French warship sale to Russia strains NATO

PARIS, France — It might have been the premise of a post-Cold War fictional thriller by author John Le Carre. Instead France’s decision to sell a Mistral-class warship to Russia is causing consternation among NATO allies, raising anxiety about future instability among Russia’s neighbors and drawing criticism from observers.

The sale, approved earlier this month by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would mark the first time an ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has sold modern military equipment to Russia. And although the move would represent a financial boon to France — one ship reportedly costs an estimated 400-500 million euros — it would be a diplomatic double-edged sword.

“We are arming a proven aggressor,” said former Ambassador David Smith, who is the director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi as well as a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, in Washington D.C.

Smith and others have acknowledged that the sale would mean more work for French shipyards during a difficult economy but he said France’s motivation seems to be based more on “currying favor with Russia” than anything else.

“You’re throwing this capability into the hands of a country that has proven to be aggressive,” Smith said, his voice over the phone rising with incredulity. Russia’s sole motivation in acquiring this kind of ship is to intimidate its neighbors, he said. “This is not going off to Hawaii,” he stressed, pointing out that the ship likely would be anchored in the Black Sea, in proximity to anxious former Soviet bloc countries.

Another vocal critic calling for France to reconsider the sale — along with the possibility of three other ships under consideration following a request by Moscow — is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilli, whose country engaged in a five-day war with Russia in August 2008. He pointed out that providing Russia with advanced arms “will make the situation tenser and will generate new conflicts,” according to an official statement from his office.

Mistral-class amphibious vessels can carry attack helicopters, armored tanks, soldiers and are equipped with a large-capacity hospital. One visited St. Petersburg last year as murmurs of the potential sale were becoming louder.

Saakashvilli criticized France in a recent speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London for its “very unusual and very risky” decision. Georgia has accused Moscow of violating the cease-fire agreement Sarkozy brokered to end the August conflict, saying Russia has maintained forces on Georgian soil at pre-war levels, which the Kremlin denies.

Smith said the sale “undermines France’s credibility on diplomacy,” in the region since Sarkozy has done very little to enforce the agreement he helped craft during his turn as European Union president.

The French president has maintained that the deal is good for France, which wants to improve relations with Russia. “One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don't treat it as one,” Sarkozy said defending the sale.

To that argument Smith said, “Russia will be treated like a partner when it acts like a partner.”

Further underscoring their deepening ties, the two countries are celebrating a “cross year.” France declared 2010 the “Year of Russia” and Russia declared a “Year of France,” launching an engagement that will allow the two countries to highlight each other’s heritage through the arts and other cross-cultural exchanges.

The United States has also expressed a desire to strengthen ties with Russia but the sale places Washington in a delicate position given that Georgia is one of America’s strongest allies in the region and some of the other Baltic States expressing unease over the deal, such as Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are also NATO allies.

Although the U.S. raised its concerns in private discussions between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Herve Morin, the French defense minister, during a meeting here earlier this month, there has not been enough of an outcry, Smith said.

The major allies should have been more vocal earlier with their objections or at the very least requested a formal consultation on the matter. Smith also said it would be useful to put in place a policy for the region, and then he painted a worse case scenario: NATO allied troops being called upon to defend Russia’s neighbors from Russian aggression.

In response to a question about the arms sale, James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman said Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen “does not consider Russia a threat and he hopes Russians don't think of NATO as a threat.” But the spokesman acknowledged that “the anxieties of some allies are, of course, real and they are understandable for historical reasons, geographic reasons and so this is the context which has to be taken into account,” according to a transcript of the February 10 press briefing.

Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, who will likely seek to finalize the deal with Sarkozy on a visit to Paris, expressed concern over the “never-ending enlargement of NATO” in a wide-ranging interview with Paris Match magazine currently available on newsstands.

“NATO is a military alliance that is now on our borders,” Medvedev told the magazine, ahead of his visit, which will coincide with the second anniversary of his election to Russia’s presidency. “It’s not the Cold War,” but we must take this new situation into account.”

Ultimately though, Smith warned, the sale is going to be “a lasting thorn in the side of the alliance.”