Russian officials have hinted all along that Russia’s four naval fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific) would receive one French Mistral-class warship each, if the Franco-Russian deal materializes as proposed with four of these ships, designed for coastal assault operations. This is inherently a NATO problem on a number of counts, but is being kept off the agenda of discussions within NATO.
Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, discussed the Mistral issue with French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, on June 10-11 in Paris, on the heels of Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili’s, visit there (Moscow Keeps Paris on Edge Over the Mistral Affair, EDM, June 11). In preparation for that event, Moscow sought to blur the European focus of the Mistral debate in Paris and beyond.
Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, speaking in a parliamentary hearing, mentioned possible Mistral deployment with the Northern and Pacific fleets (RIA Novosti, May 31). Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, said in another parliamentary hearing that the Kuril Islands are denuded of any defenses, and a Mistral-type ship should be stationed to meet any contingencies on the Kurils (Interfax, June 8). In Paris, Putin declared that it would be up to Russia’s General Staff to decide where and how to use the Mistral ships (Agence France Presse, June 10).
The Mistral deal’s ramifications extend beyond Georgia, the Black Sea, the Baltic, or Franco-Russian special relations. The deal, if green-lighted, would mark two historic changes, with potentially momentous implications for the NATO alliance and its insecure neighborhood in Europe’s East.
The first change is Russia’s recent decision to switch from autarchy in military procurement, to selective imports of military equipment from the West. The Mistral procurement decision is only the first step. During the last two months, the Russian government and generals have made public an impressive shopping list of advanced Western military technology (EDM, May 3). At the same time, crisis-hit West European governments are slashing procurement orders to national producers of military equipment, threatening production lines and jobs.
The second historic change is the willingness of France, followed by several other West European countries, to discuss arms sales to Russia on a bilateral basis (even competitively in the case of warships). This is occurring without debate in NATO, and despite Russia’s conduct as a revisionist power in NATO’s eastern neighborhood.
In combination, these processes can unleash a scramble by Western arms producers for Russia’s now-opening arms market. Some West European governments may also follow the French example by portraying arms sales to Russia as anti-crisis, employment-generating measures.
The session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, recently held in Riga, may have marked the start of discussion at least on the parliamentary level of this issue, potentially encouraging efforts to discuss it among Allied governments (BNS, June 1).
Latvia’s former President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, noted a general trend toward bilateralism in relations between major European countries and Russia on security issues, tending increasingly to bypass NATO. Counterproductive and risky to the Alliance, such bilateral initiatives should be checked lest they undermine NATO solidarity, Freiberga said in addressing the Assembly. She singled out the proposed French Mistral sale and the reported willingness of Spain and the Netherlands to compete with France for selling their own near-equivalent warships to Russia. She found it “shocking that such a deal would be conducted without discussion inside the Alliance.”
Speaking in a dual capacity as Latvian Foreign Minister and Baltic co-author of the NATO 2020 study, Aivis Ronis, called for discussing arms sales by NATO Allies to other countries, using the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article Four as a basis for such consultations. The article has been interpreted restrictively as allowing consultation of imminent threats to allied or partner countries. But in current circumstances, it should also be used for consultation on potential transfers of military equipment and technologies to non-member countries, in cases where there could be implications to regional security (BNS, June 1).
NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, indicated during the Assembly’s session that he would prefer to keep this issue off the Alliance’s agenda. On the Mistral deal he declared, “I fully assume that the sale of this military equipment corresponds with international conventions and laws, and that Russia will never use it against any NATO country or neighbor country” (BNS, Interfax, Latvijas Avize, June 1).
Even if the Mistral deal does not ultimately materialize as proposed, the advance green-light received from NATO’s leader can turn this case into a precedent, to be cited and followed by other arms sellers to Russia in the future.