Issues pertaining to the sale of the French aircraft carrier “Mistral” to the Russian Federation
Arvamus 03 Jun 2010  EWR
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Valdis Pavlovskis, Baltic American Freedom League

The Baltic American community appreciates the attempts by the United States to improve relations with the Russian Federation.

For the last several months, the Russian Federation and the French governments have been engaged in negotiations over the sale of the aircraft carrier, Mistral, by the French to Russia. The Mistral-class warships are major amphibious assault ships and have an offensive power-projection capability. They are equal globally in capability to virtually any vessel in its class. The sale would be the first significant arms transfer from a NATO country to Russia.

The vessel can deploy 900 fully equipped combat troops, 40 Leclerc tanks, or alternatively 13 tanks, 40 assault vehicles and 16 helicopters (while allowing the operation of up to 30 helicopters. on both decks), as well as act as a command and communications center for a staff of 150 persons. It is a state-of-the-art warship. The Russians have shown strong interest in purchasing three more Mistral class helicopter aircraft carriers.

Aircraft carriers do not sail alone. They are always accompanied by a task force composed of a number of different type of support and attack ships depending on the carrier’s mission.

The Russians have already indicated that aircraft carrier could be used in future operations against the near abroad countries such as Georgia, which it invaded in 2008. Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy stated that in the war against Georgia, a ship like Mistral would have allowed Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours which is how long it took land the troops ashore.

Russia’s naval attache in France, Aleksandr Dryagin, told the French pro-president daily, Le Figaro, that Russia wants to go ahead with the procurement of four Mistral-class ships because Russia does not have the technology to build such ships themselves. An unnamed French admiral acknowledged to Le Figaro, on the same occasion, that the Mistral ships “would augment Russia’s power projection capabilities in the Black Sea and the Baltic.

By selling the aircraft carriers to Russia, France turns a blind eye to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, including the Russian naval operations and landing.

France is also ignoring President Medvedev’s decree (approved by the Duma) authorizing the president to order immediate military operations beyond Russia’s borders, in wide variety of circumstances. One of which is mistreatment, as defined by the president, of Russians or Russian friends and supporters in foreign countries.

The sale amounts to a program of naval rearmament for Russia, an openly revisionist power in Europe and on the periphery of the Baltic countries and Poland. Mistral-class ships constitute by definition a power-projecting capability carrying tanks and helicopters for offensive landing operations. The aircraft carrier will provide Russia with means to bully, terrify and intimidate its seacoast neighbors. One can readily imagine the psychological impact that an amphibious landing task force patrolling or anchored off shore a neighboring country would have on the country’s political process and or economic development.

Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its intention and capacity to threaten America’s interests in Europe: providing cover to Iran’s nuclear weapons program by neutering sanctions in the UN Security Council; marketing nuclear reactors to Iran; selling high-end conventional weapons to Iran, Syria and others; using Russia’s oil and natural gas assets to intimidate Europe; making overtures to OPEC; cozying up to Venezuela through naval maneuvers, weapons sales and even agreeing to construct nuclear reactors; interfering in domestic policies and elections in Ukraine; and invading Georgia, the latter two potential NATO members.

The United States must continue to raise issues of grave importance and concern to us and the world.

The sale of the aircraft carrier to Russia is a signal to Moscow about the lack of commitment in the West to hold Russia’s feet to the fire over the invasion of Georgia and the terms of the subsequent agreement. Moscow has neither withdrawn its force to their pre-war positions nor has Moscow given the EU or other international observers access to the areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia it now occupies.

“In providing Putin with the implements for rapid invasion of Georgia, Crimea and the Baltic countries,” writes French philosopher Andre Glucksmann in Le Monde, “Our message is clear: go ahead.”

The view that NATO has no business discussing a French arms deal with Russia, a bilateral matter between two sovereign nations is ridiculous. Article IV of the North Atlantic Treaty provides that any member nation can call for formal consultation and discussion if any action of a member nation threatens its territorial integrity, political independence or security or that of any other member country. France’s sale of an attack warship threatens the security of the Baltic countries and Poland, all members of NATO.

There is no EU law governing arms sales by member states. But in 2008, the bloc adopted a political accord pledging not to sell weapons or components to countries which violate human rights, pose a risk to regional stability threaten or endanger the security interests of EU members and allies. The accords were signed by the French EU presidency four months after the Georgia war.

Latvia’s Foreign Minister has stated that “Every EU country is bound by these rules regarding the control of exports of arms and dual use technology.” This of course, includes France.

The U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised significant objections to his French counterpart Herve Moring and with President Sarkozy, during his February visit to Paris

On March 30 U.S. Deputy of State, James Steinberg citing President Barack Obama, suggested that it would be legitimate for NATO to discus the Mistral sale. According to the Deputy Secretary the U.S. intends to discuss the matter with France and other NATO countries.

For one, the sale implies that NATO countries are justified in making bilateral arms deals with Russia, circumventing any NATO procedures and ignoring regional security concerns. Secondly, it suggests that the Alliance may have started taking zero risk scenarios for granted. Third, the Mistral deal overlooks incompatibility with the Wasenaar arrangement on export controls for conventional arms and “dual-use” equipment and technologies, and the EU’s code of conduct on arms sales.

Contrary to Paris’ declaration that it would not sell advance electronics and command-and control equipment, Moscow wants to have the Mistral fully armed, and equipped with advanced electronics. Russian Army General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff announced in the March 25, 2010 issue of Rossiyskaya Gazeta: ‘We will only acquire it [the ship] fully equipped, with all its command and communication systems and its armaments. The only exception will be helicopters: these will be our own. Everything else must to the full extent be made during according to their standards.” The French have reacted cautiously to Makarov’s statement. The chief spokesman of the French Defense Ministry recalled that President Sarkozy said publicly in front of his Russian counterpart that the “scope” of the negotiations excluded the transfer of sophisticated military technologies to Russia.”

Even without the state-of-the-art French equipment, Mistral-class launching platforms will give Russia an unprecedented power projection capability. General Makarov’s statement and Russia’s ambitions to obtain seaborne attack capabilities, undermine the case for the French sale event further.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin discussing, during his recent visit to Paris, the purchase of the assault warship said: “Whoever we buy it from, we will reserve the right to use it where and when we consider necessary.”

Western diplomats and defense analysts have stated that the French sale will help Moscow to begin modernizing its aging armed forces at a time when its own military industry is not capable of meeting world standards for advance weaponry.

To summarize, France, a member of NATO, has agreed to provide Russia, a country that views NATO’s expansion as its principal military threat, with a weapons platform which Russia says would be useful in a war against Georgia, an aspiring member of the alliance.

The French-Russian Mistral deal has caused anxieties among some of the NATO countries, most notably the Baltic States and Georgia, which claim the move could threaten their security. Fears that the Russian leaders dismiss as paranoid, ignoring the long history of abuse these countries have received from Russia.

Lithuania, and Latvia have said that France’s handling of the sale of the warship to Russia has breached good faith with its EU and NATO allies and may be in violation of the EU weapons code.

Ants Laancots, Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, said that if the Mistral sale goes through measures should be taken to protect Estonian security should one of the ships be deployed in the Baltic Sea.

Defense Ministers and other officials of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are expressing concern about the possible impact on Baltic security, if Russia stations a Mistral class warship there. According to Latvian Defense Minister Imants Liegis, this would change the security situation in the Baltic Sea, necessitating adjustments in defense planning. Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene intends to raise this issue within NATO. “Such a sale is quite astonishing to us, this will become a precedent. It is an important issue for NATO and we will bring it up.” According to Estonian Foreign Ministry’s senior official Harri Tiido, the Mistral sale to Russia could undermine the Baltic States’ security, and “Baltic nations may in that case have to consider changes to their defensive planning.”

Cooperation between the EU and Russia must not take place at the expense of other countries “security” stated Imants Liegis, Latvia’s Minister of Defense.

The three Baltic States are also concerned over at possible Russian Mistral deployment. According to senior defense officials in the three nations, this would seriously affect the balance of military capabilities in the Baltic Sea, with Russian forces clearly gaining additional strength in terms of numbers, speed and range. This would necessitate building up coast defense capabilities and revising national defense plans accordingly.

Beyond crass commerce, France is also justifying the Mistral sale to Russia as an anti-economic crisis stimulus program and employment enervating measure. Thus, France is creating a panoply of excuses that other NATO countries can emulate in future arms deals with Russia. The sale will have a corrosive effect on the Alliance’s solidarity and policies.

The EU’s code on arms sale, which on its face prohibits military exports that run a risk of being used in an ongoing conflict or might increase instability in the region, is no obstacle to the arms sale. The code is non-binding on member states.

If NATO tolerates the Mistral deal, then other member countries and companies may scramble for bilateral arms deals with Russia outside any NATO consultation processes. NATO needs to deal with the Mistral case pro-actively, before any fait accompli and precedents are set.

If NATO fails on this issue now, then the entire issue of arms sales to Russia will spin out of the Alliance’s ability to control.

Given the shrinking defense budgets of European countries and the pressure to keep domestic defense firms from going under, there is little question that less and less restraint would be shown by competing governments and companies on what could be sold to Moscow.

The money that each of the four $475 million warships will bring to France’s underused shipyards likely helped Sarkozy get over the Georgia war snub. But France is also member of the NATO military alliance, which in April 2008 predicted Georgia and Ukraine would one day join it.

Paris is prepared not only to overlook, but to reward Russian aggression in Georgia, ignore the shredding of a ceasefire crafted and signed by is president, accept the help of Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan, but enforce an unacknowledged arms embargo against Georgia while selling advanced arms to Russia.

The sale has caused the most serious divide within NATO--between those who view Russia as a threat, and those who believe it can be a useful partner. On one side of the divide are those countries that were once a part of the Soviet bloc and whose citizens don’t hold fond memories of the experience. On the other side are France, Germany, Spain, Italy and other western countries with a more relaxed view, who often stand to benefit economically from friendly relations with Russia.

Lithuania and Latvia have demanded stricter regulations concerning arms trade. “The EU and NATO should sell armaments and military hardware to countries that do not pose the risk of regional tensions, “Latvian Defense Minister Imants Liegis said. “Before concluding strategic deals, EU member countries should hold internal consultations on the items that may call into question the security of other members.”

Maris Riekstins, former Foreign Minister of Latvia said “We would love to have seen a different sequence of events. We would be in a much better position if we had been consulted beforehand and there had been a public announcement. It is totally unacceptable when an ally takes a decision, which is not in line with contributing to security in the region.”

“We learned [about the deal] from media,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene told EU observer in an interview. “If our partner would have consulted us about the intended sale of the Mistral within EU or NATO this would have certainly enhanced the spirit of solidarity within both organizations.

Regrettably, the potential sale of Mistral class ships to Russia appears to spring from worse than unprincipled economics or misguided diplomacy. France’s partnership with Russia, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on October 8, 2009, “can take several forms in the defense sphere from military cooperation to close industrial partnership.

The Russian Navy will remain a green water navy that operates close to home as a complement to Russian land forces. Beyond rhetoric, Moscow will not challenge U.S. Navy dominance of the oceans. Consequently, the addition of Mistrals to Russian fleets should not be considered on a global scale against the U.S. Navy or combined western navies. Rather it must be considered for its potential regional impact in the Baltic and Black Seas, erstwhile Soviet lakes.

A handful of Mistral class ships in the Baltic and Baltic Seas would make a big difference. “In the conflict in August a ship like that would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 20 minutes, not 26 hours, which is how long it too us, “ Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy said, referring to Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Georgia remains a prime target of opportunity for Russia in the Black Sea basin at present. A Mistral class ship would enable Russia to threaten amphibious and helicopter landings on Georgia’s sea coast with far greater speed and effectiveness than those Russia’s existing capabilities. Russia’s naval command publicly alluded to the Mistral’s potential use against Georgia when starting the talks with France for the sale. France totally ignored Georgian officials’ appeals not to sell the ship to Russia.

Russian acquisition of Mistrals should be considered in the context of Moscow’s traditional gaze toward Romanian lowlands and its occupation of the Moldovan territory of Transnistria. In neighboring Ukraine Moscow covets the arc of territory from Odessa to the Crimean Peninsula And on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, Russian aggression against Georgia is not yet over.

With Russian Mistrals plying the waters of Black and Baltic Seas, NATO allies will have to call for enhanced NATO planning and presence in those regions. All NATO navies will have to be asked to contribute scarce resources --to counter a capability provided by another NATO ally.

The sale of Mistral would be the biggest ever NATO country military supply to Russia, providing it with a significant capability against which the Alliance would have to plan for years to come. Moreover, should Russia employ the Mistrals in the Baltic or Black Seas, France will be complicit in opening a fissure within NATO of historic proportions.

Mistral class ship presence in the Black Sea will bring pressure on Turkey an arbiter of the 1936 Montreuz Convention, which regulates the passage between the Mediterranean and Black Seas through the Turkish Straits.If Ankara permits Mistral’s passage, calls to revise or even scrap the Monteux Convention will surely follow.

The Baltic countries and Georgia have expressed fears that the French-built Mistral may be used against them in the future. However, in any such eventuality a Mistral-class warship is not essential. Russian tanks have in the past successfully moved deep into Georgia and into the Baltic States without any need for a massive amphibious assault. The Crimea is different, if eventually Russia’s claim to have special rights and interest in the Crimea leads to a military confrontation with Ukraine, the Black Sea fleet could be militarily defenseless or at a serious disadvantage in its Sevastopol base during a possible conflict with Ukrainian ground forces. In such a contingency, a Mistral-class ship would give Russia a decisive advantage in performing an amphibious operation close to Sevastopol, relatively far from its bases in Novorossiysk and the Taman peninsula. By 2015 Russia plans to have a reformed regular standing armed force 100 percent ready for war.

The sale coincides with the release of Russia’s latest military doctrine, which identified NATO eastward expansion as the main external military danger facing Russia.

France’s plans to sell a powerful warship to Russia has drawn fire in the U.S. Congress. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced (12/26/09) a non-binding resolution (H. Res. 982) urging President Barack Obama to press Paris to cancel the transaction.

H. Res. 982, “Expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that France and other member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union should decline to sell major weapons systems or offensive military equipment to the Russian Federation.” The resolution has been referred to House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

H. Res. 982 alleges that Russia remains in violation of the French-brokered ceasefire that followed the Georgia invasion. Also, that Russia is expanding its military presence in a way that threatens Georgia, and has made a number of aggressive moves toward several countries in the region, according to the text. The sale of the Mistral to Russia “would enhance that country’s ability to potentially wage aggression against its neighbors.” the resolution states.

Representative Ros-Lehtinen is calling on President Obama, as well as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to urge France not to sell major offensive weapons systems to Russia until Russia completely withdraws from Georgian territory and makes broad reforms in areas ranging from rule of law to human rights.

Six senators have signed a letter to French Ambassador Pierre Vimont outlining their concerns with the sale. The letter states: “Such a sale would be the most significant military sale ever between a NATO member country and Russia, and we believe it would have significant implication for all NATO members.” The signatories are Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, (R-AZ), Armed Services Committee’s Ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Sam Brownback (R-KS) and James Risch (R-ID).

The sale will be a remarkable bit of appeasement by an allied president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose signature is on the cease fire agreement between Russia and from the August 2008 war--the terms of which Moscow has been violating ever since.

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