find it increasingly hard to portray Russia as a dangerous threat to Western security. With many economists predicting that the Russian economy will come out of recession in 2016, anti-Kremlin activists who had hoped that a combination of diplomatic isolation and economic collapse would lead to the rapid fall of the ‘Putin regime’ are going to be very disappointed.
Nevertheless, I would caution against making too much of the possible new Franco-Russian Entente. Military cooperation in Syria does not equate to a formal alliance. At best it is a temporary matter of mutual convenience. It breaks the diplomatic ice, but doesn’t do much more than that. Although in the long term it may contribute towards a broader thaw in relations, I consider it unlikely that it will do so in the shorter term. Russia will probably not receive any quid pro quo for cooperating with France in the form of a relaxation of economic sanctions. I expect that European powers will refuse to link Syria with Ukraine.
Perhaps more importantly, gaining the favour of the French is not the same as gaining the favour of the Americans. Franco-Russian military cooperation might lead to some coordination of political objectives in Syria, in terms of seeking a peace settlement which avoids the defeat of the current government, but although the Russians might be able to persuade France of the value of such an objective, I consider it less probable that they will able to persuade the United States. Washington will more probably continue to pursue its policy of supporting anti-Assad forces. In short, while some sort of Franco-Russian entente is possible, a truly ‘grand coalition’ involving not only Russia and France, but also the United States and other Western states, remains a distant dream.