Laissez Faire, Laissez Passer: NATO Takes Cue From French Warship Deal With Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 49

Russia’s military reform is geared to creating a mobile, rapidly deployable force, fully ready for operating in “near abroad” areas and potentially beyond (EDM, March 5). The proposed acquisition of French Mistral-class warships makes eminent sense for Russia in this context. The Russian Navy is certainly not preparing for such old-fashioned combat as artillery duels with other naval powers on the oceans. Mistral-class assault ships are designed for amphibious and airborne landings ashore, using the armored vehicles, helicopters, and marine infantry carried by warships of this class.

Russia’s near and medium-term intentions might be paraphrased as the big “known unknown” even in a moderately optimistic scenario. NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, describes himself as an optimist in positing the best-case scenario. He says that he “takes it for granted” that Russia would not use these warships for purposes of aggression (Interfax, Reuters, Radio Free Europe, March 3, 5, 8).

The incontrovertible fact, however, is that the French sale would provide Russia with an offensive power-projection capability that Russia does not have and could not through its own means create. This capability is primarily relevant to Russia in the seas to which it is riparian. As Russian officials have repeatedly suggested in public discussions on this issue, the proposed number of Mistral-class ships in this transaction corresponds with Russia’s Black Sea, Baltic, Northern, and Pacific Fleets.

The NATO alliance is taking a number of hits with potential long-term consequences from this Franco-Russian transaction. The Mistral deal is turning NATO, de facto, into a laissez-faire alliance with regard to arms sales. Despite Russia’s conduct as an overtly revisionist power, key NATO officials have chosen to describe the Mistral sale as a bilateral Franco-Russian business, in which the Alliance has no business interfering (Interfax, Reuters, Radio Free Europe, March 3, 5, 8).

Thus, France and several other Allies, are quickly transitioning from “no business as usual” to business better than ever. Overruling any objections (public and non-public), NATO has given a green light from the top to arms sales to Russia (or any country). NATO is not commenting on the further arms sales, which came under discussion between several Allied countries and Russia promptly after the warship sale was announced.

Russia continues negotiating with the Netherlands and Spain for procurement of warships similar to the Mistral class (hedging against a failure of negotiations with France and implicitly pressuring Paris).

Russia has opened discussions with several (unspecified) Western countries for acquiring “a wide variety (vsevozmozhnyie) of targeting devices and night-vision equipment,” according to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (Rossiya TV cited by Interfax, March 5).

Moscow is negotiating with the Italian company IVECO Defense Vehicles to procure a “large consignment” of armored personnel carriers (APC’s) of the IVECO M65 LMV type. These have already been tested in Russia and assessed positively. Discussions are ongoing about the price and other terms of sale. Russia’s Defense Ministry apparently considers buying as many as 1,000 APC’s of this type (Interfax, March 9).

Moscow is also discussing the procurement of VBL light amphibious armored vehicles from the French Panhard General Defense company (Kommersant, February 16; AFP, February 25). Moscow considers using these vehicles for its interior ministry troops and “peacekeeping” missions by the Russian ground forces. It is also negotiating an upgrade of dual-use helicopter engines for the Russian Ka-62 (civilian version of the Ka-60 combat helicopter) by Turbomeca of France (Interfax, February 25; Liberation [Paris], March 9; EDM, February 11).

Ahead of all NATO countries, France has rushed to become the first commercial beneficiary of Russia’s military modernization program. By the same token, Paris has created a precedent that other NATO countries are in their turn rushing to follow. A scramble seems to be developing for the Russian arms market. This rush does not seem to be restrained by NATO consultations and procedures. It only seems limited by Russia’s ability to pay for Western-made armaments. Moscow is even fanning competition among Western arms manufacturers by hinting at parallel negotiations with several of them for the same item, as in the case of the warships.

Russia’s foreign ministry values the naval deal with France not only for its intrinsic value to Russia, but also for its precedent-setting merit. According to that ministry’s officials, “it is important to demonstrate that Russia is purchasing arms from a NATO country” (Vedomosti, March 1;, March 2). Whether or not the Mistral sale goes ahead, and regardless of its commercial terms, it seems already to have broken NATO discipline, potentially unleashing a series of arms sales to Russia, outside the Alliance’s control and consultative ammunition can be provided to opposition forces?  That’s if, of course, the Constitutional Court doesn’t overturn the law.  
The Epoch Times reported that the parliament had “tweaked the constitution.”  This is entirely untrue, of course.  The constitution itself was untouched because to amend it would take 300 votes – which Yanukovych does not have.  
Even the usually reliable Reuters reported that lawmakers had “loosened rules on the formation of coalitions on Tuesday,” without a mention of the constitutional requirements of coalition formation.  Instead the agency predicted the rules would “ease” Yanukovych’s attempts to form a new government.  
True, this could happen.  But at the same time, this move could spur a major court challenge and protest rallies, as the law helps unite the opposition against the new president. Tyhypko may be correct – the unlawful move may represent only a pyrrhic victory.  
Regardless, any government formed now will be a government formed using pre-2004 tactics.  Those tactics were far from democratic at that time and are far from democratic now.

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