The last week’s visit to France of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has further strengthen Franco-Russian relations, while at the same time endangering European security. During this visit France and Russia concluded a series of economic agreements concerning the energy market (GDF Suez wil participate in the Nord Stream pipeline project), a partnership between the French rail company Alstom and its Russian counterpart TMH and opened exclusive talks on buying four Mistral class amphibious assault ships (LHD). Although France has not yet decided to sell the ships, this military deal seems almost certain and the bilateral talks between France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev seem to confirm that few details remain to be settled before the green light is given.
The Mistral is an LHD amphibious assault ship built by the French state owned DCNS and is one of the most capable ships of this type in existence. It is a force projection ship that can carry 16 helicopters, 450 fully equipped troops (900 for short deployments), 40 armored vehicles, two landing crafts launched from a well-deck and a field hospital. The ship can be used as a command center, allowing for the carriage and accommodation of 150 staff officers and personnel. In its capacity as a command ship the Mistral can form the nucleus of a task force and perform sea control operations or amphibious assault missions. In order to cut costs and shorten the time for delivery and commissioning the ships of this class are built according to commercial standards, rather than naval standards.
Russia’s navy is formed mainly of soviet era ships or designs, with few new additions. Its main amphibious capability comes in form of the Ivan Rogov class, a Cold War era design, of which one ship is still operational. The Russian navy became interested in the Mistral in 2008 when the lead ship of the class was presented during a naval exhibition to the Russian naval staff.
How does this sale threaten European security, after all the Cold War is over? Russia still views the West with suspicion, it feels threatened by NATO’s Eastern expansion and craves to become a great power again. Furthermore Russia has displayed its willingness to use force to settle international disputes as it was evident in the 2008 war with Georgia. The sale of such an advanced military weapons system allows Russia to rebuild and consolidate its military capability and to project power in areas were in the last two decades it lost much influence: the Baltic and to a lesser extent, the Black Sea.
For the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and especially Georgia, the prospect of the Mistral sale means a further unbalancing of the military equilibrium in favor of Russia in their respective regions. According to the French military analyst Thomas Gomart from IFRI: „The Mistral will remind countries in Russia’s zone of influence that, in military terms, Moscow is still the boss and wants global prestige.” This holds painfully true in the Black Sea where Russia fields the largest fleet while the new NATO members Romania and Bulgaria have small and generally outdated fleets. Although a NATO member Turkey has moved towards Russia in the past years and shares many interests with the Kremlin in the Black Sea region. It is likely that if the deal goes through there will be some sort of an arms race in the Black Sea region as the most vulnerable states will try to come up with adequate measures to shore up their defenses and protect their interests in face of Russian assertiveness.
The Mistral issue is showing how Russia aims at fracturing NATO and the European Union, by pitting allies and member states one against another. The Baltic states, which feel the most threatened by Russia’s new assertiveness had not been consulted or informed by France about the deal. According to the Lithuanian defense minister Rasa Jukneviciene, she learned about the possible sale from the media, rather than through the usual diplomatic channels. During an informal meeting of the EU defense ministers the Latvian defense minister Imants Liegis stated that: „The EU and Nato should only sell their military equipment and weapons to third countries if it does not create risks of regional security tension…It is time for the EU and Nato to formulate a more clear and firm policy on rules for military export control. There are no clear rules now”. Poland is said to be exploring a possible meeting between the Polish foreign minister and its French counterpart in order to receive further clarifications on this issue. The Baltic states and Poland are also concerned over the French participation in the Nord Stream pipeline. Nord Stream may allow Russia to bully Poland and the Baltic states in making political concessions by cutting their supply of gas while at the same time continuing to supply Germany, France or the Netherlands.
Polish and Baltic protests have not fallen of deaf years however – the US the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates has expressed his concern over the prospective sale of such an advanced warship, while Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), introduced a bill that in the House foreign Affairs Committee, if adopted, will express the sense of Congress that „France and other member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union should decline to sell major weapons systems or offensive military equipment to the Russian Federation.” The United States cannot effectively block the sale of the Mistral to Russia as the ship does not contain American technology. However the US may put pressure on the French government to downgrade the equipments is going to install on the ship.
Despite the protests coming from the Baltic states and Poland, France seems set to go through with the deal. French president Nicolas Sarkozy remarked concerning the sale of the Mistrals to Russia that: „How can we say to our Russian partners we need you for peace, we need you to resolve a number of crises in the world, particularly the Iranian crisis … but we don’t trust you, we can’t work with you on Mistral?” In order to downplay the sale and allay the fears of the critics of the sale French diplomats point to the fact that they will sell an empty hull with no military equipment on board or weapons. However even if sold “bare” or in a “civilian” state, Russia still possesses the capability to arm and equip the ship. If Russian naval shipyards will receive the license to build Mistrals these new ships will be armed and equipped for military operations from the keel up and may even receive some improvements. Some French supporters of the deal have gone so far as arguing that the Mistral is basically a civilian ship and will most likely be used for humanitarian operations. This is not the case however – the Mistral’s main weapons are not guns nor missiles – but the complement of Marines and the helicopter squadron that it is able to deploy.
Why France would want to sell a state of the art amphibious ship to Russia? This question has a complex answer. From a political point of view France has been trying to forge good relations with most of the rising powers of the moment: India, Brazil and Russia. Paris views Russia as being fundamental for Europe’s security and considers that NATO and the EU should go beyond Cold War clichés. French Prime-Minister François Fillon has stated that: “It would be impossible to call for continental stability in partnership with Russia if we refuse to sell armaments to Russia. A refusal would amount to contradicting our own discourse…”
Concerning Russia, France has to play catch up with Germany when it comes to economic relations, Berlin making the most in this sense out of its relationship with Moscow. The sale of the Mistrals viewed strictly in economic terms is important for keeping busy French shipyards in a time of crisis and saving some jobs. Such a sale will have however a negative impact inside NATO. It will strengthen the divisions between the Western members of the alliance (Old Europe) and those from Central and Eastern Europe (New Europe) and call into question alliance solidarity. For Poland, the Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria the sale will most likely reinforce the perception that despite being members of NATO or the EU their interests matter little in the eyes of older member states and that western security guarantees should not be taken for granted. In order to quell some of the anxieties over the sale of the Mistrals to Russia, France should assist the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in modernizing their militaries. As for the Central and Eastern European countries, they should contemplate forming diplomatic alliances inside NATO and the EU in order to advance their interests. Furthermore countries that feel especially threatened by the prospect of Russian Mistrals patrolling the Baltic and the Black Sea should invest more in their defense establishments.