Arms Transfers to Russia: An Internal Challenge to NATO

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 125

As NATO’s predicaments multiply, so do its political difficulties in acknowledging problems, let alone remedying them. The transfer of modern military technology to Russia has become a serious internal challenge to the Alliance. Mercantilism and special political relations with Russia by the French, Italian, and German governments are driving this process, bypassing NATO and trumping basic notions of allied strategy and solidarity.

The implications of this process are inherently a matter for NATO to deal with. However, the Alliance seems unable to form a policy on this issue, and unwilling to hold a potentially divisive debate about it. NATO (or a critical mass of its membership) looks away from this problem, and bureaucratic fiat in Brussels from the top rules out discussion of this issue in the Alliance.

Amid failing operations and programs, coupled with severe funding shortfalls, NATO authorities are reluctant to challenge the Alliance’s biggest continental members over arms sales to Russia. They seem equally reluctant to irritate Russia on this account. In effect, NATO declines to treat a NATO issue as an Alliance issue.

These arms deals challenge NATO on three levels: political alliance management, control over transfers of advanced military technology, and security along NATO’s eastern borders. Nevertheless, NATO (as well as Washington) seems to be recusing itself from this matter on all three counts. Self-recusal on such major issues can ultimately result in loss of relevance for the Alliance.

In this vacuum of authority, arms producers in France, Italy, and Germany are each dealing with Russia on their own account. The three governments encourage this trend without reference to NATO strategy, policies, goals, or norms. They also seem unconcerned by the impact of their arms sales on the security of NATO members and partner countries vis-à-vis Russia.

On June 17, France and Russia signed the delivery contract for two French Mistral-class warships, with an option for two more ships to be built in Russia under French licenses. That same day Rheinmetall, a leading German producer of military technology, signed a $398 million contract with Russia’s defense ministry to equip a combat training center for Russian ground forces. Rheinmetall will build this center at Russia’s main troop training range, Mulino on the Volga (Nizhniy Novgorod oblast). Planned according to the standards of Bundeswehr’s training centers, the Mulino center is due to start operating in 2013 for company-level exercises and in 2014 for battalion-level ones. Russia’s defense ministry is acquiring Rheinmetall licenses to equip similar centers elsewhere in Russia, after the work on Mulino is completed.

While Russian President Dmitry Medvedev witnessed the French Mistral contract-signing in St. Petersburg (see EDM, June 27), Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov witnessed the Rheinmetall contract-signing in Magdeburg (Zvezda TV, June 18; Interfax, June 21). The two coinciding events reflect the thrust of Moscow’s selective bilateralism in Western Europe, working around NATO and the EU. Within that general thrust, the signing of two major military contracts on the same day reflects a growing momentum of military sales to Russia.

The editorial page of Le Figaro (June 22), mouthpiece of the French presidential palace, characterized the Mistral contract-signing as a “watershed moment,” leading to a Franco-Russian “industrial rapprochement.” It featured Vladimir Yakunin, Russian Railroads chief and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s confidant, urging France and Europe to integrate their industrial and energy sectors with Russia’s and compete globally on that basis. Germans had understood this “and the French are now following suit” (Le Figaro, June 22).

Moscow is currently negotiating to procure the Felin, “soldier of the future” infantry combat kit from French Sagem, light armored vehicles from French Panhard and Italian Iveco, and dual-capable helicopter engines and avionics from several leading European producers. Israel has delivered unmanned aerial vehicles for the Russian military. Russia’s defense ministry has also evidenced keen interest in modern armor from Rheinmetall.   

Russia‘s arms import policy envisages a two-stage process. In the first stage, Russia would purchase batches of the equipment, along with licenses, for cash. In the second stage, Russia and the Western producer would set up joint ventures for serial production on Russian territory.

The United States could use its influence and work with NATO allies to contain this process. Creating a NATO mechanism to control and regulate military technology transfers to third parties is one possibility, under discussion for some time. Meanwhile, the Obama administration shows scant interest in this problem in general.

The US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials cautiously objected to the French Mistral sale to Russia several times during 2010, in discussions with French counterparts (including President Sarkozy on one occasion). Such attempts, however, were sporadic, lacking continuity and policy focus, and yielding to higher priorities on the agenda. Ultimately, the Obama administration decided against spending political capital in three key European capitals on the issue of military technology transfers to Russia. Consumed with failing expeditionary operations and the short-term priorities these dictate, Washington avoids facing issues that affect NATO’s ability to meet core commitments beyond the short term.