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Possible Russia-West Rapprochement Over Syria Stokes Fears In Europe's East

French President Francois Hollande (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on October 2.
French President Francois Hollande (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on October 2.

France's surprise embrace of Russia in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris has raised concerns across the former Soviet bloc that Moscow wants to leverage the fight against Islamic extremists in Syria to secure Western concessions over Ukraine.

Just days after the massacres in the French capital killed 129 people and injured hundreds of others, President Francois Hollande called for the formation of a grand coalition -- including Russia -- to destroy the Islamic State (IS) group, which claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Putin followed by ordering his navy to cooperate with the French Navy in the eastern Mediterranean, where Russia has a base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

Hollande's push for cooperation with Russia was a major pivot for France, which has been a loyal partner in the multinational U.S.-led coalition fighting IS militants in Syria and Iraq.

The French government had also objected vehemently when Russia began its Syrian air campaign on September 30, saying Moscow's ulterior motive was to keep embattled President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Former Ukrainian diplomat Bohdan Yaremenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on November 18 that following the Paris attacks, Putin had "created the opportunity for dialogue with the West that he had lost due to the situation in Ukraine."

Concessions On Ukraine?

Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were the key EU leaders in establishing the economic sanctions regime against Russia in response to its illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

The two leaders also led the way for the West in forging the Minsk cease-fire agreement in February.

"Now the French and other diplomats have to decide if it is possible to cooperate with Russia in Syria without changing their positions on Ukraine -- on maintaining sanctions and possibly expanding them if the Minsk [peace] agreement fails," Yaremenko said.

Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told parliament on November 17 that "there cannot be bargaining over compliance of the [cease-fire] conditions." He added, "Cooperation elsewhere does not mean for Europe concessions in its neighborhood."

Hollande is set to meet Putin in Moscow next week in what would be the first bilateral visit to Moscow by an EU leader in half a year, Reuters reported on November 18.

Splitting Europe?

Kalev Stoicescu, a research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, says that Russia is using the Paris attacks "to again split European solidarity in terms of sanctions and the promulgation of sanctions."

But he says that while Russia and the West "may unite forces to combat IS, the common enemy, and sweep the caliphates from the face of the Earth, that doesn't solve the Assad question or resolve Syria's [political] future."

Paul Goble, a longtime Russia analyst and author of the Window on Eurasia blog, says there is concern among some Baltic governments that "the French could be peeled off from Germany and then things would go downhill fast."

Such worries were compounded by comments from Merkel's deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, who suggested that the EU sanctions against Russia were counterproductive because Moscow has become a partner in resolving problems in the Middle East.

Goble adds that he does not think anyone "expected [U.S. President Barack] Obama and Hollande to cave in [to Putin] as far and as fast as they have."

Yuriy Ruban, a political analyst and head of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's Humanitarian Policies Department, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that if the West forgets about Ukraine, then "in several months [Russia's] hybrid war will expand to the Baltic states and beyond, something that our Baltic colleagues are lamenting right now."

Some politicians in Poland, where a new government deeply distrustful of Russia was sworn in on November 16, have likened Hollande's decision to join forces with Moscow to siding with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to fight the Nazis during World War II.

Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said on November 16 that the West can deal with IS militants without Russia, but that this will take "political will."

He added that it would even be easier for the West to fight IS if it did not have to compromise with Putin and his dependent ally, Assad.

But Stoicescu and Goble say that Putin is mistaken if he believes he will get a pass on Ukraine or be able to slouch on the Minsk agreement because of Russia's bombing raids in Syria.

The Wall Street Journal on November 18 quoted EU officials and diplomats as saying that the 28-member bloc was likely to extend Ukraine-related economic sanctions on Moscow, which are set to expire in January.

"All of Putin's dreams about the handing over to him of Ukraine in the context of an 'anti-Hitler coalition' in the same way that Eastern Europe was handed over to Stalin, were not realized" at the November 15-16 Group of 20 summit in Turkey, Piontkovsky said.

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