Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, paid an official visit to France on June 8-9, back-to-back with Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin’s, June 10-11 visit there. The proposed sale of French Mistral amphibious and airborne-assault ships to Russia figured prominently on both visits’ agenda. As the negotiations now stand, the first ship would be sold to Russia outright, with three more to be built mainly in Russian shipyards under French license.
Georgia has commented more forthrightly than any other party about the potential risks of this sale, given Russia’s stated intentions to deploy Mistral-class warships in the vicinity of its maritime neighbors. With Georgia leading the debate (if only by the default of others), the Mistral affair has been cast in the West primarily as Georgian issue. This obscures the implications for the security of Russia’s other maritime neighbors and, beyond that, for the cohesion of NATO itself, if some Allies inspired by a French precedent start selling modern military equipment to a revisionist Russia.
Putin’s French visit was mixed this time with a religious message (“La Russie Chretienne”), and accordingly he invoked God on TV to disclaim aggressive intentions: “I hope, with God’s help that it never comes to armed conflict again between Russia and Georgia, never. We already did everything for that [war] not to occur, and will do everything to avoid a repeat of this tragedy,” Putin told French media. Moreover, Russia is no less peaceful than France: “Do French forces have such helicopter carriers? Yes. Does France plan to attack anybody? No. Why then do you think Russia would attack somebody?” (France TV-2 cited by Interfax, June 9).
But, Putin cancelled this assurance in the same interview by insisting, first, that Russia had “been forced, I repeat forced, to defend itself, its citizens, and its peacekeeping troops” in the 2008 war. Moreover, “that is not the type of situation where we would need to use Mistral ships. Modern strike capabilities allow us to undertake any military operation from Russia into the full depth of Georgia’s territory; we don’t need Mistral warships for this” (AFP, www.russiatoday, Interfax, June 9, 10).
Moscow has maneuvered Paris into active pursuit of the Mistral deal, motivated in France by commercial and political goals. The Russians are keenly interested for military reasons, but they are playing hardball. Moscow unsettles the French by seeking special favors on pricing terms, the sharing of construction work, and the transfers of advanced naval technology to accompany the deal. And it keeps hinting at parallel talks ongoing with the Netherlands and Spain, where near-equivalents of Mistral-class ships are built and, apparently, available to Russia.
Putin continued this game during his Paris visit. He pretended to assume that a fully equipped Mistral-class ship costs 300 million Euros (though the price had all along been cited as 350 to 400 million Euros). He bargained for Russian shipyards to receive the predominant share of construction work on the jointly-built ships. And he set a basic condition to the Russian purchase of the first ship: “For us, this deal can only be interesting if done in parallel with the technology transfer” (AFP, Interfax, June 9, 10).
Moscow’s signals in the run-up to the visit seemed designed to increase the level of anxiety in Paris about this deal. Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, made an explicit public reference to competitive negotiations with Spain and the Netherlands (RIA Novosti, May 24). And Vladislav Putilin, first deputy chairman of Russia’s Military-Industrial Commission (the state body responsible for military procurement) said in a parliamentary hearing that the Mistral deal had not yet come up for consideration (much less decision) on financing Russia’s military procurement programs for the years ahead (Interfax, June 3; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 4).
To help NATO look away from the problem, Moscow plays back an argument that Paris had first served up to justify the Mistral sale. In Putin’s paraphrasing, “military-industrial cooperation” [arms sales] between NATO countries and Russia would result in enhancing mutual political confidence.
Saakashvili “did not hide his concern” about the Mistral deal in his meeting with French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, on June 8. In Sarkozy’s logic, however, “if we expect Russia to behave like a partner in all spheres, including security and defense, we must treat it like a partner in all spheres.” And he seemed to close the debate by declaring this decision “a political choice for France, for which France takes full responsibility” (Agence France Presse, June 8).
The Georgian president refrained from noting that France had also taken responsibility for mediation and implementation of the August 2008 armistice, never implemented by the Russian side. Georgian diplomats did note that inconsistency, off-the-record in Paris. But they have also pointed to a reordering of priorities in Georgia’s relations with France. With the United States perceived as “somewhat disengaged” from the South Caucasus, and NATO halting Georgia’s integration until further notice, Tbilisi is prioritizing the European integration agenda, according to Georgian diplomats during this visit (Le Figaro, Agence France Presse, June 8, 9).
Georgia seeks to achieve an association agreement, free-trade agreement, and visa liberalization with the EU in short order. Georgia needs to enlist at least one large and influential West European country among the supporters of Georgia’s EU agenda. France is sympathetic, and Sarkozy made a commitment during Saakashvili’s visit to support Georgia’s goals within the EU.