Vladimir Putin visited France this week. AP focused on the warship deal being negotiated between the two nations, for which the Russians are demanding the transfer of French technology and a quick ramp-up to joint production. Reuters, meanwhile, highlighted the disclosure from Nicolas Sarkozy’s office that Putin promised to freeze delivery to Iran of the S-300 air defense system.
The Reuters report’s brief venture into editorial comment presents a striking contrast with other pieces of information distributed almost as afterthoughts in the two reports. Here’s Reuters on the import of Putin’s S-300 promise:
Russia had earlier insisted on its right to carry out the air defense contract. Its rethink underlined how the tolerance of non-Western big powers for Iran’s nuclear activity is fading, and could deny Iran formidable protection against any military attacks on its atomic installations … the Kremlin shift on the S-300 … pointed to Tehran’s increased diplomatic isolation over its secretive campaign for nuclear capability.
Few analyses could be more surreally credulous – as if Russia losing patience with Iran were something new and not a development reported regularly over the last five years (see March 2006, March 2007, September 2009, November 2009, and February 2010 for a sampling of this recurring phenomenon). Besides blithely dismissing history, the zero-skepticism approach to journalism ignores contradictory indications like those summarized in Haaretz today: e.g., Russia remaining in negotiations with Iran over new nuclear reactors, and Russian legislators claiming that, because the S-300 is a defensive system, its delivery to Iran is not affected by this week’s UN sanctions vote.
But we can at least award the Reuters team points for editorial certitude. If their certitude comes off like the invincible self-esteem of the underperforming American math student, well, there’s a reason for that. The remarkable thing about the AP and Reuters reports isn’t so much that they reflexively retail the talking points of the Western left; it’s that they include stray pearls of significant information that the reporters seem to have no clue about.
Three of them struck me particularly. The Reuters report informs us, buried in its formulaic middle, of an Iranian official’s announcement on 11 June that if Iran’s ships are subjected to the UN cargo inspection regime indicated by the new sanctions, Tehran will begin stopping and inspecting ships in the Persian Gulf.
This disclosure is actually far more significant than the news that the Russians have, yet again, changed their story on the S-300 delivery. Iran practiced stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz during the big naval exercises held in April; this is something the Iranians might very well do. Unlike Russia’s pro forma diplomatic assertions on well-worn topics, Iran stopping innocent commercial shipping as a punishment for the imposition of sanctions has the potential very quickly to create a crisis for the United States.
The second little unpolished gem of information comes from the AP report. In it we are given a picture of French officials anxious to “engage” with their Russian counterparts. The point is expressly made that longstanding human rights concerns with Russian policy – concerns French officials have enunciated often – went without mention during the visit. Two other passages are recorded, however:
At a Paris exhibit showcasing Russia’s industrial might, Putin told guests that it was time to “deepen our cooperation,” and encouraged oil giant Total SA to “expand your activity in Russia.”
“You can count on us,” Total Chairman Christophe de Margerie answered.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said he wanted to “further develop” trade with Russia, and ended a speech at the trade show by saying: “Vive la Russie!”
Around him stood a full-size Russian attack helicopter, mock satellites, nuclear energy officials plugging their expertise, and four-story-high matryoshkas, or Russian nesting dolls.
These incidents would be one thing if they did not follow hard on the heels of a surprise move by Russia and Germany, on 7 June, to propose a new joint security committee for Russia and the EU. Russia has been unilaterally proposing various new venues for security decision-making since at least 2008, but the latest proposal has the new feature of cooperation and endorsement from Germany.
France and Britain used to go to a great deal of trouble to prevent de facto alliances between Germany and Russia; with the latter’s joint proposal being sprung on Brussels in June 2010, in light of everything else going on that will affect European security (Iran, Turkey, Israel, Southern Europe’s economic meltdown), Sarkozy can’t afford to hang back in dealing with Russia. Fifteen years ago, Russia would have appeared as the importunate partner in rapprochement with France, but the appearance is the opposite today. The implications for America’s alliances and security are, at the very least, disquieting.
The final item also comes from the AP report, toward the end, where we read this interesting passage:
Putin also visited a French government building — the former headquarters of the national weather forecasting service — being sold to Russia in a prime location near the Eiffel Tower. Russia wants to build what Putin called a “spiritual cultural center,” what many expect to mean a Russian Orthodox church.
What a remarkable way of putting it. The wording here is jarringly evocative of the euphemisms used about Islamic “spiritual cultural centers” – yet what is in question is apparently a church. What is the reason for talking around this matter? No possible conclusion is satisfactory from the standpoint of religious freedom or even cultural liberality. Do the French seriously need to have it hidden from them that a Russian Orthodox church might open in central Paris? Will having been deceived make them feel better about it when the church opens for business?
I’m well aware that France’s government is avowedly and severely secular, but France tolerates houses of worship just as all Western nations do. Is there a law against the government selling its buildings if they might be used as churches? If so, why is it being broken? And if not, what is the point of the mumble-mouth about a “spiritual cultural center”? – as if, incidentally, that makes it more palatable.
We must also note that there is no historical reason for the French to feel offended or ridden roughshod over by the presence of a Russian Orthodox church. The French were Roman Catholic for centuries, yes, but there is no tribal memory among them of being oppressed, attacked, invaded, or ravished by practitioners of Russian Orthodox Christianity. If anything, Russians have a national memory of being invaded by the armies of Napoleon nearly 200 years ago.
There seems to be something odd at work here, a kind of elliptical sorting of anything “religious” into misfit categories. Sure enough, when a municipality in Europe buys into an Islamic spiritual cultural center, it has too often ended up with a mosque whose impact on the community is decidedly uncomfortable, and from which proclamations are issued to a radicalized cadre of faithful. But when was the last time a Russian Orthodox church created community problems?
If the French don’t find the prospect of a Russian Orthodox church distasteful or fearful, then it’s a valid question why they can’t just talk about it in straightforward terms. If they do find it distasteful or fearful, then it’s another valid question what’s gone wrong with them. And if the church itself wouldn’t bother them, but they would view its opening in Paris as a symbol of cultural subjugation by Russia, and that’s why their government doesn’t want to let on that it’s allowing this – well, if that’s the case, there’s so much wrong here we’ll probably never sort it all out.
But I have the feeling this last item of the three, right here, is the central, debilitating problem of the West. If we can reassure ourselves, against all evidence, that Russia is really losing patience with Iran this time, but we can’t say “church” out loud in public discourse – we’re going down.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.