La France D’Abord: Paris First to Capitalize on Russian Military Modernization

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 29

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has approved the sale of one Mistral-class warship to Russia; and France is now considering Moscow’s request for three more of that class of helicopter-carrier and amphibious-assault ship.

The Russian Navy’s First Deputy Chief of Staff, Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, broke the news on February 5 in Moscow about Sarkozy’s approval of the first warship procurement (Interfax, February 5). The French defense ministry confirmed this on February 8 and announced the Russian navy’s request for three additional ships (Le Monde, February 9). The announcements seemed timed by Moscow and Paris to undercut US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ intention to raise this issue during his Paris visit.

Jacques de Lajugie, the international director of the French Defense Ministry’s General Directorate for Armaments, told a February 8 news conference that Sarkozy has cleared the first warship’s sale to Russia, while Paris is examining Moscow’s additional request “at the technical level.” Where those three additional ships would be built is an unresolved issue, De Lajugie said (Agence France Presse, February 8).

It is public knowledge that Moscow wants to buy the license for building the three additional ships in Russia; whereas Paris wants the construction of those additional ships to be shared between Russian and French shipyards. France is handling this strategic matter to a large extent as a business and job-creating proposition. Paris, moreover, is worried (according to De Lajugie in the news conference) about Moscow’s contacts with other European naval shipbuilders for acquiring helicopter carriers from them. Given this possibility (or perhaps this excuse) Paris has now rushed through the approval of the first warship sale to Russia.

Meanwhile, French arms exports soared to almost 8 billion Euros during the recession year 2009, up by 21 percent from 2008, according to the same French official (Financial Times Deutschland, February 9).

Defense Secretary Gates did object to the Mistral sale during his February 8 meetings with Sarkozy and with French Defense Minister Herve Morin. According to an Elysee Palace official’s account, Sarkozy replied that the warship sale would not pose security problems to Russia’s neighboring countries. Gates told the concluding news conference that he held “an in-depth exchange of views about this” with Morin,” hinting that the French side was not persuaded by the objections. Elaborating, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell noted that “US friends and allies in Eastern Europe are clearly nervous about it, with good reason.” In the Black Sea, “these new warships would give Russia additional capabilities to threaten Georgia;” and Gates “made our concerns clear” (Agence France Presse, Radio Free Europe, February 8; Le Monde, February 9).

Sarkozy and other French officials claim to be harmonizing their policy on military exports with the broader quest for a security partnership with Russia. They argue that the refusal to sell the warships would contradict Western statements about cooperating with Russia on perceived common challenges (EDM, January 7, 26). Defending the warship sale decision, Sarkozy and Morin now argue that a reversal would amount to ignoring Russia’s post-1991 transformation. And “one cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we do not treat it as one,” Sarkozy told Gates with reference to the warship sale (Agence France Presse, February 8).

By this logic, practice should be adjusted to follow theoretical postulates, regardless of any actual experience with Russia’s conduct. Furthermore, by this logic, Russia might have behaved as a partner and respected instead of breaking, the Sarkozy-brokered armistice in Georgia, if only France had started its military sales to Russia sooner.

French leaders practice a double discourse on the warship sale, alternately presenting it as a political imperative and an ordinary commercial transaction (two lines usually included within the same conversation).

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told journalists in the same context (though without mentioning the warship sale directly) that his hope for a Franco-Russian partnership rests on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s “will for change,” and his “entirely different vision. There is something very promising about Medvedev” (Agence France Presse, February 10). However, the driving force behind the Mistral deal in Russia is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the military, not Medvedev. And according to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon after a meeting with Putin, “Russia is a democracy today” (Le Monde, January 30) –an echo of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s characterization of then-president Putin as an “impeccable democrat.”

French political rationalization of military sales to Russia need not be taken any more literally than the German theory of a “modernization partnership” with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, German business and the government are far ahead of France in developing a special partnership with Russia. Paris is now embarking on an effort to build its own special relationship with Moscow. They cannot match Germany’s role vis-à-vis Russia overall, but they hope to make inroads in some specialized sectors where France has competitive advantages.

One sector that remains closed to Germany for political reasons is that of military sales to Russia. The French are stepping into that potentially large niche, as the first Western power to capitalize on Russia’s military modernization program. Once this process starts, a floodgate may open for military sales to Russia from some West European countries, bypassing and undermining NATO, and enhancing Russia’s capacity to pressure NATO allies and partners in Europe’s East.