“I may climb perhaps to no great heights, but I will climb alone” is my favorite line from the famous French play Cyrano de Bergerac. The 1990 cinema reenactment was particularly well done. Gérard Depardieu – a man who epitomizes Gallic spirit and French culture – played Cyrano. Everyone loved the world’s best known Frenchman playing the world’s favorite French literary character – including Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, Putin loved Depardieu so much that in January of 2013, Putin granted Depardieu citizenship so he could avoid French tax laws. But, in the wake of France’s newfound need for allies against ISIS, it seems that the world’s most culturally proud country has forgotten Russia’s theft of this cultural gem. Since the attacks in Paris on November 13 th , French President François Hollande has been rallying support for a global anti-ISIS coalition. The Representative of France to the UN responded to the attacks by stating France “will never renounce its values.” Yet, perhaps due to the urgent need to respond, France’s standards of liberté, égalité, and fraternité seem to be forgotten.
I’m referring to Hollande’s decision to ally himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hollande’s decision to invite Russia into his anti-ISIS coalition is a dangerous and rash one. Russia – particularly under President Putin – is a terrible ally for any international coalition. Putin himself is almost directly to blame. He is an expert political stuntman – knowing precisely how to convey Russian solidarity and strength to the Russian people. Whether it’s being photographed alone swimming in the freezing waters of Siberia, bombing American funded rebels after agreeing to fight ISIS, or using his dogs to intimidate German leader Angela Merkel (who has a well-known fear of dogs), Putin has demonstrated a pattern of yearning to always be dominant.
This type of je ne sais quoi personality, if not contained, is toxic for any multilateral long term effort aimed at destroying ISIS. Of course, there are cultural aspects too. Russian culture rewards unilateral action. These demonstrations of Russian power in the international community make Moscow appear powerful and independent while distracting Russians from their flailing oil-based economy. Monsieur Hollande probably knows this. Or maybe he is just forgotten how Russia invaded and annexed Crimea twenty-two months ago. There may be another troublesome aspect of France’s decision to cooperate with Russia. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it’s yet another country that had their sovereignty violated by Russian forces. This time, however, it’s a NATO ally. Russia’s decision to violate Turkish airspace and bomb Turkmen villages further complicates France’s choice to include Russia. France, as a NATO ally – would have to declare war on Russia if it were to violate Turkey’s sovereignty – a scenario that looks more likely day by day.
However, now that Russia is somewhat considered an ally of France and, after Russia unveiled evidence that suggests Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is personally benefiting from the ISIS oil trade, France and President Hollande are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, France and Turkey are fellow NATO members and the evidence that Russia published is questionable. Yet, on the other, Russia currently provides generous air support against ISIS and Turkey may be benefiting from ISIS. The worst part of France’s overeager attitude to destroy ISIS by joining hands with Russia is that the very same French foundations that were challenged on November 13 th – liberté, égalité, fraternité – are not in line with Russian goals for the region. Russia allied with Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad and wants to ensure his continued rule post ISIS. Mr. Al-Assad caused a civil war that shattered his own nation and has used WMDs on his own people. Mr. Al-Assad and President Putin represent everything that the French republic promised they would stand against. And, by fighting alongside Russia, France only strengthens these anti- French values.
What President Hollande needs to do is confine Putin to a limited, albeit difficult, set of goals that directly harm ISIS and contribute to global stability. It’s not that France cannot use Russian strength for global good, it’s just that the world should be wary of Putin’s true ambitions. If he refuses to cooperate (cooperation being a necessary component of a coalition), then kiss him once on each cheek before showing him the door. Sure, it may be risky but – as Cyrano did – sometimes it is better to climb alone.