Gone with the Wind

By Jiri Kominek

France has attracted a lot of criticism over the past few months over its intentions to sell its state-of-the-art Mistral class amphibious assault ship to Russia.

Many questions arise as to why the French would want to break ranks with the E.U. and their NATO allies, and enable Russia to potentially threaten its neighbors including Georgia and the Baltic Republics with the new class of French ships whose name Mistral literally translates into “wind”. https://en.rian.ru/world/20100209/157819962.html

Historically France has always been a liberal arms dealer, willing to sell to just about everyone from failed African states to Saddam Hussein. So why should French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his administration give pause in this case, before throwing caution to the wind, so to speak? Perhaps there are a few reasons.

Apart from Western critics, voices within the Russian Navy question the value of such an acquisition, with some military experts going so far as to call the Mistral a “white elephant”.

Russian and other military experts doubt the ability of the Russian Navy to use the new vessel to its fullest potential. Apart from serving as a helicopter carrier and landing dock, the Mistral class also can serve as a command ship equipped with modern net-centric Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), and other electronic warfare capabilities.

In order to function properly in a naval battle group, however, the ship must act in concert with other vessels equipped with similar capabilities which, sadly the Russian Navy lacks. Furthermore, in what form the French will sell the Mistral to Russia remains unknown; however it is doubtful they will provide a fully packaged deal including all the toys.

One Western military expert said of the sale: “it is similar to buying a top of the line sound system for your home, when your home has no electricity”.

What could both sides hope to gain through the deal, which marks the first occasion that a NATO member will sell a sophisticated weapons platform to a former Cold War adversary?

For starters, the Kremlin can score brownie points with its domestic ship-building industry by providing the Severodvinsk or other shipyards with much needed work. After all, the Kremlin has hinted that the initial USD430-580mn purchase of a single vessel made in France could have follow-on orders for an additional 3-4 ships to be made under license in Russia.

In addition to providing work for local shipyards, the deal could spell a much-needed boost in terms of modern technology transfers for Russia’s ship-building industry.

Sarkozy can also tout the deal as a boost to its domestic naval industry, with DCNS always on the lookout for another customer, especially when the global economy is in the midst of a recession.

Furthermore, Sarkozy has defended the Mistral deal earlier in February saying that “one cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we do not treat it as one”.

But is the Mistral really about French and Russian jobs? Prague-based Russian analyst Ondrej Soukup holds a different view.

“The sale of French ships to Russia appear[s] more to have something to do with Russia attempting to attract French support for the Nord Stream and South Stream gas pipeline projects than with boosting arms sales and guaranteeing steady work in domestic shipyards”, said Soukup.

It is no secret that Gazprom continues to hold talks with GDF Suez as part of an effort to bring the latter aboard the Nord Stream project.

In late November, 2009, France’s competing energy supplier EDF signed on with Gazprom for a 10 percent stake in the South Stream gas pipeline project .

The question is who needs who in this equation? France meets most of its electricity demands domestically through nuclear energy and renewable resources. Gazprom on the other hand needs additional cash as well as the added political clout of another large E.U. player such as France to lend support to both projects in order to stave off criticism that it is solely a Russo-German gambit.

Furthermore, by getting a large player such as France onboard, Gazprom will find it easier to undermine the rival Nabucco project which has been regarded as the E.U.’s alternative supply route intended to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and the Kremlin’s mood swings.

Should this prove to be the true rationale behind the Mistral deal, then the whole matter is more than hot air; in the long-term, by going with the Russian flow, France would be drifting in an altogether different direction, potentially leaving the concept of a united and independent E.U. forever gone with the wind.