Much of the western attention to the Franco-Russian political agreement on the procurement of the helicopter landing dock Mistral for the Russian Navy emphasizes its potential “power projection” capability. NATO members, including the Baltic States, have misinterpreted remarks by the naval top brass and laid too much emphasis on the possible implications of such a platform being deployed by the Northern Fleet. Nonetheless, the experimental first procurement of its kind from a NATO member state was always centered upon Moscow’s wider interest in sensitive technologies as well as intricate diplomatic maneuvering that reflected shifts in Russia’s relations with the Alliance. The technology issues have arisen during the contractual negotiations and appear poised to scupper the deal, unless there is fresh political input (RIA Novosti, May 6).
The current impasse in the bilateral talks is clearly linked to the NATO standard French combat information-control system, Zenith-9, and the older command system for a larger fleet, SIC-21, which Moscow insists should be part of the package. Paris is reluctant to agree on the technology transfers under license, though the sticking point is principally the Zenith-9. According to sources in the Russian defense ministry, French negotiators are not particularly concerned about the transfer of SIC-21. However, Moscow has decided that the procurement of Mistral must come with all related technologies and its new negotiating team will work hard to achieve this target. “The recent complete replacement by the Russian defense ministry of its team at the talks to buy the Mistral ships is also to be considered in the context of this ‘systemic’ dispute. The team will strive to obtain the Zenith-9 system together with the ship,” an anonymous Russian defense official added (RIA Novosti, May 6; Interfax, April 25).
Indeed, on April 19 President Dmitry Medvedev removed the senior naval officer involved in the bilateral talks on Mistral, Vice-Admiral Nikolai Borisov, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Navy responsible for armaments. Despite official denials that Borisov was sacked from the team and removed from service due to problems over the Mistral, he seems to be the first casualty of the debacle apparently linked to his premature price agreement during the process. Vladimir Popovkin, as First Deputy Defense Minister, was a leading proponent of the Mistral procurement, though on April 29 Medvedev appointed him as the new head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, creating another gap in the original negotiating team (RIA Novosti, May 3; Interfax, April 29, 19).
Russian defense ministry officials and senior officers understand that such technology would have only limited value and does not offer anything that might be construed to be a “game changer” in military terms. It has, however, become a focal point around which both sides are able to vent deeper concerns, while the timescale for final settlement of the contract may consequently be elongated (Interfax, April 20).
The French Ambassador to Moscow, Jean de Gliniasty, alluded to a background NATO issue while stressing that there are no political obstacles involved between Paris and Moscow. “At the same time, some technologies – those of the ship’s ‘filling’ – are classified and their sale is not on the agenda. That would have required NATO’s consent, so the issue is not discussed,” he said. All along the path to Mistral procurement, NATO has officially stayed out of it, and refused to be drawn on the precedent of such a large-scale arms sale to Russia from an Alliance member. According to de Gliniasty, the transfer of Zenith-9 is de facto blocked at NATO level, but added that the deal sets an important precedent: “Russia has never signed such contracts before, especially with a NATO member country. This is a very interesting experiment for both states. A Russian shipyard will take part in the project, which will start up bilateral cooperation in the construction of warships. This is an important innovation, as well” (Izvestiya, April 25).
The political background, underlying tensions and wider context around the Mistral issue was assessed by Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). Pukhov’s balanced assessment framed the ongoing problems in terms of Russia’s lack of experience in negotiating such contracts with western countries and the recent track record of Paris squandering high-profile arms deals at the last moment. Highlighting the nature of the domestic opposition to the deal, which extends beyond those in the Russian shipbuilding industry bitterly opposed to foreign procurement as well as Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, it has also attracted individuals politically dissatisfied with the reform of the armed forces. Given the needs of the naval rearmament ranging from corvettes to submarines, Pukhov questions whether the Mistral was ever actually a high priority acquisition (The Moscow Times, May 5).
The political context of the contract has also changed. Mistral was placed on the agenda following the pro-active diplomatic role assumed by Paris during and after the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008, and some argue that this was an expression of appreciation by Moscow for French support. The French shipbuilding industry is arguably in better condition economically compared to 2008, while the bilateral relationship is under new strain due to France’s leading role in the military intervention in Libya. Pukhov highlights the latter development:
"Russia’s sudden tougher stance on the deal could be because of Moscow’s dissatisfaction over Sarkozy’s involvement in the Libyan operation in which France, the top instigator of the Libyan operation, and other Western militaries have gone far beyond the mandate of the United Nations Security Council that limited military operations to achieve two goals only: to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and protect its civilians. In that context, Moscow’s decision to backtrack on the Mistral purchase could send a signal to Paris that the special relationship between the two countries could suffer if things get too much out of hand in the Western coalition’s campaign against Libya" (The Moscow Times, May 5).
From Moscow’s perspective, high-profile arms procurement deals can easily become victim to shifts in the strategic or geopolitical environment. Moscow opposes NATO out of area operations axiomatically and may wish to press the technology issue with Paris to force the hand of the Alliance on the procurement issue. This may be further complicated unless NATO can meet Moscow’s expectations over missile defense cooperation.