Black Sea Ripples of Russia’s Mistral Bid

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

The possibility that Russia might purchase one or two French helicopter carriers Mistral from France has long caused anxiety in Tbilisi. Although Georgia’s reaction to initial reports about the purported bid was unusually calm, apprehension became more tangible as Russia and France took concrete steps toward realization of the “commercial project.”

It appears that Mistral warships were high on the agenda during Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze’s recent visit to France where he held talks with his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner and also met with some of the most influential deputies in the French National Assembly. Later, in his interview to Georgian media, Vashadze on one hand showed diplomatic restraint by saying that “it is each nation’s sovereign right to sell weapons to whomever she deems appropriate,” but showed his country’s growing nervousness on the other by adding that “as allies and friends, we also have the right to express our concern.” In the same interview, Vashadze tried to calm the Georgian audience by claiming that the French side “had carefully listened to Georgia’s arguments.” He promptly added, “I do not think the issues related to the purchase of this vessel by the Russians are that simple.”

As reported by Georgian Imedi-TV, Akaki Minashvili, Chairman of the Georgian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, said on December 4 that the parliament is going to adopt a special statement on the issue since the purchase by Russia of sophisticated French warships would constitute “an immediate danger to Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic States, as well as the whole region.” It looks like this measure is supported by both the parliamentary majority and the opposition since the Chairman of the Georgian Parliament, Davit Bakradze, President Saakashvili’s close ally and the second in charge by the Georgian constitution, showed his full support for the move. “To us, it is not only a commercial contract,” Bakradze said, “and we hope that France will take into consideration not only its commercial interest but the real situation in the region.” Some of the members of the parliamentary opposition have been even more categorical when they demanded from the government to promptly react in order to “rally international opinion” and “increase international pressure on France.”

Apparently, Georgians became alerted by Vladimir Putin’s response to a journalist’s question in Paris where he travelled last week to meet with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and discuss, among other things, Russia’s military cooperation with France. During the press conference on November 27, the journalist raised the issue of France planning to sell a Mistral ship and Georgia’s concern that it will be used against it. “We have not yet decided anything on the purchase of a Mistral,” Prime Minister Putin said in response, “but anything is possible.” In reaction to Georgia’s concern, Putin added, “as for our use of armaments, I will tell you that if we buy armaments, we will use them as we see fit.”

Needless to say that every word voiced by the Russian leadership on issues related to Georgia finds broad resonance in Tbilisi and Vladimir Putin’s “we will use them as we see fit” has been interpreted by the Georgians as a direct threat to their already fragile existence. Georgian concerns only increased when the chief of Russia’s military fleet, Admiral Vladimir Visotsky, stated that “if Russia had had Mistral-type vessels during last year’s conflict, the Balck Sea fleet would have performed its task in 40 minutes, instead of 26 hours.”

Currently, some 20 percent of Georgian territory is under Russian occupation, including the north-eastern Abkhazia region along the Black Sea. During the Russian military aggression in August 2008 Moscow actively used its naval capabilities to occupy a significant portion of Georgia’s Black Sea shore, most importantly, the port of Poti, vital for Georgia’s security and commerce. Even without powerful Mistral ships Georgia’s Black Sea coast in Abkhazia is already dominated by the Russian navy and Georgia’s vulnerability will only increase should the Mistral deal materialize. Furthermore, Georgians believe that French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the mediator of the Russo-Georgian ceasefire agreement should do more to make Russia comply with its international obligations and withdraw its troops and naval forces from the occupied Georgian lands and territorial waters.

On December 3 the sizable Georgian community in France initiated a petition to the French government “Against the Sale of Mistrals to Russia” and is trying to mobilize France’s public opinion. Apart from Georgia, the Baltic nations also seem to be alerted by Russia’s Mistral bid, notwithstanding the fact that they have long been members of NATO and the European Union and should feel more secure than Georgia, which is left outside the Western collective security system. As Ants Laaneots, Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Defense Forces, said on November 21, “If the French eventually sell the ships [to the Russians], we will have to think about what kind of security measures must be taken should they be stationed in the Baltic Sea.” Likewise, analysts believe that the Georgian government and its NATO friends should think well in advance about the consequences of Russia’s Mistral acquisition and the naval imbalance it would cause in the Black Sea and elsewhere.