One of the bonuses of a Trump presidency – of which there will be many negatives – is the prospect of a distinct lowering of temperature in relations between Russia and the West. Now, it seems that Vladimir Putin is destined to have a friend in Western Europe, too. The new favourite for next year’s French presidential election, Francois Fillon, is just as keen on forging relations with the Russian president. Asked recently whether he worried about Trump’s closeness to Putin he replied: ‘I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.’ He went on to demand that Russia be treated as ‘a great nation’ and not made a pariah over its annexation of the Crimea.
Putin has returned the compliment, calling Fillon an ‘upstanding person’. If I were a westward-looking Ukrainian marooned in the Crimea, or a resident of Aleppo being bombed by Russian airstrikes, I am sure that I would not welcome the new détente between Putin and the West. But then if I were either of those things I would hardly have any reason to praise Barack Obama, David Cameron or any other Western leader who has rattled the sabre at Putin over the past few years. Rattle the sabre is all they have done. It has remained firmly in its sheath – which has done nothing to remove Russia from the Crimea nor ease the raids on Aleppo. The rattling has merely made the West look weak.
The real problem for Obama and other Western leaders has been Syria. How could they take a position which opposed Assad – as well as Russia’s support for Assad — while simultaneously also fulfilling their promise to eradicate Isis? David Cameron must have set a record for a British Prime Minister in proposing military intervention twice within two years in the same country – once against its president and once against the president’s enemies. The pretence that there was a viable population of moderate, non-Isis rebels capable of filling a vacuum were Assad and Isis to be weakened by Western air strikes fools no-one.
Francois Fillon sees the problem a lot more clearly. To him, the over-riding objective is to defeat Islamic fundamentalism. He published a book this autumn, Conquering Islamic Terrorism, and has made it clear that he is quite happy to work with Assad to achieve the defeat of Isis.
My guess is that Fillon won’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, but his philosophy does have a whiff of realism about it. And after all, is co-operating with Assad and Putin to defeat a common, and to us a more potent, enemy really any worse than our co-operating with Stalin during World War II? There is an argument that it is, because Hitler presented to us an existential threat while Isis does not, but I don’t think that is the way that most voters in France – which has borne the brunt of recent Islamic terror attacks on the West – will see it.