Is France’s sale of warships to Russia really a good idea?

They’ll always have Paris


They’ll always have Paris

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.


Is France’s sale of warships to Russia really a good idea?

  1. From Vichy, to the Cold War demand that American soldiers be entirely removed from French soil (response from the Americans: "Does that include the dead ones?"….sheepish withdrawal of the demand from the French) to the Oil-for-Food scandal and France's active involvement, France has not exactly covered herself in glory.

    This seems like a continuation of same.

    • It's a sad thing to see how quickly morons forget, if they ever knew, that France lost 217 000 killed fighting the Nazis. For comparison's sake, the USA (with more than three times the population) lost 416 000 killed. It's a despicable insult to pretend France did not fight hard in WWII; they just lost in 1940, is all, when Britain didn't do any better on the continent; but Britain had the Channel.

      • agreed. not to mention how painful it is to see people toss around allegations about who is or is not honourable in isolation without providing any sense of a baseline for leveling the charge, or points of comparison to substantiate their claim.

    • One of the Frenchman who died was my uncle so all the idiots and would be patriots should count what the cost was to them if any.

      • Note that the comment referred to Vichy, not the WW2 deeds of all Frenchmen. Vichy was a clear case of collaboration with the Nazi regime, including the French Milice helping to round up Jews. It stands in stark contrast to other areas of France, the French resistance, and indeed many other occupied countries.

        So unless your grandfather was an official in Vichy, this comment was not about him. Take it easy.

        • Oh, you are saying there were no collaboration in other occupied countries? Just look at the Netherlands and all central Europe countries.

    • You may want to take a stroll in the forests around my home town. France lost more than 200000 killed in a six month siege of the place in 1916. It is called Verdun.
      P.S. if you do go for a stroll in the woods anywhere within 40 kms of the town dont light any campfires. Vast amounts of unexploded ordinance still litter the landscape. The scars of war are still evident all around especially in the numerous war cemetaries that surround the city.

  2. Georgia is not a member of NATO and never will be. They simply can't be trusted to not wander around handing our enemies casus belli. Loose cannons are not welcome as allies. Selling weapons to the Russians is a bit dicey but it's not a violation of any alliance.

    • I agree. NATO would lose all credibility if it allowed Georgia to join.

  3. I'm delighted to see Russia building up its military. We need a strong Russia to act as a bulwark against the Bolshevist west.

    • Good one. Unfortunately, Russia's military will be 40% Muslim by 2025. Think about the ramifications.

  4. Russia is not an enemy of the west. It is a part of it. The problem lies in the Anglophones who's been working hard to conquer the world and Russia is on the way. Since the collapse of USSR, Russia has been treated with contempt by the States and the allies. Russia has feelings too and it has the obligation of protecting its citizens. If Russia doesn't have democracy than north America has even less of it. We don't have real democracy here, what we do have is a dictatorship of the rich.

    • The biggest danger to the Russian people is the Russian government, not the formerly subjugated states of the Former Soviet Union. And as for the Anglophone world. What world is that? You think New Zealand, Belize, and Canada are attempting to conquer the world? You're delusional.

      • Araman's opinion is fairly typical and common opinion among immigrants, many – most – of whom come from countries that have been subjugated by the British or the Americans.

        You see, hating white people is so 20th century; today's modern leukophobe has narrowed his racial hatred toward Anglos. They really, really hate us. I can overemphasize how much they hate us. How on Earth having these people immigrate to a largely Anglo country might be a benefit to the Anglos living there is beyond me – it is a policy that will inevitably lead, and to some degree already has lead, to violence. Violence against Anglos.

    • yeah but in Russia if you criticize the government you can be sent to prison, in the usa you get your own show on Fox

      • In the U S if you criticize republican incumbents Fox & Co will crucify you. Remember how any negative facts however true were mentioned about Bush a ton a bricks fell on who ever was brave enough to speak out. Also you must remember the French did bravely stand up to Bush and refused to participate in the illegal invasion of Iraq because there were no WMD . Bush lied and got clean away with it. Fox news even started the silly and rather stupid renaming of French fries to freedom fries. Something is desperately wrong with neocon thinking or lack thereof.

  5. Russia has no reason to trust the west after the repeated lies of the Americans and the Brits. When the USSR was falling appart Gorbachev was assured by the Americans and their british sidekicks that Nato would not expand to the borders of russia. It took Bush junior and Blair (his assistant liar) no time at all to go back on this agreement. They pressured the other allies into allowing former satellites into the fold. The Germans and the French as well as a majority of the public in most of western Europe have since come to the correct conclusions that the Georgia and the Ukraine are not worth dying for especially in a war that these two unstable regimes would have started themselves. (Did no one learn the lesson from supporting Serbia in 1914?) They have also concluded correctly that Nato no longer serves a useful purpose and will be allowed to die quietly.

    • It wouldn't take much pressure to induce former satellite states that fought for years for independence to join NATO. It provides the best protection against Russian aggression. You are deluded in thinking that Russia is the victim here.

  6. To The realist: your comments are a direct reflection of the Kremlin viewpoint. Bravo. Of course, NATO is a threat! Think about poor Switzerland — surrounded by NATO countries. No wonder they are armed to the teeth.

  7. Just ask the Americans. It's a bitch when arms built in your country are used to attack your own forces.

  8. Wait'll 2045 when France's population becomes majority Muslim and they take over the nuclear submarine fleet. Of course Israel will probably have bombed French shipyards to rubble at that point.

  9. This was a really dumb move by France.

  10. 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.
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  11. Great article Michael. Why sell something to Russia when you can sell it anywhere else?

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