Paris S’excuse: French Officials Rationalize Naval Rearmament of Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 17

Russian officers visit an assault ship of the Mistral class

The approval process for boosting Russian naval power is moving forward in the French government. Paris and Moscow are negotiating the sale of one French-built Mistral-class warship to Russia, to be followed by construction of three or four such ships in Russia under French license (Interfax, January 15; RIA Novosti, January 22).

These intentions, amount to a program of naval rearmament for Russia, an openly revisionist power in Europe and on its periphery. Mistral-class ships constitute by definition a power-projection capability, carrying tanks and helicopters for offensive landing operations, with an intimidating potential in Russian hands vis-à-vis its maritime neighbors. NATO member and partner countries in the Baltic and Black Seas are concerned about the possible appearance of Mistral-class ships in the respective Russian fleets, if the French sale goes ahead.

France’s Inter-ministerial Commission for the Study of War Material Exports (French acronym CIEEMG), has now cleared the deal with Russia in a report to the French government. At the next higher level, the General Secretariat for National Defense and Security (SGDSN) is preparing its report on this issue for President Nicolas Sarkozy (Le Monde, January 26).

Representatives of French authorities at various levels are invoking justifications that range from the politically expedient to the crassly commercial; adding an ingredient of historical nostalgia for the Franco-Russian entente on the part of Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who actively promotes the Mistral deal.

According to two prominent French analysts receptive to government views, the Mistral deal is in line with “French diplomatic tradition…which holds that engaging Russia is better than isolating it.” Paris ought to address Russian complaints about the lack of Western technology transfers to Russia, despite Western declarations of friendship since the end of the cold war. Going ahead with the Mistral deal could elicit Russian cooperation on larger strategic issues. The Sarkozy presidency regards the Russians “more as partners, albeit difficult ones. This more global vision does not [see] Georgia or Ukraine as a top priority” (Eurasianet, January 21).

By that logic, withholding arms sales would be tantamount to isolating Russia, or undermining the credibility of Western political overtures to Moscow. Further by that logic, Russia’s “difficult” behavior vis-à-vis the West would justify Western concessions to Moscow, at the expense of Black Sea countries in this case. And conversely, Russian cooperative behavior would have to be rewarded with arms transfers. Such official arguments need not be taken at face value, however. They purport to invoke overall Western interests in justifying a purely bilateral Franco-Russian transaction.

French government officials say off the record, that no ultra-sophisticated electronics would be transferred to Russia in a Mistral transaction. By the same token, Russian officials anticipate having to buy some of the more advanced communications equipment from other suppliers. Withholding the state-of-the art French electronics, however, would not significantly diminish the Mistrals’ potential to overturn the naval power balance, if deployed with Russia’s Baltic or Black Sea fleets.

Aware of those implications, some senior officials speaking on the background at the Quai d’Orsay would prefer that Russia quietly renounce the Mistral deal: “this would be an ideal solution.” This could even help Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner out of his dilemma. The global humanitarian physician, turning semi-realist since his unexpected ministerial appointment, regards the Mistral affair as a “choice between consciousness and realism.” President Sarkozy and other political figures, however, are also concerned to rescue the crisis-hit French shipyards. According to management at the STX shipyard in St. Nazaire (the former Chantiers de l’Atlantique, now partly state-owned), the sale of just one Mistral-class ship would save “approximately one thousand jobs for two years.” One more ship of this class is due for delivery to the French navy by June 2011, whereupon the shipyard has no further orders (Le Monde, January 26).

That logic implies that arms sales to Russia could be justified as an anti-crisis measure and employment-generating program by a NATO member country. It also seems to imply an open-ended policy extending well beyond 2011 and with potential spinoffs, if a Mistral contract with Russia is signed. This could create a precedent for other bilateral deals between individual NATO countries and Russia, with corrosive effects on Alliance policies.

The financing of the Mistral deal is not being discussed publicly, although it must form a subject of Franco-Russian discussions. One ship of this class in a “naked” state costs an estimated $600 million to build in France. Given Russia’s current financial situation, it would hardly be surprising if French banks are enlisted to finance Russia’s purchase of the Mistral, under credit guarantees from the French government.