How Nicolas Sarkozy Tamed Russia--For Now

To little fanfare last week Russia kept its word. It dismantled checkpoints set up deep within Georgian territory during August's Russo-Georgian war, two days ahead of its Sept. 15 deadline. It was only the first in a schedule of promises made this month to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiating on behalf of the European Union. But it was another key step toward something resembling peace, however cold and tenuous, in the southern Caucasus. For Sarkozy, it was also something of a personal victory, something tangible to point to in the mediation effort he's led, which is now putting to rest his image as a lightweight head of state, prone to flashy policy that seemed designed deliberately, even primarily, to stand out.

In fact, during the recent crisis, French diplomats privately wondered how Georgia would have fared had someone else held the EU's rotating presidency when shots rang out in South Ossetia. Gallic pride? Perhaps, but if the war had begun two months earlier, it would have fallen into Slovenia's lap; five months later, the Czech Republic's. Leaders from either country may have rose to the occasion, but France's historic experience with great power politics and its extensive, well-oiled diplomatic machine undoubtedly lent Sarkozy that extra degree of credibility when negotiating with Moscow. More to the point, his oft-criticized style, personality and controversial, seemingly disjointed foreign-policy choices may have actually cohered into success on a broader scale.

His impulsive personality, for instance, once denigrated in consensus-happy Europe, is now seen by some of the top military and diplomatic experts in France and Europe as a plus in dealing with a fast-moving dangerous situation. Within three days of war breaking out, Sarkozy had dispatched Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to Tbilisi. Two days later, Sarkozy skirted EU convention by not consulting the whole Union and jetted between Moscow and Tbilisi to broker a six-point ceasefire.

Critics blasted the ensuing document as weakened by critical loopholes, lacking mention of Georgia's "territorial integrity." Le Monde called Sarkozy a "messenger of capitulation." But to security experts it was the best option available. Moscow knew Sarkozy wasn't outfitted to back up tough talk with military might, and there was little time for quibbling. By eschewing consensus-building, he got an unprecedented, potentially seminal EU diplomatic effort off the ground. "[The Russians] were 25 kilometers from Tbilisi," says François Heisbourg, a special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "What do you do? Diplomatic needlework? Or do you negotiate a rough-and-ready ceasefire so the guys actually get that radio call saying, 'Wherever you are, just stop'."

Some of Sarkozy's controversial diplomatic footwork in the early part of his term also reaped dividends. In deliberate contrast to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and to Washington, and at great political cost at home, Sarkozy will talk to everyone—regardless of their human-rights violations. In his view, all-in diplomacy can prevent misunderstandings, get results on human rights, and encourage countries to return to the international mainstream. Over the past year he has taken enormous criticism for welcoming to Paris Hugo Chávez, Muammar Kaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. While he initially tried to please the crowd with a provocative line on Russia—during his 2007 presidential campaign, he railed against Russia for its abuses in Chechnya and its human-rights record— his policy has since shifted from the values-based criticism during his campaign to a more pragmatic approach, says Thomas Gomart, a Russia specialist at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. For instance, Sarkozy was among the few Western leaders to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his party's victory in the deeply flawed parliamentary elections in December. The move baffled his European allies, but engaging Putin when few others would accept the results of the election may have ultimately helped his ability to negotiate. "Sarkozy is not seen as being gratuitously nasty to Moscow," says Tomas Valasek, of the Centre for European Reform in London. "Because of that, he has built up a certain capital reservoir of good will in Moscow and he cashed in."

Sarkozy gained even greater credibility in his negotiations with Moscow as a result of his very deliberate overtures to Central and Eastern Europe—new EU member states that have long harbored suspicions of French leaders. François Mitterrand resisted EU enlargement, and Warsaw and Prague never trusted Chirac's policy of balancing the United States by cozying up to the Arabs and the Russians. Chirac told the Eastern European leaders that backed the United States on Iraq in 2003 that they "missed a good opportunity to shut up." By contrast, Sarkozy has made frequent trips east as president and promoted bilateral cooperation on issues like agriculture and energy. In a Warsaw speech in May, he ended French labor-market restrictions on the residents of the 2004 EU accession countries a year ahead of schedule. And he has pleased the East by improving transatlantic relations, often reiterating his aim to "situate France openly and clearly within the Western family."

The upshot has been relatively smooth EU talks—especially after EU solidarity was boosted by Russia's August 26 recognition of the disputed enclaves' independence. But there are still serious issues to face. Sarkozy failed, for instance, to secure a passage for EU observers into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And Russia still has promises to keep, starting with withdrawing its troops from Georgia proper by October 10. Also in mid-October, EU leaders plan to meet with their counterparts from Russia and Georgia in Geneva to discuss the security of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Many of the details have yet to be worked out—and even the planning of the summit will require some very delicate diplomacy. But Sarkozy is today negotiating from a position of greater strength. The crisis accorded him the kind of international stature he was lacking, and for a president constrained by an economic downswing it also provided a distraction to critics at home. Last week, a French poll gave Sarkozy a 12-point approval bounce since July, when he became EU president. At least at home, that's a clear victory.