Russia – France relations: The fools of the Georgia war

By Tita Aver | 18 January 2011

To quote this document: Tita Aver, “Russia – France relations: The fools of the Georgia war”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 18 January 2011,, displayed on 25 November 2020

neukpng.pngMany remember the European Union presidency of French leader Sarkozy and its strong management of the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008. During one summer, the EU seemed at last to act like a global player. Yet some analysts suggest that the influence of France and the EU on the solution of the crisis was clearly overrated.

Sarkozy: the saviour

Sarkozy was fairly critical towards Russia during his presidential campaign and at the beginning of his mandate. Simultaneously, Russia followed a strategy of confrontation and assistance in the North Caucasus. Consequently, the Russian Federation participated in setting up separatist governments in South Ossetia and Georgia. Even so, a “U-turn” in Russo-French politics came rapidly with the breaking up of the war in Georgia. This moment acted as a threshold to relations between the two States.

Elected in May 2007, Sarkozy became the French President of the EU on July 1st, 2008, a circumstance that only occurs once every 13 years in a 27 members Europe. In this context, he was challenged without delay by an east-west situation of a substantial scale: the “Lilliputian” intrusion of Saakashvili in South Ossetia, promptly defeated by the Russian military. The conflict took place quite early during Sarkozy’s presidency and might have gone for longer without the French and EU intervention. It was celebrated as Sarkozy’s “great moment”.

As a president of the EU, he immediately seized the occasion and not taking into account European foreign policy procedures, he flew to Moscow where he met with Medvedev and convinced him to halt the advancement of the Russian troops in Georgia. First in line with Washington, Sarkozy highly fustigated the Kremlin and reproached his Prime Minister François Fillon to react in a too friendly way to Russia.

However, his point of view alters on August 12th 2008 after several meetings with Putin and Medvedev (his standpoint is so diametrically changed that he even integrates Kremlin speech formulas into his public addresses such as alluding to Moscow’s legitimacy to defend the interests of Russophones in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)). Sarkozy gets involved, in the name of Europe, in the outcome of the conflict and reaches a “six principles” deal with President Medvedev. With this agreement, Sarkozy can prevail with his diplomatic victory. The agreement between the two Presidents was indeed imperfect and self-contradictory and the Russians finished the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nonetheless, Sarkozy had managed to stop the war, a result that ought not to be disregarded.

Sarkozy was quite certainly sincere in his intentions in spite of the “amateurish and even naïve” solution brought to solve the conflict. Indeed, Van Herpen in his very critical article The foreign Policy of Nicolas Sarkozy: not principled, opportunistic and amateurish (February 2010) goes on saying that the cease-fire negotiated by the French team at the EU presidency provided the Russians with the “right to implement additional security measures and thereby to stay in mainland Georgia”.

The Sarkozy-Medvedev 6-points plan may be criticised but it was put forward in a state of emergency by the French presidency on August,12th after the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and NATO reacted but too little. He accomplished the maximum the EU and France could do, with the cards in hand, seeing neither Russia nor Georgia were members of the European Union. The French position was well received as it did not discredit Russia. After the meetings between Sarkozy and Medvedev on the one hand and Sarkozy and Saakashvili on the other hand, a report was published by an independent EU commission. The latter was not set against the Russian Federation either. This position enabled Sarkozy to be regarded as one of the important world leaders. The crisis allowed him to gain a larger scale.

The EU: the referee

Not only has the war in Georgia permitted the rise of Sarkozy on the global scale, it has also given the EU a new stamina. In his speech at the XVIth Conference of the Ambassadors, the French President declared that the August conflict showed that the EU could, if it wanted to, be a first-line actor in conflict resolution. A few days later, during his second visit in Russia, Sarkozy further added during a joint press conference with Medvedev that the European Union had emerged as a major player even in regions where one would not expect the EU to be active. “The EU can bring a wise solution”, by obtaining a cease-fire for instance, by engaging into discussions in Geneva and by negotiating the departure of Russian troops.

The EU additionally shared that Russo-EU relations had reached a crossroads: taking into account the fact that the EU and Russia are interdependent and share common global problems, there is no alternative to a strong relationship. The EU needs Russia and Russia needs Europe, they being “natural partners”. When the gap widens between the two actors, none are able to affect decisively global affairs.

Therefore, one may hold that Russo-French “special partnership” can provide the EU with momentum in renovating their relations with Moscow. Along these lines, French President Sarkozy declared “France wishes to put its friendship with Russia at the service of the whole of the European Union”.  By doing so, the French presidency of the European Council wishes peace and needs to “build a shared future” with a partnership with Russia. Sarkozy goes even further by suggesting an economic union between Russia and Europe.

Sarkozy and the EU: fooled by the Kremlin after all?

The general conclusion is that, in cooperation with Moscow and Tbilissi, the French Presidency of the EU has succeeded in appeasing the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Nonetheless, some opinions diverge from the official version. Indeed, some analysts maintain that the role of the EU and France was minimal. The latter do not deny the high activity of the French and European diplomacy in the crisis. However, they doubt its efficiency and do not believe Paris stopped the war. Arnaud Dubien for instance in his 2010 article on the foreign policy of Nicolas Sarkozy, states that Moscow largely controlled the scenario and realised, after having reached its indistinct objectives, that it did not have the intention of seizing Tbilissi. The agreement between Paris and Moscow has been a “hidden one” with larger accords such as energy security and the Mistral. The Russians needed a way out of the conflict and the French brought a solution. Having France as a major European power within the EU was quite fitting for all. Russia is highly indebted to France.

The other reality is quite different. Sarkozy’s trip to Moscow at first prepared for August 8th or 10th was postponed for twenty-four hours as the Russians still had “work to do” in the Caucasus. As a result, one can conclude that the Russians chose the moment and content of the peace treaty. In addition, the Plan put forward by the French reiterates the Russian demands. One must be unambiguous; the circumstances were decided in Moscow.

Therefore, as a partial conclusion, one may presume that the French and European intervention in the conflict that opposed Georgia to Russia has, depending on your standpoint, brought a solution to Russia or that France was an instrument of the Kremlin in exiting the crisis. Moreover, it is nearly unanimous that the status of President Sarkozy improved, making him a more powerful world leader. Finally, the EU can be said to have gained influence and credit through its involvement.


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

To read

    • Dubien A., "Nicolas Sarkozy et la Russie, ou le triomphe de la Realpolitik", Revue internationale et stratégique, 01/2010 (n°77)
    • Cogan C. "Une recherche de proximité avec la Russie" in Boniface P., Dossier: "La politique étrangère de Nicolas Sarkozy: rupture ou ncontinuité" in Revue internationale et stratégique, 01/2010 (n°77)
    • Rayko G. Entretien avec Sergue¨Karaganov "Ce que veulent les Russes", Politique Internationale, n°122 Winter 2008-2009
    • Rywkin M. (2007), 'Putin's Russia : neither friend nor foe', American Foreign Policy Interests, 29:1, p.40
    • Van herpen M. (2010) 'The foreign policy of Nicolas Sarkozy : not principled, opportunistic and amateurish', February 2010, Cicero Foundation, n°10/01


  Source : Dmitry Medvedev in South Korea 12 November 2010, par, sur wikimedia commons




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