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French-Russian Warship Deal Making Waves Among NATO Allies

A French Navy Mistral amphibious assault ship, docked on the Neva River in central St. Petersburg in November 2009.
A French Navy Mistral amphibious assault ship, docked on the Neva River in central St. Petersburg in November 2009.
BRUSSELS -- The French daily "Le Monde" broke the news on February 9: Paris had "agreed in principle" to negotiate the sale of one or more Mistral-class ships to Russia.

If the sale goes through, it will be the first deal of its kind between a member of NATO and Russia.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin first voiced Russian interest in buying a Mistral-class ship during a trip to Paris in late November. As he spoke, a Mistral was docked in St Petersburg -- part of a carefully choreographed move -- playing host to Russian combat helicopters.

Feeling vulnerable, a number of Russia's former satellites have mounted a bid to derail the sale. Georgia is particularly bothered, as memories of its August 2008 war with Russia are still very fresh.

NATO's new Eastern allies along the Baltic Sea are also unsettled, however, and have taken their concerns not only to Paris but to Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Undermine Security

Harri Tiido, the undersecretary for political affairs at the Estonian Foreign Ministry, tells RFE/RL that the Baltic states believe the sale of the Mistrals could undermine their security. "Definitely, it would not add to the security of the region. And I think the nations around the Baltic Sea in that case would have to see what they have to do to change their defense planning, maybe," Tiido says. "But also, it could influence the defense planning of NATO."

The Mistral is a 200-meter vessel capable of carrying 900 troops, 35 helicopters, four landing barges, and 70 land-going vehicles. It also has facilities for carrying refugees, supplies, and hospitals.

Although it has often been deployed by France in humanitarian missions, Russia seems to have military applications uppermost in its mind. In September, the chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, said a Mistral-type vessel would have allowed Russia to defeat Georgia in 2008 "in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours."

Estonians and the other Baltic states take some solace from the fact that the Mistral is not designed to operate in icy conditions.

Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says that Russia is planning to deploy the Mistrals in the Black Sea. "The most obvious application is to have the capability to perform large-scale landing operations in the Black Sea. And I believe that's first and foremost in the western half of Crimea," he says. "We have quite a number of large landing ships, but they're not new, and they were all built abroad, in Poland, at the Gdansk shipyard. They don't have helicopter landing capabilities.

"So, if by 2017, we would have some kind of problem with Sevastopol, having such a capability would be very important."

Felgenhauer says he doesn't believe the Mistrals would be used against Georgia.

Lobbying The United States

The chairman of Russia's national Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said on February 9 that Moscow has not yet made a decision on whether to buy the Mistrals.

In an attempt to make the sale an issue of NATO solidarity, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have jointly lobbied the United States to intervene.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris today and said afterward, "It is more a problem of the message being sent than a military issue."

So now [France has] decided to make a step forward and give the green light to a project that is removing many taboos in Russia and the West.
At NATO headquarters, officials appear to assume it is now a matter of when and not whether the deal will materialize. NATO spokesman James Appathurai says that the alliance has no objections.

"NATO has no formal role at all in this sale," he says. "Of course, allies talk to each other, including on this issue. We are quite confident that the sale would be -- when it takes place -- perfectly legal, within all the relevant frameworks. But, of course, some allies have expressed concern about the sale, and we are aware of it."

Heavy With Irony

The whole affair is heavy with irony for both NATO and France. Experts point out that Russia is seeking to buy the Mistrals in order to address some its naval weaknesses that were exposed by the Georgian campaign.

Georgia itself now feels threatened and its leaders are warning NATO that Russia intends to use the Mistrals against it.

Four months before the war, in April 2008, NATO turned down Georgia's bid to join the alliance's membership track after France and Germany voiced their opposition. France, acting as EU president, negotiated the war's August 12 cease-fire -- the full terms of which Russia has refused to honor.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said that only French intervention prevented Russia from capturing Tbilisi. Both the EU and NATO temporarily broke off relations with Russia after the war.

Last year, France rejoined NATO's military command structure after an absence of 43 years. But Paris also vowed to pursue a European axis within the alliance. Its leaders have repeatedly argued that the alliance can't continue treating Moscow as simultaneously an ally and an enemy, a position Germany agrees with.

Both countries opposed the U.S. plan to site part of its missile shield in Eastern Europe, as well as drawing up NATO defense plans for the three Baltic countries.

Broader Agenda

Arnaud Dubien, a Russia expert at the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), says that France's pursuit of better relations with Russia is part of a broader national agenda.

"France wants a more ambitious relation with Russia, notably in the economic sphere, but also on the political sphere. France wants to be present in important sectors: energy, aeronautics, railways," Dubien says. "So now [it] decided to make a step forward and give the green light to a project that is removing many taboos in Russia and the West."

Under President Barack Obama, the United States has sought to "reset" its fraught relationship with Russia. NATO, under Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has followed suit. Russia plays an increasingly vital role in NATO's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Dubien also points out that the Mistral deal has a significant domestic dimension for France, which, like other developed nations, is grappling with the effects of the global economic downturn.

"The shipyards of Saint-Nazaire are currently building a third Mistral for the French Navy, but starting from next year, there are no [new] orders," Dubien says. "Building a Mistral employs about 1,500 people for nearly two years, and it would have been very difficult for the French government to explain to the future unemployed that there was an order, but that we refused to honor it."

Potential competition from shipyards in Spain and the Netherlands, both of which have been quietly approached by Moscow, raises the stakes. But Russia, like France, appears to have the bigger picture in mind. Moscow views France as a crucial bridgehead in Europe. Russia's sights are set on Paris: 2010 is "The Year of France" in Russia, and "The Year of Russia" in France.

French officials expect the sale of the Mistrals to be officially announced during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Paris in early March.

RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua contributed to this story

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