No, he's the boss. Vladimir Putin (left) and Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi, by the Black Sea, 14 August, 2009 (AFP)

Moscow’s charm offensive

After tensions triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union and post-9/11, the hour has come for rapprochement between Europe and Russia. Favoured by the United States’ relative unconcern and the absence of major present-day flashpoints between the two powers, their reconciliation is being approached pragmatically – and in many areas on the Kremlin’s initiative.

Published on 27 November 2009 at 16:16
No, he's the boss. Vladimir Putin (left) and Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi, by the Black Sea, 14 August, 2009 (AFP)

It would seem that EU-Russian relations are making significant headway, observes the Moldavian daily Timpul. Moscow’s desire to join the Eastern Partnership, the prospective easing of visa restrictions on Russian nationals, and diverse deals between European and Russian companies go to show “the EU and Russia need each other more than ever”. What is more, beefing up relations with the Union would give Moscow “an added edge in dealing with Washington”. And relations between the EU and Russia should warm up even more on the latter’s initiative, says the Chisinau daily, as Moscow’s eagerness to welcome the newly nominated leaders under the Lisbon Treaty reveals its preference for interlocutors from Western Europe, who are likely to pay less heed to the ex-Communist countries.

Moscow’s diplomatic offensive is coupled with a trade offensive aimed at acquiring technologies developed in Europe, explains Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. Having clinched some very lucrative deals with German companies, the Kremlin is off on a shopping spree in France, where it has its sights set on aerospace and nuclear know-how, though also on the defence sector. “Present-day Russia is a backwards country in need of fast-track modernisation. But instead of training scientists and developing technologies itself, it would rather simply purchase know-how and new solutions,” comments the Polish daily, adding that “unlike Washington or London, Paris doesn’t mind sharing its know-how with Moscow”.

*Mistral***: symbol of politico-military rapprochement**

During his recent visit to Paris on 26 and 27 November, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin signed a score of bilateral agreements in the areas of energy, the automotive industry, the environment and visas. But also in the arms sector, underscores Le Figaro: as a matter of fact, Moscow is prepared to shell out €500 million for a Mistral-class “projection and command” [amphibious assault] ship, the gem of the French navy, and a potential keystone for rebuilding the Russian military fleet. This a highly symbolic contract, as it would be “Moscow’s first purchase of the sort from a NATO country”, emphasises Le Monde. While Romania Libera sees the prospective transaction as “a swap and a politically embarrassing symbol for Paris”, which would be ignoring the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, Le Monde sees the deal as a signal of "politico-military rapprochement” between the two countries. The Paris-based daily elaborates that France is bent on “cultivating a special relationship with Russia” in the defence domain. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pet project is, indeed, to “tie Russia into a Continental order of stability, even if we cannot make it share European democratic values”, and to create a “future common security area” between Europe and Russia.

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The other sphere in which Russia’s European strategy seems to bearing the most fruit is the energy sector: the Union does not have a common policy, each country negotiates supply contracts with Moscow on its own. The French utilities (Veolia, GDF-Suez, Electricité de France) are busy forging partnerships with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which is piloting two gas pipeline projects. “Vladimir Putin is poised to carry out a masterstroke on the energy diplomacy front,” heralds Le Monde, “involving all the European countries and their multinationals [in his two gas pipeline projects], which will bypass the Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltic countries: the Nord Stream, to link Russia to Germany underneath the Baltic Sea, and the South Stream, to cross the Black Sea and fork off into two branches towards Italy and Austria. France, like Germany and Italy, sees no contradiction between its companies’ involvement in these two Russian projects, which are going to increase their dependency on Russian gas, and its support for the European Nabucco gas pipeline project – which bypasses Russia.”

Two gas pipeline projects piloted by Gazprom

However, France’s enthusiasm for the Kremlin is not shared by Warsaw, points outPolska: the Polish government is still reluctant to sign a deal to up supplies from Russia to 40% of Poland’s gas consumption and prolong the arrangement to 2037. The most controversial aspect of the agreement is that it would increase the country’s reliance on Gazprom, “even though the head of state wants to diversify Poland’s supply sources”, and the fact that it will “probably delay the construction of the liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in Świnoujście”.

While mutual trust between Moscow and Warsaw is not yet the order of the day in energy matters, it is when it comes to visas: Poland, Lithuania and Russia are going to jointly request the European Commission to include the Russian exclave Kaliningrad in the small cross-border traffic and trade zone set up this past May between the three countries, explains Gazeta Wyborcza. Under the terms of the proposed agreement, Kaliningrad’s inhabitants will be able to enter Polish and Lithuanian territory, up to 30 km from the border, without a visa. The object is to jump-start Kaliningrad’s economy and boost trade between the latter and its Polish and Lithuanian neighbours. “This approach also has a geopolitical aspect,” a diplomatic source tells the Warsaw daily: “we want to transform Kaliningrad from a zone of potential threat into a zone of cooperation.”

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