French Warship Sale to Russia: Another Symptom of NATO Erosion?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 39

Pierre Lellouche was for many years a staunchly Atlanticist politician in a Gaullist-minded France. Currently serving President Nicolas Sarkozy as his State Secretary for European Affairs, Lellouche follows Sarkozy’s line in defending the French Mistral warship sale to Russia, regardless of its corrosive effects on NATO. Visiting the Baltic States –where serious concerns have been voiced over the possible Mistral sale to Russia– Lellouche insinuated that other NATO countries might sell their warships to Russia, if France does not do so. Claiming that the warship sale would merely “turn the page on the Cold War,” Lellouche invited the Baltic States to follow the Franco-German example and seek reconciliation with Russia, overcoming a difficult history (BNS, February 24, 25).

This argument presupposes that Franco-German reconciliation would have worked if Germany had continually denounced France to Europe and the world for the “mistreatment of the German-speaking population in Alsace-Lorraine,” or if Germany had opposed French full membership in NATO as contravening some German design for an “all-European security order.” The Lellouche argument also assumes that Russia is a reconciliation-prone democracy, similar to Germany or the Baltic States.

Officials in Paris adduce varied arguments to different audiences in an effort to justify the French naval rearmament program for Russia (four or five Mistral-class power-projection ships). The justifications sometimes seem to underestimate the interlocutors’ comprehension capacity in trying to ennoble the motives behind the warship sale. An unusually frank case, however, recently appeared in the editorial pages of Le Figaro, which is known for its privileged connections with President Sarkozy’s Elysee Palace team (Le Figaro, February 19).

Alluding to an undeclared Franco-German competition for Moscow’s friendship, Le Figaro argues that the Paris-Moscow rapprochement merely follows in the footsteps of Berlin’s rapprochement with Moscow. Second, it notes that the United States itself has for some time closed its eyes to the Mistral warship sale to Russia; and that an overt opposition by Washington would be “very badly received in the Kremlin,” implying that the US has maneuvered itself into a no-win position on this issue through the reset policy on Russia.

Thirdly, it cites the political-diplomatic benefit for France stemming from the warship sale on two counts: “Marking France’s independence from NATO, despite its return to the integrated command, while sending a very strong signal of rapprochement with Russia.’’ And fourthly, it claims that the Mistral sale can incentivize Russia to cooperate on European security, or on nuclear nonproliferation, through the Mistral sale. Rewarding Russia with arms sales for political-diplomatic cooperation –and rewarding it, moreover, in advance of any performance on such cooperation, indeed on a record of non-cooperation– is an idea that France has introduced into Allied councils for the first time through the proposed Mistral sale.

French officials tell Baltic States’ representatives (or Georgian representatives, on the rare occasions when Paris bothers to do so) that the Mistral warships are basically defensive if sold as “bare hulls.” This is a bon pour l’Orient’ [merchandise for substandard markets] argument, however. Russia would not be prepared to enter into a multibillion dollar purchase for a few bare hulls. Moscow has made clear that it intends to put Russian, not French, combat helicopters on the Mistral ships for airborne landings (it has not clarified its intentions regarding the armored vehicles on board for amphibious landings).

The Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, has also reconfirmed these ships’ high military value to Russia: “We do not have any such class of ship. Our large landing ships are three to four times smaller than the Mistral class. This is a multifunctional ship: a helicopter carrier, command ship, as well as an amphibious landing ship … Our amphibious landing ships use three times as much fuel as the Mistral class, despite being three to four times smaller. We need some years to produce such ships in Russia. That is why we want to buy this technology and build such ships in our country,” Makarov told the worldwide audience of Russia Today TV on February 24 (cited by Interfax, February 24).

When the Russian Navy’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, publicly extolled the Mistral warships’ offensive value for attacking Georgia, Paris was slightly embarrassed by that faux pas. Now, however, it is Makarov’s turn to highlight the offensive functions of this Russian-sought class of ship (along with its support functions such as naval transport or hospital facilities).

French Defense Minister Herve Morin told US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently in Paris that the sale of Mistral-class ships would not significantly increase Russian naval capabilities. However, Makarov is the latest Russian official to contradict Morin. For his part, President Sarkozy sounded downright passionate when defending the warship sale during his recent meeting with Gates about selling these warships to a Russia led by the presumably friendly, reform-minded president Dmitry Medvedev.

Acceptance of this notion would negate any common Allied policy on arms sales to Russia and any effective policy toward Russia as such. When Morin tried to be convincing about selling the Mistral to the Russians, Sarkozy was passionate about selling the Mistral to his friend Dmitry. Again, Sarkozy presented political and not economic considerations as he did several weeks earlier to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But what happens if “friend Dmitry” is not in office 2-3 years from now? Clinton had asked Sarkozy: “If Dmitry is no longer the president, then what?” Sarkozy gave no clear answer. Gates repeated the same question.

Americans have understood that Sarkozy is very determined and passionate (and even obsessed when it comes to Dmitry) concerning his decision. French officials ignore the fact that Estonia does not want to “disturb” Franco-Russian relations, but is only raising an issue which directly concerns its interests. Unfortunately, France does not share more detailed information, even with the US.<iframe src=’’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>