Two latest developments in the Mistral affair have changed the terms of the debate and, by the same token, made it difficult to preclude a NATO discussion on this issue by using its agenda-setting powers of high office.
The first development is Moscow’s declared condition that the four French Mistral-class warships be sold and/or licensed fully armed and with high-tech equipment to Russia (Interfax, March 25, 26, April 7, 8). The latter would thus acquire an offensive power-projection capability that it currently lacks and (by its own admission) cannot develop on its own (EDM, March 31).
The second development is Moscow’s most recent revelation that the Mistral procurement forms just one item (albeit the single largest) in an ambitious program to import advanced Western arms and military technology. Russia’s policy shift in this regard, from self-sufficiency to selective imports from the West, means that the French Mistral sale could trigger multiple arms deals between NATO countries and Russia on a bilateral basis, beyond the Alliance’s ability to control. Such a process could further erode the effectiveness of NATO policies toward Russia and in NATO’s own eastern neighborhood.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister (responsible for arms procurement), Vladimir Popovkin, has listed some of the advanced items of military production that Moscow intends to shop for in the West. These include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) to modern armored vehicles, armor technology as such, engines for “practically all types of armaments,” advanced electronics, sniper rifles, among other items. Popovkin seemed to be lifting only a corner of the curtain at his press conference: “We cannot reveal our plans of using these arms or the gaps that need to be filled. New technologies are needed everywhere.” Sarcastically, he described Russian armored vehicles as “soldiers’ coffins” and Russian sniper rifles as “no sniper rifles” (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, April 7, 8).
Popovkin’s are the latest additions to Russia’s wish list and potential shopping spree in the West. Meanwhile, Russia continues discussions 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). Moscow has opened discussions with several (unspecified) Western countries for acquiring targeting devices and night-vision equipment. It is negotiating with the Italian company, IVECO Defense Vehicles, to procure armored personnel carriers (APC’s) of the IVECO M65 LMV type. Moscow is also discussing the procurement of VBL light amphibious armored vehicles from the French Panhard General Defense company, for Russian interior ministry troops and “peacekeeping” missions by 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 the French Turbomeca (EDM, February 11, March 1, 12).
Russia’s naval attaché in France, Aleksandr Dryagin, was interviewed onboard the Mistral, the first warship of the eponymous class, most recently during the celebration of French Navy Day. Dryagin told the French pro-presidential daily, Le Figaro, that Russia wants to go ahead with the procurement of four such ships “because we have the money, but not the technology to build such ships ourselves.” An unnamed French admiral acknowledged to Le Figaro on the same occasion that the Mistral ships “would augment Russia’s power projection capabilities in the Black Sea and the Baltic.” If the French licensing of three such ships for construction in Russia goes ahead, the Severnaya Verft shipyard near St. Petersburg is slated to receive a major part of the construction contract. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s billionaire friend, Sergei Pugachev, controls that shipyard. Pugachev’s son, Aleksandr, recently purchased the mass circulation daily France Soir in Paris (Le Figaro, April 9).
The Russian political and military leadership has reached a consensus on shifting from self-sufficiency to selective imports of military technology from the West. The basic concept entails purchasing the first items in a production series, along with the license for producing the series in Russia afterward. The Mistral deal would become the first application of this new strategic concept of Russian arms procurement. The NATO alliance cannot afford a laissez-faire approach to this issue. Continued failure (or refusal) to debate this issue within the Alliance would not cover up the problem.