By Ian Davis, NATO Watch
On Thursday a group of US lawmakers urged France to withdraw the sale of two sophisticated helicopter carrier ships to Russia and suggested instead that NATO buy or lease them, according to a report by Reuters.
"The purchase would send a strong signal to President Putin that the NATO allies will not tolerate or in any way enable his reckless moves," they said in a letter to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen obtained by Reuters. Washington and some European partners have been advising Paris to review its high-tech arms supplies to Moscow following Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March and ongoing involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.
Acquiring the French Mistral-class ships, which can carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armoured vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers, would also boost NATO's capabilities at a time when many European members have been cutting defence expenditures, and reassure NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe, the US lawmakers said. It seems very unlikely however, that NATO would buy the ships, since military procurement within the Alliance (with a few exceptions) is a national prerogative. Similarly, finding an alternative national buyer among NATO allies also seems unlikely given that it would be a substantial and unplanned addition to any nation's military budget in a time of austerity.
Signatories to the letter included US Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee; Representative Michael Turner of Ohio, chairman of the US delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly; and Massachusetts Representative William Keating, the top Democrats on the House Europe subcommittee. Four other US lawmakers wrote to Obama earlier in May urging him to oppose the sale.
France is reluctant to jeopardise the 2011 deal that is worth $1.66 billion, has created about 1,000 jobs and includes the option for two more vessels. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had cited the contract as evidence that the Cold War was over, while his successor President François Hollande has never questioned the deal because of the perceived benefits to the French defence industry.
US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that US concerns go back as far as 2009 when French officials first informed their Western counterparts of the possibility of cutting a deal with Moscow. In a closed-door meeting in February 2010, then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged his French counterpart not to proceed with the sale because it “would send the wrong message to Russia and to our allies in Central and East Europe”, according to the New York Times. In 2011, Washington made its disapproval known through the chairman of the Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen warned that France "had ignored the evident dangers of selling sophisticated warships to Russia when Moscow adopts an increasingly hostile attitude toward the United States, its neighbours and Europe itself”.
The warships are expected to strengthen Russia's naval presence either in the Black Sea region (where they could pose a threat to Ukraine and Georgia) or the Baltic Sea. A Russian naval commander was quoted as saying Russia’s Black Sea Fleet could have carried out its mission during the conflict with Georgia in 2008 “in 40 minutes” if it had possessed a ship like the Mistral. In a November 2009 cable, John Bass, the American ambassador to Georgia, described the deal as “the wrong ship from the wrong country at the wrong time".
“The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbours,” said James Stavridis, the retired admiral who served as NATO’s top commander from 2009 to 2013. Serving NATO officials have been more reluctant to publicly condemn the deal, however, regarding the defence contract as a “sovereign matter between France and Russia".
During his visit to France in April, for example, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised France's leading security role at meeting with President Hollande. At a subsequent press conference the Secretary General applauded France’s contribution to the Alliance’s collective security. “France has kept defence spending close to our agreed target of 2% of economic output. France has also shown a great commitment to invest in the capabilities we need, both in NATO and the European Union. This is a valuable example of European Allies choosing to invest the right resources in the right capabilities", he said.
Earlier in his statement, the Secretary General had described "Russia's illegal aggression against Ukraine" as the "greatest challenge to Europe's security in a generation". But when asked about the Mistral contract, Rasmussen clearly sounded ill at ease, saying: "At the end of the day it is a national decision. I am not going to interfere as such in a national decision. And I am confident that France will take the necessary decision taking into account all the concerns that have been expressed". When pressed further on the question of arms transfers to Russia, the Secretary General said:
Let me stress that such regulation or possible regulation are not NATO business. They are dealt with in the EU and other for a. These are national decisions and as I stated I am confident that the French Government as well as governments in other NATO allied nations will take their decisions taking into account the overall security situation and taking into account the solidarity principles within our Alliance.
While European arms exports are indeed governed by the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, NATO has also previouslyattached great importance to conventional arms control issues and has in the past provided an essential consultative and decision-making forum on such issues. Indeed, the Alliance's 2010 Strategic Concept reiterates the major role of arms control in achieving security objectives, as well as the continued importance of harmonizing defence and arms control policies and objectives and NATO’s commitment to the development of future arms control agreements. None of this appears to be a priority for the current Secretary General, however, whom appears more at home lecturing member states about the need to increase their defence budgets.
The first of the French carriers, the Vladivostok, is due to be delivered by the last quarter of 2014. Some 400 Russian sailors were scheduled to arrive in June in Saint Nazaire to prepare for the handover of the warship. It is not clear whether this will still happen. The second warship, to be delivered by 2016, is rather mockingly named Sebastopol, after the Crimean seaport.
During a visit to Washington at the beginning of May, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said his government would decide in October whether to proceed with the delivery of two of the ships, and asserted that France had struck the right balance between “dialogue and firmness” in its dealings with Moscow. It seems unlikely that the deal will be cancelled. As Sophie Quintin Adali concluded in an article in March:
Frustrating as it may be for the Americans, the Gaullist tradition of political independence on defence issues and the quest for a special relationship “between eternal France and Russia” is here to stay. As a new Cold War era seemingly grips East-West relations, France continues to deal with Russia according to its national interests, including those of its defence industry.