As Russia’s relations in Eastern Europe have waned on the face of renewed imperialistic ambition, Moscow has looked for allies elsewhere, particularly in France’s former sphere of influence where scars of Paris’ dark past remain. Simultaneously, France has taken a forefront to be a mediator in geopolitical conflicts in regions Moscow has let down.
Current President of France, Emmanuel Macron’s foreign policy has been daring, using renewed French soft power to set his country as a prime go to negotiator for conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. Putin has amplified his message that Russia wants a multipolar order and holds on grudges from the past.
Influence in Africa
Over the last several years, North and West Africa has gone through political turmoil, caught between the powder keg of the War of Terror and the Arab Spring. Many of these countries used to be former French colonies and vassals, with fourteen nations still paying colonial tax to Paris Today.
Paris and Moscow’s modern day geopolitical dispute would occur in Libya as both vied for influence with Khalifa Haftar in his conflict with the GNA and extremist organizations. Though Haftar still holds large swaths of territory, the fighting was brought to a halt with the United Nations ceasefire after Turkish drones balanced the war.
When al-Qaeda-linked organizations took control of large swaths of Mali in 2012, France formally intervened with Operation Serval and then Barkhane. When the operations started to become unpopular at home and abroad, the Kremlin saw an opportunity in the country to hold influence through its proxies. This would happen when a military junta overthrew the Malian government and led the country in a military dictatorship ever since. One of their prime conditions was the removal of French forces immediately from the nation, which the French did this past summer.
The pacing of the immediate withdrawal after the old government requested intervention was not surprising, as the Russian government inserted its influence immediately in the country. The notorious Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization whose leadership is part of Putin’s inner circle, has been linked to civilian executions as the military junta has effectively cracked down on freedom of speech and government. The Kremlin has heavily supported the junta as well, supplementing their military despite international ire.
Mali was not the only former French colony that saw a renewed interest in Putin’s foreign policy as Burkina Faso’s junta is also seeking closer ties to Moscow. Holding grudges of French rule, the junta attacked French institutions and waved Russian flags in their military convoys. This politicking has helped the Kremlin formulate ‘allies’ in Africa to stay idle or vote in Russia’s favor at the United Nations as many African leaders see only Western Europe as pillagers of resources while simultaneously ignoring Russia’s dark colonial history in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe.
Vying for Influence in the Mediterranean
Not staying idol to Russia’s growing influence in Africa, France has made moves of their own. Turkish President Erdogan has grown closer to Russia, including the purchase of the S-400 system, which will be aimed at the Hellenic Air Force in case of war with Greece in the Mediterranean.
Erdogan has had a geopolitical dispute with Macron the past several years over growing tensions in Libya, Syria, the Caucasus, and the Mediterranean — even going as far as to incite uprisings against Macron for his policies towards the French Muslim population. Putin has used this to his advantage despite his waning relations with Greece.
Greek-Russian relations have soured for several reasons as Russia excerpts influence in Turkey and the destruction of Mariupol in Ukraine, which held the largest Greek community in the country. As NATO remains lukewarm on tensions in the Mediterranean, not to upset either member-state in the alliance, France stepped up and took a decisive side. Not only supplying Greece with frigates and Rafael fighter jets, but Macron also solidified a mutual defense pact in case Ankara were to start a war in the region.
Growing South Caucasus Dispute
In the Caucasus, Armenia has been abandoned by Russia, the sole guardian of the nation. Disastrous conflicts with Azerbaijan since 2020 have left the country as a rump state all but in name whose fate is now at the hands of its neighbors. Moscow has been reluctant to end conflicts against its CTSO member, signaling to Yerevan it cannot survive without Russia.
The growing drift between Armenia and Russia has caught the eye of France, which has condemned the aggressive policies of Azerbaijan and Turkey, along with criticizing Moscow over inflaming tensions in the South Caucasus. In response to Russian inaction, France has proposed a potential French-led UN peacekeeping mission to mitigate encroachments along Armenia’s borders — something Russia has failed in its own “peacekeeping” endeavors the past three years. Moscow harshly criticized this proposal, along with claims Russia can oversee its own backyard — though, Azerbaijan showed how toothless CTSO is.
Along with border clashes and open diplomatic disputes with Moscow by Central Asia, Russia may continue to lose control of their own sphere of influence as they have internally weakened themselves gallivanting in a disastrous war in Ukriane. Likewise, France’s influence in Africa has dissipated along their influence in the Middle East due to not acknowledging their own dark colonial past. Both Moscow and Paris will continue to engage in foreign policy disputes in each other’s former sphere of influence to gain an advantage over each other for the near future.
[Photo (cropped) by kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”