By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Vladimir Putin occupied a prominent place in the great international gathering in Paris to mark the century of the 1918 armistice. His presence led to odd moments, especially when the Russian President, so often accused of threatening peace on the Continent, attended the opening ceremony of the Forum for Peace.
The formula chosen by the French Elysee was itself pretty odd – full of contradictions, and with risks of accentuating divisions inside EU by marking the anniversary from a purely Western view. With an accent on German-French reconciliation, which nobody has contested for decades. The French organisers forgot that while the 11 November armistice ended the war on the Western front, it certainly did not so on the all continent, and even less in the world at large. President Macron denounced nationalism as the cause of the First War, but he refrained from mentioning the links between the desire of the winners to punish the losers after WW1 and many crisis of today.
The patchy gathering of heads of states, some with their own memories of WW1 and others from countries that did not exist at the time, was essentially an attempt by president Macron to profile himself as a leader of the free world, now that Angela Merkel is finishing her last mandate and President Trump not fulfilling that role anymore. Macron is also preparing European elections when he hopes to reproduce at European level the hijack his movement has accomplished in French parliament.
So, the presence of Vladimir Putin was a part of a great show based on reconstructed memories serving very real political maneuvers. Like many participants the Russian president looked bored during the endless chapters of the ceremony, but at least he did not fall asleep as others did, including in the first row of seats. He cannot but have noted that the texts read by students at the Arc de Triomphe were in German, French, English and Chinese. Not a word was uttered in Russian despite the fact Russia entered the First World War as part of the Triple Alliance and that Russian troops fought in the trenches in France. Hence the visit of Putin to the monument to those who died on the French front
For him, it was important to be there prominently, in the first row, on a par with the American president, as proof that Russia is not a country that can be isolated. It was also supposed to provide opportunity for talks with president Trump.
Incidentally the duo turned out to be a quartet who briefly reviewed a series of international events. The French authorities feared that bilateral talks between US and Russia might detract attention from the program of commemoration. So, at the least minute, the organisers modified the seating to separate Trump from Putin, allowing Macron himself and Antonio Gutteres, general secretary of UN to take part, with Angela Merkel taking part at some moments.
At least, Putin came back to Moscow with the promise of a Trump-Putin bilateral talk during the G20 meeting later this month in Argentina, and president Macron announces that RT and Sputnik can apply for registration with the Elysée. The Macron’s proposal of a European army is vague enough for Russia to adopt a wait-and- see attitude. Putin just commented that it was not a new idea, but that it was “quite natural for a powerful economic entity to want to be independent, self-sufficient, and sovereign in matters of defence and security”.
As regards the ceremony itself, Putin was in the same wagon that numerous guests for whom 11 November 1918 did not mean peace and reconciliation as the Western centered Paris’ commemoration was insisting on. For many, Macron’s insistence on similarities between our period and that of the inter-wars, emphasised differences, even division, on the memorial process.
Russia is among those for whom WW1 did not end in victory nor in military defeat. Soldiers came back to a chaotic country, undergoing a brutal change of regime, having to fight a civil war for the years to come. In March 1918, Lenin had signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty by which Russia summited to the amputation of large territories for the sake of saving the Bolshevik revolution. During the civil war, troops of countries who were Russian allies during WW1 invaded Russia to defeat Revolution, sometimes side by side with former common enemies.
This complexity explains the discretion of the Russian authorities who, four years ago, remembered the start of the war in 1914, but ignored the armistice of November 1918. Contrary to WW2, the first world war did not provide Russia with victories to remember, heroes to celebrate, and very few artistic or literary chef d’oeuvres.