The Syrian refugee crisis and the Russian military operation in Syria have changed the political landscape, making it more likely that a leader such as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be able to restore Russia’s relationship with Western Europe.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy meet in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on Oct. 29. Photo: Pool Photo via AP

Former French President and current leader of Les Republicains ("The Republicans") political party Nicolas Sarkozy paid a two-day visit to Moscow on Oct. 28-29. Sarkozy spoke to students of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), Russia’s main university for preparing future diplomatic talent, and also met with President Vladimir Putin.

Sarkozy was greeted in Moscow as if he were the current, not former, president of France - and with some justification. Unlike other retired politicians who had or have close, even friendly, relations with Putin, such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sarkozy is a serious candidate to reclaim the leadership of his country.

If Sarkozy does indeed become president of France in 2017, it will no doubt benefit Russia. One of Europe’s leading countries will be headed by a man on first-name terms with Putin and who says, “Isolating Russia is pointless.”

Moreover, the memories of Sarkozy’s positive role in the settlement of the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008 are still fresh. It was the French president’s mediation back then that helped Russia avoid a painful confrontation with the West. His presence was missed six years later when the Ukraine crisis came to a head.

In Sarkozy’s public statements during his visit to Moscow there was no direct assertion that, had he been president of France in 2014, things would have been different and the confrontation between Russia and the West could have been avoided. However, the idea was floating in the air and could be read between the lines in pro-government Russian media reports, if not in Sarkozy’s actual speeches.

In these media reports a very interesting point of view came to the fore, having previously been consigned to the background: The confrontation between Russia and the West lacks proper objective foundations and was caused by tragic errors on the part of U.S. and EU leaders not properly versed in international affairs.

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Accordingly, to resolve the crisis one need only wait for European and American voters to understand what’s what and elect more realistically minded politicians, such as Sarkozy, who will systematically right the wrongs of their predecessors and restore relations with Russia in full.

Hopes for the wholesome influence of Western democracy and the “wisdom” of the European and American people were a part of the Kremlin’s propaganda arsenal even in Soviet times. Today their revival seems rather odd. It was not so long ago that Putin was banging the drum of the inevitability of conflict with the West, which has always sought — and will always seek — to contain Russia. He also spoke of the deep value-based contradictions between the two sides. Now, suddenly, bad politicians are to blame and they just need replacing.

Over the past year Russian diplomacy has been persistently probing the EU’s political structure for weak links, without even concealing its desire to split the Europeans and mitigate or even break the sanctions regime. However, despite some progress and encouraging statements from friends such as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the policy has not had the desired effect.

The refugee crisis and the Russian military operation in Syria have changed the political landscape. In this context, the retired Sarkozy could be more useful to the Kremlin than any of the current leaders of Greece, Hungary or Cyprus.

Sarkozy’s main advantage in the eyes of the Kremlin is his symbolic link with the “pre-sanctions” era in Russia-Europe relations. Despite all the talk about Russia’s irreversible withdrawal from the Western political orbit, the Russian leadership clearly hopes to return one day — and triumphantly at that.

In the context of this task, Sarkozy holds more promise than Tsipras or Orban. According to the Kremlin, the former French president could guide the “new mature Russia” back to the “golden age” when the G7 was the G8 and Western banks handed out loans to Russian companies at ridiculously low interest rates.

It is of no small importance that Russia and Sarkozy have mutual interests. The French politician clearly intends to play the “Russia card” in the course of his election campaign. He is counting on the fact that a year or two down the line the potential for reconciliation with Moscow will be a highly sought-after commodity on the Western political market. Who else but Sarkozy will be able to offer that to voters?

The Russian plan (codenamed “Sarkozy 2017”) has many weaknesses, it has to be said. First, it is too personalized and constructed around a single political figure from times past. Moreover, the trust of Soviet/Russian leaders in the “wisdom of Western voters” has been misplaced before. It would be naive to expect that this time things will turn out differently.

But the most unexpected obstacle to restoring the good old sanction-free days could, oddly enough, be Russian public opinion. The massive anti-Western propaganda of recent years has worked its black magic, and Russian society at large wants nothing more to do with the “horrible West.”

Here are some comments to an article about Sarkozy’s visit on the website of a Russian pro-government newspaper: “Don’t trust Sarkozy. He’s come begging for money for the election. Afterwards he’ll dump Russia like he dumped Gaddafi”; “Anything he worms out he’ll immediately report to the Americans”; and “We remember that the Mistrals were bought from Sarkozy.”

History tells us that pumping the public with propaganda can backfire. One famous episode occurred during World War I, when the administration of American President Woodrow Wilson convinced U.S. society that Germany was the devil incarnate — and then failed to get the first draft of the Treaty of Versailles ratified, partly because the American public deemed it to be too soft on the defeated enemy.

Fast-forward to today, and the Kremlin is hoping to use the operation in Syria as a springboard for its triumphant return to the global board of directors. However, for that it needs the West’s forgiveness and acceptance.

Politicians such as Sarkozy add feasibility to this scenario. Full implementation will require not only a few more Russia-friendly Westerners of the same caliber, but also a convincing explanation to the Russian people that, despite years of media hysteria, the West is not so bad after all.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.