A third-party intervention by France and Germany would allow both the US and Russia to “save face.”
The competition and tit-for-tat actions of both the United States and Russia threaten European stability. Increased NATO training exercises in the east, coupled with Russia’s desire to recover its great power status, undermine the values on which the European Union (EU) was built. Instead of bilateral talks between the US and Russia to resolve their differences over Europe’s security, both sides have remained locked into their positions with European leaders stuck between the two self-interested, security-driven narratives from Washington and Moscow.
Since neither side can resolve their problems bilaterally, a third-party mediator is necessary. This third party must not only be acceptable to both the US and Russia, but must also represent the interests of the EU as a whole.
Given Germany and France’s recent leadership roles in establishing the Minsk II Agreement, as well as their interdependent relationships with both the US and Russia, a Franco-German alliance would serve as an effective and acceptable mediator to lessen the current security tensions between Washington and Moscow in eastern Europe.
Gridlock over Europe
Negative perceptions and rhetoric coming from Russia and the US prevent either side from resolving this conflict bilaterally. Any change in position in order to serve the interest of peace is viewed as a weakness by each side’s allies or constituencies.
When US President Barack Obama suspended the missile defense program in Europe as part of his “reset” with Russia, a group of former Central European leaders strongly objected. In an open letter to the US president, they stated that abandoning the missile defense program would undermine US credibility around the region.
Within the US, the Republicans responded in kind and rebuked the president for showing weakness in the face of Russian pressure. Most recently, the NATO summit in Warsaw reaffirmed this notion when the US committed to a hard power solution that called for deploying an armored brigade along Russia’s western border.
For Russia, the negative rhetoric against the US helps ensure the survival of its regime. By incorporating nationalism and patriotism into its new aggressive foreign policy, the Kremlin casts itself as the only force capable of standing up to a self-interest driven US, which it claims seeks to place the rest of the world under its thumb.
This mix also serves to bolster its domestic legitimacy, which was shaken after the mass protests in Moscow following Vladimir Putin’s announced return to power in 2011, hence demonstrating to the people that Russia remains a world power. Thus, any deviation from its current combative relationship with the US or siege mentality might cause Russia’s attention to turn inward and expose its domestic shortcomings (i.e. systemic corruption, lack of economic diversity, poor health care systems), which could threaten Putin’s government.
Furthermore, bilateral exchanges for peace have been complicated by the recent provocations between the two powers. The flyovers of US warships by Russian jets, the repeated violations of Baltic airspace by Russian jets, the activation of the US missile defense program in Romania, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the deployment of $3.4 billion-worth of US military personnel and equipment to eastern Europe, and the modernization of the Russian Black Sea Fleet have pushed each side to the point of brinksmanship.
Since neither side appears capable of diplomatically resolving its issues bilaterally, the presence of a strong third-party mediator accepted by both sides is required.
Acceptable for Russia
A Franco-German alliance would be an acceptable mediator to Moscow, due largely to the economic interdependence between these countries. Although the sanctions against Russia have been renewed by Germany and France, both nations’ economies have experienced a dramatic decline in every cooperative industry, including a serious plunge of investment activity.
Therefore, in the long run, both sides would like to avoid losing big markets. For example, both France and Germany are already trying to find a way to ease tensions and improve their economic relations with Russia. This change in position makes a Franco-German alliance uniquely effective as a mediator to Russia because it shows the initial signs of a departure from the United States’ insistence on maintaining these sanctions. This gives France and Germany a crucial element of fairness to Russia as a third-party mediator in any future negotiations with the US.
Moreover, with the ongoing extensive US military deployments and buildups in eastern Europe, both Russia and the US threaten to start a new arms race in Europe. Although Russia has promised to respond in kind to any US military buildup, the global drop in oil prices, combined with economic sanctions, make it difficult for Moscow to win an arms race marathon.
Thus, Russia’s acceptance of a strong, historically nonpartisan third-party mediator, such as the Franco-German alliance, could provide it with a better outcome than its current bilateral approach with the US. The recent remark by French President Francois Hollande that Russia is a partner and not a threat, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s condolence speech in light of the Nice terrorist attacks, could signal a change in the relationship between Paris and Moscow, which might make the former an acceptable mediator in resolving the security crisis in eastern Europe.
Acceptable for the United States
Conversely, a Franco-German alliance would also be acceptable to the US. Past US efforts to unilaterally reset relations with Russia have all failed due to a lack of trust or some perceived dubious behavior. As a result, future resets are unlikely to either occur or gain widespread support domestically, or among NATO allies, given Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Since France and Germany share common security interests, and have close cultural, economic and historical ties with the US, accepting the Franco-German alliance as a mediator would not compromise American interests in the region.
It should be noted that both France and Germany have demonstrated the ability to work together in order to resolve issues on the continent without significant input from the US. The successful negotiation of the Minsk II Agreement led by France and Germany was perceived by the US as a (partial) success, since this was in line with the US desire for regional allies to resolve local conflicts without a heavy reliance on Washington. This, combined with the earlier successful French mediation in the Russo-Georgian War and German leadership in the euro crisis, demonstrates an ability to resolve—sans the United States—conflicts in their own backyard.
Acceptable for the EU
There are three reasons why a Franco-German alliance would be an acceptable mediator for the rest of the EU.
First, after the Second World War, the reconciliation and cooperation between France and Germany was a basis for unprecedented economic revival and the creation of a peaceful western Europe. Nowadays, with the rise of populism and the radicalization of the political scene, Europe is again on the brink of repeating the mistakes of the past unless the entire project is decisively led by those who started it.
Second, while the end of the Cold War left Germany as the strongest European country and a natural leader in potential European crises, Germany, alone, failed to create momentum for building a stronger Europe. Thus, European security rests on more collective actions when France and Germany are in the lead. The dismal security environment in Europe—exacerbated by terrorist attacks, NATO expansion, instability at the southern flank and a resurging Russia—points to the need for strong leadership. Such an environment encourages France to maintain its partial leadership role and to join Germany in taking full responsibility for preserving and strengthening the EU.
Also, the pragmatism of French and German leaders who do not overtly favor one side over another could be a decisive factor for Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania—all of which seek to check Russian assertiveness without starting a war—to accept Franco-German mediation.
Finally, in the aftermath of Brexit in the United Kingdom and the state of perplexity that EU leaders now face, the natural coalition of the two biggest EU powers seems to be inevitable.
What the Alliance Could Do
In order to prevent a destabilizing arms race between Washington and Moscow, the Franco-German alliance should press the US to power down its missile defense system in Europe. Although cited as necessary to defend against possible missile attacks by Iran, the Iranians do not currently have the capability to launch such attacks. While the 2014 tests of longer range missiles have demonstrated the ability to strike Israel, intelligence reports indicate that Iran’s missile program has advanced little since then, and that its intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities are nowhere in sight.
Moreover, the enforcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is intended to prevent Iran from arming its missiles with nuclear warheads, and even when armed with conventional warheads, Iranian missiles are not a game changer militarily, nor do they constitute an existential threat to any nation.
Thus, the current situation in Iran provides an excellent opportunity for a Franco-German alliance to encourage the US and Russia to work together on the prevention of the Iranian ICBM program, rather than relying on an auspicious and tension-escalating missile defense system in Europe.
Another contentious issue between the US and Russia that the Franco-German alliance would be capable of mediating are the concerns about the current deployment of $3.4 billion-worth of US military personnel and equipment to eastern Europe in response to a perceived Russian military threat against the Baltics. Rather than encourage the continued deployment of the weapons of war, the Franco-German alliance should reinforce the mechanisms of peace and provide additional funds and personnel to the ongoing OSCE High Commission on Minority Rights mission in the Baltics, so as to ensure that the rights of Russian minorities within these countries would continue to be respected.
Such a proposal is in-line with the conclusions of the February-March 2016 European Leadership Network, which stated that the EU should put all its efforts into supporting the OSCE as an instrument for monitoring and mediating conflicts within the European area. By doing so, the alliance would take away any pretext that Russia could use to conduct a destabilization campaign—à la Ukraine—and, therefore, significantly reduce tensions between the two competing powers.
Additionally, the Franco-German alliance would call on Russia to stop its military buildup in Kaliningrad, in exchange for the halting of US military deployment. This would alleviate the concerns of Poland and Romania, whose security interests feel threatened by the ongoing Russian buildup near their border and in the Black Sea.
This third-party intervention would allow both the US and Russia to “save face,” since neither side would be seen as unilaterally making concessions toward the other.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Quapan