The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was brought to a supposed end with a peace deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the agreement, which called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, and promptly ignored it. Russian soldiers remained in Georgia for two months, and are still stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which most of the world recognizes as part of Georgia but which Russia declared to be independent states—another violation of the agreement.
Russia’s actions were a clear slap in the face to France. As Sarkozy himself pointed out, his signature was also on the document. And yet today, less than two years later, France has agreed to sell Russia as many as four Mistral amphibious assault ships—massive and technologically sophisticated vessels that can each transport and deploy 16 helicopters, four landing barges, 70 vehicles including 13 tanks, and more than 400 soldiers. They also include a hospital and can be used as amphibious command platforms. “A ship like that would have allowed the Black Sea fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours, which is how long it took us,” Russian naval commander Vladimir Vysotsky boasted, referring to the 2008 conflict.
The money that each $750-million boat will bring to France’s underused shipyards likely helped Sarkozy get over the Georgian war snub. But France is also a member of the NATO military alliance, which in April 2008 predicted Georgia and Ukraine would one day join it. The impending sale also coincides with the release of Russia’s latest military doctrine, which identified NATO’s eastward expansion as the main external military danger facing Russia.
To summarize: France, a NATO member, has agreed to provide Russia, a country that views NATO’s expansion as its principal military threat, with a weapons platform Russia says would be useful in a war against Georgia, an aspiring member of the alliance.
“The practice of dealing with Russia with these kinds of sales sets a dangerous precedent,” Nick Vashakidze, Georgia’s deputy minister of defence, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Russia is still a quite dangerous state, especially in its direct neighbourhood. The strengthening of this country militarily is a serious threat, especially for Georgia.” It’s also a potential threat to Ukraine. The pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was recently elected president there, but the country remains a possible flashpoint. Russia’s Black Sea fleet has a naval base there with a lease that expires in 2017. Russia has no intention of giving it up.
Some NATO member states are also concerned. Ants Laaneots, commander-in-chief of the Estonian Defence 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. Robert Gates, the United States secretary of defence, relayed America’s opposition to the French minister of defence, Hervé Morin, reporting, with the usual diplomatic understatement, a “good and thorough exchange of views.”
The sale has exposed what Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, describes as 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 part of the Soviet bloc and whose citizens don’t have fond memories of the experience, such as Poland, the Baltic states, and Hungary. Countries with a more relaxed view, such as Germany and France, often stand to benefit economically from friendly relations. “One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don’t treat it as one,” Sarkozy said. Morin, the French defence minister, argued that France wanted a “new relationship” with Russia.
But Marko Mihkelson, chair of the European Union affairs committee of the Estonian parliament, doesn’t think Russia wants a new relationship with the West. “Russia has not changed,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Today’s Russia under [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and Medvedev does not recognize that the Russian empire or the Soviet empire is history. It is not a democratic country. It is a centralized authoritarian state that sees democratic nations and democratic values as a possible threat. This is what should concern the Western democratic community.”
It is difficult to reconcile Russia’s professed desire for better relations with the West with its apparent belief that NATO is its greatest potential enemy. According to Pifer, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the Russian military doctrine that focuses on the supposed danger of NATO expansion is strategically unsound. “If you look at Russia’s southern, eastern, and western borders, the one that is most secure is in the west. NATO is not going to invade Russia,” he said, noting that Russia faces far greater threats from radical Islamists in the North Caucasus, or in the Central Asian states to its south, should such groups come to power there.
Yet Russian defence rhetoric consistently revolves around nations that were once part of the Soviet empire and where sufficiently powerful political players desire closer ties with the West. Georgia is the most obvious example of a country that Moscow has sought to punish for tilting away from it. Russia has also manipulated gas exports to influence politics in Ukraine, where a pro-Russian separatist movement has the enthusiastic support of the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov also backs pro-Russian separatists in Moldova.
“I think we’re looking at a long process in which Russia either comes to terms with the idea that its neighbours are independent states whose mere existence is not a lever for enemies to weaken Russia, or we get a long process of unrelieved confrontations between Russia and smaller neighbours, the impact of which is felt in states in the West, which all things considered, would rather stay out of things,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S., who from 1997 to 2001 worked in the State Department regarding American policy toward states of the former Soviet Union. “People who have been involved with Western efforts to pursue a kind of accommodation with Russia hope for the first, but we keep coming up with Russian impulses that favour the second.”
Barack Obama began his presidency in the optimist’s camp, saying it was time for the United States to “reset or reboot” its relationship with Russia. American officials who spoke to the New York Times claimed that Obama, in a hand-delivered letter to his Russian counterpart, suggested the United States would drop plans for a European missile defence system, which would have seen a radar station and rocket interceptors based in Poland and the Czech Republic, in exchange for Russian help confronting Iran. Obama denied a deal, but cancelled the missile defence plan in September.
Moscow has since said it would consider supporting sanctions against Iran—a stance David J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, dismisses as superficial posturing. “If the Russians had a real interest in helping us in Iran, they would help us in Iran,” he said. “They obviously don’t. They have an interest in making us think that they might.”
The Mistral-class ship deal, meanwhile, may be formally sealed next month. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is visiting Paris in March.