Mistral Debate Unavoidable in NATO: Part One

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 70

The view that NATO has no business discussing French arms deals with Russia is far from being a consensus position. The proposed sale of French Mistral-class warships –an offensive power-projection capability– to Russia is testing the laissez-faire approach to arms sales by NATO countries to an overtly revisionist power in Europe.

On one side of the debate, US National Security Adviser General James Jones and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seem to support the laissez-faire approach. Jones has explicitly declined to use his considerable influence in Paris to raise this issue bilaterally. Rasmussen has endeavored to exclude any such debate from the Alliance’s agenda thus far, arguing that the French sale of Mistral-class warships to Russia is a purely bilateral issue. Ironically, in this case, laissez-faire covers a clear case of state mercantilism on the French side (EDM, March 31).

Other US officials, however, have adopted a markedly different view on this matter compared to Rasmussen. US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, raised this issue quietly and, in part, publicly during his February visit to Paris; and Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, aired it publicly with some emphasis, presumably reflecting some of Gates’ privately-stated objections to French leaders (EDM, February 11).

On March 30, US Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg, citing President Barack Obama, suggested that it would be legitimate to debate the Mistral issue within NATO. According to Steinberg, the United States proposes to discuss with France and other NATO allies and partners the circumstances and possible consequences of the planned Mistral sale. President Obama believes that a detailed analysis is necessary to determine the possible impact of the Mistral sale upon regional stability, Steinberg told a news conference in Washington (Interfax, March 30, Russian translation of Steinberg’s press conference remarks).

This message came four days after General Jones had declared in the pro-presidential French newspaper, Le Figaro, that the Mistral deal was of no concern to Washington and that he was not raising this issue with Paris (Le Figaro, March 26). Jones, who grew up in France, speaks the language fluently, and enjoys close relations with top French officials, passed up the opportunity to initiate any discussion. Nevertheless, the taboo on debating this issue can no longer be sustained.

On April 1, Estonian President, Toomas Ilves, was asked by a US interviewer whether the Franco-Russian Mistral deal could simply be deemed a bilateral issue, as opposed to a NATO issue. Ilves, who had just met with President Obama in Washington, replied: “Well, if it all becomes a bilateral issue, then why do we have NATO? We need to discuss these things” (Foreign Policy: The Cable, April 1).

On the same day, Lithuanian Prime Minister, Andrius Kubilius, raised the Mistral issue in Moscow that Rasmussen and Jones had avoided facing in Brussels in Paris. On a private visit during which he met with Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, at Novo Ogarevo, Kubilius publicly objected to the possible basing of this offensive power-projection capability in the Baltic Sea. “If it were based in the Baltic Sea, we would like to know the enemy of Russia, against whom it must buy the Mistral. Is Sweden, Finland, Lithuania an enemy [of Russia]? Why does Russia need to arm in this manner? Of course we have questions” (Interfax, BNS, April 1).

On April 7, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin (the top official responsible for arms procurement) went farther than any Russian official has previously in outlining the new policy to import advanced arms and military technologies from the West. Popovkin laced these revelations with strong criticism of the country’s backwardness in the production of many types of arms. He placed the French Mistral purchase in the context of Moscow’s policy to shift from self-sufficiency to Western arms procurement in a potentially wide range of types of weaponry. He also made clear that the conditions of the Russian purchase would include technology transfers.

According to Popovkin, during his news conference, Moscow insists on procuring four Mistral-class ships, one of which would be based in the Baltic Sea and another one in the Okhotsk Sea. He did not specify the proposed basing locations for the other two warships (other Russian military and civilian officials have suggested the Black Sea as a possible basing location for one such warship). Popovkin made clear that Moscow wants the full equipment and armaments (except the helicopters, which Moscow wants to supply) to be sold or licensed by France to Russia, along with the ships. He spoke scathingly about the quality of Russian armor plate and armored vehicles (“coffins”), possibly implying that Russia wants to buy the French armored vehicles that form the amphibious landing capability of this warship class (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, April 7, 8).