On April 28 in Moscow, US Ambassador, John Beyrle, justified the proposed sale of four French Mistral warships to Russia. Interviewed by the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily newspaper, Beyrle stated: “The only question [about the Mistral sale] is the overall stability in the region. And I believe that it will not be infringed as a result of this agreement.” Moreover, “we understand that this is an agreement between two sovereign countries” (Moskovsky Komsomolets cited by Interfax, April 28).
Beyrle’s statement comes within days of Russia’s abusive extension of its Black Sea naval base on Ukrainian territory, in violation of that country’s constitution. Moreover, Moscow has made clear its intention to deploy one of the Mistral ships –a massive power-projection capability– in the Black Sea. The timing of the ambassador’s statement seems to convey US indifference to these recent developments.
In the same interview, Beyrle disclaims US discontent with the multibillion dollar program of Russian arms sales to Venezuela. “I would not say that we are discontented. We recognize Russia’s right to maintain relations and sell its arms to Venezuela. We are [however] concerned by Venezuela’s arms purchases that exceed arms purchases by its Latin American neighbors.”
The statement is objecting to Venezuelan purchases, not Russian sales. It comes in the wake of Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev’s insulting comment about that particular US concern. “If somebody is bothered, we want to spit on that,” Medvedev had declared during his recent visit to Argentina (Time, April 27). US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and other US officials had indeed expressed concern about the Russian arms sales to Venezuela. Turning, in effect, the other cheek seems unlikely to restore Moscow’s lost respect for US concerns.
On the Mistral issue, Beyrle’s statement contradicts the positions expressed publicly by Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg. These officials have objected to the proposed Mistral sale, citing the risks to regional stability and the concerns expressed by US allies in the Baltic and the Black Sea (EDM, February 11, April 12). On the whole, however, Washington has not formulated a coherent policy regarding the Mistral issue since September 2009, when the French warship sale to Russia was first announced.
Ambassador Beyrle’s statements are not always to be taken as a close reflection of US policy, even when it is formulated more or less clearly. Interviewed by Kommersant two weeks after the Russia-Georgia war, he declared, “We see that Russian forces responded in a fully justified way [vpolne obosnovanno] to the attack on Russian peacekeepers.” At that time he called for a solution that would reflect both Georgia’s territorial integrity and “the principle of self-determination of nations” for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Kommersant, August 22, 2008). The latter part was out of line with US policy, and Moscow had not yet decided whether to implement that kind of “self-determination.”
The ambassador’s attitude seems colored to some degree by gratitude to Russia since the Red Army saved his father’s life during the Second World War. He has often told that story, always with deep feelings, at many public events. Moreover, “even at the height of the Cold War, in my family we always had a different [sic] attitude toward the Soviet Union. My father always said that Russian medics saved his life, and that could not fail to influence me. There is never a day when I don’t think about what my father went through and how grateful he was to the Russians” (Interview with The St. Petersburg Times, February 19, 2010).
The French Mistral sale can trigger a rush by other NATO countries to sell arms to Russia, bypassing NATO and undermining Allied plans and policies. With Mistral the precedent-setting case (if this sale is allowed), a sale-and-purchase pitch has already started.
Until some weeks ago, objections to the Mistral sale centered on the risks to regional security and the concerns among US allies in the Baltic and the Black Sea. But the situation is evolving more rapidly, it seems, than Washington’s and NATO’s ability to address this major new issue.
Moscow is drawing up an ambitious shopping list for modern Western military hardware. The guiding concept envisages outright purchases of the first batches, to be followed by serial production in Russia in cooperation with the Western producers of that military equipment.
Russian policy-makers must be encouraged by the precipitous decline in European financing of military procurement (one aspect of what Secretary Gates has lamented as “Europe’s demilitarization”). With state purchases falling, a growing number of producers in NATO countries are likely to scramble for export markets, including most temptingly the market created by Russia’s military modernization program.
Revealed piecemeal by Russian officials, Moscow’s growing shopping list includes (apart from Mistral-class warships) armored personnel carriers, armor plate technology, engines for various military vehicles and weapons systems, sniper rifles, targeting devices and night-vision equipment, advanced electronics, and unmanned aerial vehicles (EDM, March 1, 12, 31, April 12). Moscow is in discussions with French and Italian companies for most of these items (while also talking to the Dutch and Spanish, whose warships compete with the French Mistral class). On April 20, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov made an unprecedented announcement that Russia seeks armored plate for personnel carriers in Germany (RIA Novosti, April 20).
The Mistral sale, if allowed by default to proceed, could trigger multiple arms deals between NATO countries and Russia on a bilateral basis, beyond the Alliance’s ability to control. Such a process would further erode the effectiveness of NATO policies toward Russia and in NATO’s own eastern neighborhood.
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