20 years under Putin: a timeline

François Hollande’s meeting with Vladimir Putin showed that Paris has firmly put human rights issues on the back burner. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek concludes that France’s president values corporate solidarity with the Kremlin leader more than his own nation’s interests or basic human decency.



French President François Hollande’s visit to Moscow was hardly worth the money spent on fuel for the presidential aircraft. However, we should be grateful to the French president for giving us yet another vivid example of what Russian foreign policy is like.

Over the past ten years, the infantilism of this policy has been as never before. This policy is inconsistent with its primary advertised priorities of widening the sphere of Russia’s influence and strengthening its role in the world arena as a serious player who has gotten up from his knees. The nation’s influence keeps decreasing. Nobody takes the player seriously any longer.

Russia has lost its influence even in the region, in which it used to be rather strong. The Kremlin seems to have no foresight in backing dying regimes. Moscow supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya up to the very end, and is now clinging to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. At the same time, everyone, including the Kremlin, understands that the Syrian dictator’s days are numbered, and that by further supporting him, Russia risks losing all influence in the region. However, both the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have ignored this reality.

This decision represents neither a mistake in planning nor a deviation in strategy. Broadening Russian influence is an important objective, but not the main one. The main objective is supporting a controlled confrontation with the West. Moscow does not need Iraq or Libya or even Syria enough to make any long-term plans or constructive efforts in their regard. The Kremlin leaves such concerns to the West. Its primary aim is to be a constant thorn in the West’s side as it attempts to bring peace to restless regions and spread democracy to the extent possible. Whether these attempts have been successful or not is a different question. It is vital, however, that the West keep stumbling up against Russian counteraction and take into consideration the disruptive Russian factor.

The Kremlin's primary aim is to be a constant thorn in the West’s side as it attempts to bring peace to restless regions and spread democracy.

Playing the role of a nag, a street mischief-maker playing dirty tricks on his smarter classmates is Vladimir Putin’s idea of a good foreign policy. The current regime sees the fulfillment of Russia’s greatness in such a position. In the Kremlin’s view, the country has neither the intellectual potential nor the resources for anything more.

For this reason, any talks with Moscow about achieving peace are doomed to fail. The Kremlin is interested in engaging in talks—but not in getting any results out of them. Negotiations raise Russia’s international prestige—at least this is what the Kremlin believes. And once a problem has been solved, what does one negotiate about? How does one strengthen one’s prestige then?

It is possible that Western politicians have realized the Kremlin’s obsession with putting on airs and indulging in such peacockery. Was this not what the US–Russia missile defense talks or the Putin–Hollande talks on Syria were about? From Moscow’s point of view, these talks must have represented an ideal situation. The concerned parties’ positions were implacable. No points of contact could be found. No agreements have been reached. The parties have demonstrated a complete difference of opinion on the Syrian problem. France’s position in these pointless negotiations can only be explained by its desire to lull the Kremlin into peace—anything for a quiet life.

The question remains: What is the limit of indulging in such immature political folly? History offers many examples of a policy of appeasement leading to deplorable results. Certain results of such a policy toward Russia can already be seen; they are neither too deplorable nor too bloody yet, but they are already rather apparent.

Negotiations on important international topics have become a cover for other seemingly national but in fact universal problems. Is there anyone left in the 21st century who still does not understand that an aggressive foreign policy is the extension of a repressive domestic one? Who else needs proof that totalitarian regimes are naturally aggressive and democratic ones peaceful? By leaving human rights outside of their negotiation framework and concentrating only on foreign policy problems, the West acts like someone who prefers to treat cancer with painkillers.

Least of all does Putin want to discuss with François Hollande Russia’s problems of human rights and the persecution of the opposition. And so these problems have never been discussed. Hollande understands his colleague well. It is much easier to hold negotiations that require no results whatsoever. (Not counting a few commercial agreements, for which a presidential visit is not required.)

Shortly before Hollande’s visit to Moscow, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Human Rights League, Amnesty International, and the Association Russie-Libertés sent a letter to the French president that read: “Monsieur Hollande, when you are meeting with Vladimir Putin, do not forget about the ‘democratic imperative’!” These words referred to a speech that was given a little over a year ago: on December 25, 2011, François Hollande, then a presidential candidate, called on Vladimir Putin to “appreciate the full scope of the democratic imperative” being demanded of the Russian authorities by the tens of thousands of demonstrators who had come out into the streets of Moscow to march against the regime. “Russia must therefore take its rightful place in the European balance and in the building of an international community based on the principles of respect for human rights, civil liberties, independence of the media and rule of law to which it has subscribed,” civil rights activists quoted Hollande at the time. The authors of the recent letter expressed their hope that Hollande’s exchanges with Putin would not push aside the necessary “democratic imperative.”

During his talks with Putin, François Hollande did not push the “democratic imperative” into the background—he ignored it altogether. If not for Radio France International journalist Elena Servettaz’s question during the news conference, the subject of human rights would not have been touched at all. How did Hollande react to the journalist’s innocent request to comment upon the human rights problems in Russia? It seemed that this question took him by surprise more than it did Putin.

In his 35-second reply, Hollande said that the subject of human rights dominates French foreign policy, but that providing assessments or opinions of other nations’ policies in this regard is not his business. His business, the president declared, consists in stating the facts of a violation and correcting them, not in “wasting his breath.”


During his presidential campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy (right), François Hollande (left) spoke of a “democratic imperative” with regard to Russia. In office, Hollande prefers not to “waste his breath” on human rights.


Putin was more thorough and explained to those present that there were no problems with human rights in Russia, and if last year some people complained, it was because of the elections, which happens in all countries all the time.

What President Hollande meant by correcting human rights violations without “wasting his breath” remains unclear. He was probably talking about secret diplomacy. This is generally the only form of discussing human rights that suits tyrannical regimes.

Apparently in accordance with these tactics, President Hollande met with a few representatives of Russian civil society during his visit to Moscow. This diplomatic meeting was so secret that there were no journalists present. No press release has been issued. The contents of the conversation were kept secret from both French and Russian societies. Presidential Human Rights Council Chairman Mikhail Fedotov, journalist Yevgeniya Albats, TV anchor Ksenia Sobchak, environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, and human rights activists Svetlana Gannushkina and Alexander Cherkasov were invited to the meeting. However, Sobchak decided not to wait for Hollande, who was an hour and a half late, and left.

It sometimes happens that a corporate solidarity between politicians proves stronger than national interests and common human decency.

The effectiveness of such meetings is close to zero. Except for the mutual pleasure of talking, these events produce no concrete results. Furthermore, they allow Hollande to say that he attempted to address specific human rights problems in Russia without “wasting his breath.” Whatever he did manage to achieve will remain a diplomatic secret.

The occasional secret understanding between ambassadors of the free world and tyrants is not something new. It sometimes happens that a corporate solidarity between politicians representing diametrically opposite systems proves stronger than national interests and common human decency. Numerous reasons are found to justify such actions—from diplomatic etiquette and drawbacks of the profession to higher state interests and the widely accepted belief that “politics is a dirty business.”

It is, however, logical that bad influence is highly contagious. During the news conference, Vladimir Putin once again demonstrated his street wit by saying that one could only sort out Syria’s problems over a bottle of vodka. He thought this remark was funny. The two-year civil conflict in Syria has killed more than 70,000 people—funny, isn’t it? Just imagine how much Putin will enjoy talking about it with the French president over a bottle of vodka! And what about Hollande? He joined in the “funny” theme, remarking that port would be better than vodka. Such refined mutual understanding! Such subtle French wit!

Another few summit meetings, and the expression “to wipe them out in a shithouse” will enter the French political vocabulary, and President Hollande will start posing topless in the Alps snow and will fly on a hang-glider with eagles.