HOIST THE SAILS: France has caused controversy with its plans to sell state-of-the-art military hardware to Russia.
RIGA - France’s blatant disregard for the national security concerns of its NATO partners will be tested as Russia has placed new demands in its negotiations on the purchase of four high-tech French warships. The ongoing talks hit rough seas on March 25 when Moscow insisted that the Mistral-class vessels, which are amphibious assault, command and ‘force projection ships,’ must be delivered fully equipped, reports news agency AFP.
The French defense ministry responded that President Nicolas Sarkozy had clearly told his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, that the amphibious assault ships would be sold without sensitive equipment. “The president said publicly, in front of his Russian counterpart, what the scope for negotiations was,” said defense ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire, referring to the presidents’ Elysee meeting on March 1.
General Nikolai Makarov, the head of the Russian general staff, was quoted by the Interfax news agency in Moscow as saying on March 25 that the sale was conditional on including command and navigation systems and weaponry. “If the final decision is to choose the Mistral, we will buy this vessel only if it comes with the full equipment - command and navigation systems and weaponry,” said Makarov. “The only exception would be the helicopters. We would provide our own. Everything else will have to be done according to standards,” he said.
Sarkozy said this month that France had entered into “exclusive” talks with Russia on the sale of four of these ships, each capable of carrying up to 16 helicopters and a 750-strong landing force. If the deal goes through, it would be the first sale of advanced military technology by a NATO country to Russia.
From the factory, the Mistral comes armed with two MBDA France Simbad launchers for the Mistral air defense missile system. Hardware also includes infrared guidance and a range up to 6km, shows naval-technology.com. The ship also has two Breda Mauser 30 mm naval guns and four 12.7 mm machine guns. The Mistral is the French Navy’s first all-electric warship.
France has argued, maybe naively, that Russia must be treated like a partner and not as a threat in Europe, but it has been unable to alleviate deep misgivings from the Baltic countries, Georgia and also the U.S. over the sale.
Concerns on the Franco-Russian deal were heightened in December, when a Russian naval commander said a Mistral would have been useful in August 2008, when Russian forces were battling Georgia’s military. He said it would have allowed them to land troops within 40 minutes, rather than in the 26 hours it took.
In interviews with AFP, top officials in the Baltic States questioned France’s position on what would be an unprecedented transfer of military technology by a NATO member to Russia. The Baltic leaders insisted that while they, too, want better ties with their Soviet-era occupier, Paris’s current stance is wrong-headed. “I’m not sure that the best way to turn the page on the Cold War is by trading in items of hot war [armaments],” said Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins previously.
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have hammered home their concerns since plans to sell the assault vessels were first floated last year. “We don’t know what they are going to do with a Mistral,” said Lieutenant General Ants Laaneots, Estonia’s chief of staff. “Are they going to keep them in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, [part of] the northern fleet?” Laaneots noted Russia recently boosted a marine brigade in its Baltic territory of Kaliningrad, from a decade-old strength of 1,200 to 2,700.
The officials also pointed to Russia’s new strategic doctrine on NATO, which dubs the expanded alliance a threat, and to the Baltic war-games last year, conducted together with Belarus, with a scenario including a pincer operation cutting off Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. “This trend deepens our concern,” said Lithuania’s Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene. “It’s an issue that primarily should be discussed among allies before proceeding,” said Latvia’s Defense Minister Imants Liegis (Civic Union).
“This isn’t the best way of resetting the relationship with Russia, because it could have implications for regional security in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea, which as a result could affect members of the alliance,” Liegis added.
The warship plan also comes less than two years after Russia’s August 2008 war with pro-Western, ex-Soviet Georgia. Estonia’s Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said Russia failed to live up to a ceasefire there, brokered by Sarkozy.
“Trust-building is important for Russia, not only for EU or NATO member states,” Ansip said. Latvia and Lithuania have called for tighter EU rules on arms exports amid these plans, reports EUobserver. The Baltic countries made their appeal during an informal EU defense ministers’ meeting in Mallorca in February. “The EU and NATO should only sell their military equipment and weapons to third countries if it does not create risks of regional security tension,” said Liegis, adding “EU member states should consult among themselves on issues that might compromise the security of other member states before clinching strategic and military deals.”
Jukneviciene said that “It is time for the EU and NATO to formulate a clearer and firmer policy on rules for military export control. There are no clear rules now.” France did not consult with the Baltic countries before beginning negotiations with Russia.
The EU already has a Code of Conduct on arms exports, adopted in 2008, but it is not legally binding and is routinely flouted by EU states. EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has offered proposals for an institutional shake-up on EU defense policy, which have gained wide support. Currently, EU defense ministers meet just four times a year and do not take formal decisions, which are left up to EU foreign ministers. Ashton said they should meet as often as once a month and have executive powers.
French Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche said, after meeting with Riekstins in February, that he understands Latvia’s historic memory, but that a “new era has begun” and there are many other strategic issues, some of which the West and Russia agree on. He stated that one cannot say to Russia that we wish to be its partner, at the same time refusing to enter into talks on possible sale of the warship.
Lellouche, however, didn’t discuss Russia’s obligations to improve its own behavior towards its neighbors.
Riekstins has said that as an EU and NATO member state, Latvia feels safe, and that the possible impact of this deal on Baltic security should not be exaggerated. At the same time, he expressed doubts whether France’s talks with Russia are an adequate step to turn the pages of history.
The sale of EU or NATO military equipment and armaments to a third country is permissible only if it does not produce risk of tension in regional security. In this regard, the sale is clearly a matter of concern to Latvia and the other Baltic States. Liegis adds, “I hope that France’s final decision will be carefully weighed from a security standpoint,” said Liegis.
The Baltic States were attacked and illegally occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II, then scarred by mass deportations of their people, and finally won freedom when the communist bloc crumbled in 1991. The Kremlin only pulled out its troops in 1994.
With a combined population of 6.8 million, they have rocky relations with giant Russia, notably since their NATO and EU entry in 2004. “We sometimes perceive that Russia takes an approach of trying to divide and rule,” said Liegis.