Franco-Russian Naval Sale is a Challenge to NATO

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 29

NATO is being tested, with “its future at stake,” not so much in Afghanistan as the line recently went, but rather in Brussels itself and in the Alliance’s most influential capitals. The latest among these tests –one that the Alliance seems only determined to side-step– is over the proposed French naval modernization program for Russia. The program envisages selling one French Mistral-class warship –a state-of-the art, offensive power-projection capability– to Russia and licensing the construction of three or four ships of the same class in Russia, potentially usable in the Baltic and Black Sea.

The Mistral would be the first-ever military and production-licensing sale by a NATO country to Russia; and the deal’s value could set a billion-Euro benchmark or even higher. Moscow has also expressed interest in purchasing the “soldier of the future” integrated kit Felin from France’s Sagem company, as part of modernizing the Russian ground troops’ offensive potential. Again, Russia’s “near abroad” would be the likely arena for using such forces

Certain other West European countries could well use a French “precedent” and start selling their own military production to Russia, with similar disregard for the security of Russia’s neighbors, who are NATO allies and partners. Ideally, from Moscow’s standpoint, European countries would ultimately even compete with each other in arms offers to Russia. Moscow is trying to induce such competition already by hinting at talks with other European countries for Mistral-class analogues, if France bargains too hard on the terms of its sale.

Beyond crass commerce, France is also justifying the Mistral sale to Russia as an anti-crisis stimulus program and employment-generating measure, in addition to its grand political rationalization (EDM, January 7, 26). Thus, France is creating a myriad excuses that other NATO countries can emulate in future arms deals with Russia, if this Mistral sale goes ahead, with corrosive effects on the Alliance’s solidarity and its policies.

If NATO tolerates the Mistral deal, then other allied countries and companies may scramble for bilateral arms deals with Russia, outside any NATO consultation processes, and without objection from an alliance self-consigned to irrelevancy on this account. NATO needs to deal with the Mistral case pro-actively, before any fait accompli and precedent will have been set. If NATO fails on this issue now, then the entire issue of arms sales to Russia will spin out of the Alliance’s ability to control.

Meanwhile, NATO looks reluctant to face the implications of the proposed sale for the Alliance itself. The office of NATO’s Secretary-General seems to give the Mistral deal a green light without any qualms, thus distancing itself from the US position. According to NATO’s chief spokesman James Appathurai, “NATO has no formal role at all in this sale. We are quite confident that the sale would be (when it takes place) perfectly legal, within all the relevant frameworks. But of course some allies have expressed concern about the sale, and we are aware of it” (Radio Free Europe, February 9).

This statement’s first part sounds like a resigned admission of NATO irrelevance to the issues at hand. The second element implicitly disavows US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ objections to the Mistral sale and the Pentagon spokesman’s statement of receptiveness to regional concerns (La France D’Abord: Paris First to Capitalize on Russian Military Modernization, EDM, February 11).

The Secretary-General’s office backtracked somewhat the following day, with the same spokesman conceding that “the anxieties of some Allies are of course real and are understandable for historical and for geographical reasons” (NATO press release, February 10).

This interpretation, however, avoids the issue of Russian intentions and capabilities in the context of the Mistral deal. It reduces the debate to history and geography, without taking the recent experience with Russian conduct into account. And while mentioning Allies, it overlooks NATO Partners, although Georgia and Ukraine would be directly affected by the possible Mistral deployment in the Black Sea.

Georgia remains a prime target of opportunity for Russia in the Black Sea basin at present. A Mistral-class ship would enable Russia to threaten amphibious and helicopter landings on Georgia’s sea coast, with far greater speed and effectiveness than those of Russia’s existing capabilities. Russia’s naval command publicly alluded to the Mistral’s potential use against Georgia when starting the talks with France for the sale. Paris has ignored Georgian officials’ appeals (EDM, September 18, November 2, December 2, 2009). Meanwhile, Georgia is an all-but disarmed country and (as a thwarted NATO aspirant) is not covered by any external security guarantees.

Russia could also use this type of ship to intimidate Ukraine in the run-up to 2017, when the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease in the Crimea runs out. Moscow has indicated in multiple statements that it is prepared to keep the Sevastopol naval base (eastern Crimea) regardless of legal issues. The Mistral’s helicopters and armored vehicles would give Russia the threat option of a quick landing on the Crimean peninsula’s western side.

Meanwhile, immersed in electoral confrontations, and with a moribund presidency, Ukraine failed to join Georgia in raising the Mistral issue at the international level, although Ukraine might equally be affected in due course.

Defense ministers and other officials in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania continue expressing concern about the possible impact on Baltic security, if Russia stations a Mistral-class warship there. According to Latvian Defense Minister Imants Liegis, this would change the security situation in the Baltic Sea, necessitating adjustments in defense planning (BNS, February 9). Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene will raise this issue within NATO: “Such a sale is quite astonishing to us, this will become a precedent. It is an important issue for NATO and we will bring it up” (BNS, February 9). According to Estonian Foreign Ministry senior official (and previously ambassador to NATO) Harri Tiido, the Mistral sale to Russia could undermine the Baltic States’ security; and “Baltic nations may in that case have to consider changes to their defense planning (Radio Free Europe, February 9).

Thus far, Baltic and Black Sea countries have not been effective in raising their concerns on this matter within NATO. They have not yet spoken in a concerted fashion; since they are worried about irritating France (even about possible French retaliation on other matters); and they seem at times to hope that the Mistral issue would just go away.

NATO’s internal politics are also partly responsible for inhibiting debate on this issue. Debate was discouraged at the political level, and the United States hesitated for four months before Gates raised the issue, privately and publicly, with Paris on February 8. Apparently, the quest for Russian “help” on Afghanistan and Iran, all its frustrations notwithstanding, took precedence over longer-term considerations.

However, serious examination of the proposed Mistral sale in NATO need not be construed as jeopardizing NATO-Russia relations, or primarily as a Baltic and Black Sea issue. Ultimately, the most relevant issue is that of integrity of NATO’s internal consultation processes and procedures. The Mistral affair should bring the wider issue of arms sales to Russia onto NATO’s agenda. The new NATO Strategic Concept, currently being drafted, provides a compelling first opportunity in this regard.