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Russia's Military Shopping Spree Raises Specter Of Gunboat Diplomacy

A French Mistral ship is docked in central St. Petersburg. The massive ship is the most controversial item on Russia's shopping list.
A French Mistral ship is docked in central St. Petersburg. The massive ship is the most controversial item on Russia's shopping list.
BRUSSELS -- Fears are spreading from the Baltic to the Black Sea that Russia may be on the move again.

According to experts, Moscow has put out feelers to some half a dozen Western European nations in bids to acquire advanced military hardware. If it bears results, the potential multibillion-dollar Russian shopping spree would be the first of its kind since the end of the Cold War.

By far the biggest splash has been made by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when he used a visit to Paris last November to publicly place an order for a state-of-the-art French warship. But Russia has not lavished its attention on France alone. Advances have also been made to the Scandinavian nations, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands for what experts say are a variety of advanced weapons platforms.

Predictably, all this has alarmed Russia's neighbors -- particularly those with coastlines. Although experts discount the likelihood of an immediate Russian military threat, the Baltic States feel vulnerable. So does Georgia, which Russia invaded in August 2008 and whose relations with its large northern neighbor remain extremely precarious.

More worryingly, the limits of NATO solidarity and the alliance's commitment to its new Eastern European members are being sorely tested behind the scenes. Ex-communist allies are pondering the full implications of French Prime Minister Francois Fillon's remark in November that selling a French Mistral-class ship to Russia would be "good for Europe."

The Mistral, a 200-meter-long "force projection and command" hub for sea-based operations, is by far the most controversial item on the Russian shopping list.

Paul Holtom, director of the arms transfers program of the Swedish International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Stockholm, tells RFE/RL the vessel could be put to a number of very different uses.

"A spokesman for the French Defense Ministry's export and sales agency has described the Mistral-class as a 'Swiss army knife,' suggesting that it can be used for a variety of roles, because it can carry helicopters, land forces, hospitals, refugees," Holtom said.

A Mistral-class ship is capable of carrying up to 900 troops, 35 helicopters, four landing barges, and 70 land-going vehicles, including 13 tanks. France currently has two Mistral-class vessels, one called Mistral and the other Tonnerre.

Holtom noted that the two ships have provided support to peacekeeping campaigns and acted as command-and-control centers in operations against drug traffickers. They have proved particularly useful in humanitarian crises, having assisted in removing French citizens from Lebanon during the country's 2006 conflict with Israel, and in attempts in 2008 to deliver large-scale aid in the aftermath of the cyclone Nargis in Burma.

Military Or Civilian?

One man's gunboat is another's refugee ship. The Mistral's job description varies accordingly. In 2008, trying to assuage the concerns of the reclusive Burmese government, the French ambassador to the United Nations reportedly claimed the Mistral was not a warship.

Russia, on the other hand, has taken a markedly more warlike view. In September 2009, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the commander in chief of the Russian Navy, said that during the war with Georgia in 2008, the presence of a Mistral-type ship would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to accomplish in 40 minutes what had taken the (mostly land-based) Russian forces 26 hours.

Not surprisingly, Georgia has been particularly badly stung by the news that Western know-how could soon be backing up Russian brawn. Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze in November told the French Institute of International Relations in Paris that Tbilisi was "tremendously worried" by Moscow's interest in the French warship.

Also worried are NATO's new Baltic allies, whose relations with Moscow remain fraught. When Putin formally engaged the French government in talks over the Mistral last November, he said Russia would use the vessel "wherever necessary."

Estonia and Latvia warned late last year that the appearance of Russian Mistral-class vessels in the Baltic Sea would change the "balance of power" in the region and lead to countermeasures. Both governments have asked France not to sell Russia the ship and privately appealed to Washington to intervene.

Experts interviewed by RFE/RL agreed that the acquisition by Russia of one or more Mistral-class ships would not in itself constitute an immediate threat to Russia's neighbors.

Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says he believes "neither Russia nor NATO is currently interested in an arms race."

Nonetheless, Eyal says, the apparent readiness of France and some other Western European governments to consider weapons sales to Russia in the face of strenuous Eastern European objections poses a fundamental question about the limits of NATO solidarity. "There is a very serious debate which is now going on inside NATO about what NATO enlargement actually meant, and how prepared is the alliance as a whole to defend the territorial integrity of its member states," Eyal notes. "That is part of the huge debate that is going on about the new NATO strategic concept."

Eastern, Western Allies At Odds

All of that debate tends to revolve around threat perceptions associated with Russia. The three Baltic countries and Poland want NATO to clearly recognize Russia as a potential threat. Eyal notes that "the prepositioning of Western equipment and drawing up emergency defense plans" for the eastern allies is needed to reinforce their position.

France and Germany head the opposite camp, which argues this would amount to a counterproductive provocation. Russia, they contend, must be treated as a strategic partner and gradually integrated with the rest of Europe.

Olga Oliker, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation in the United States, says the concerns of the Baltic countries are "understandable, but not fully grounded in reality." Oliker argues that Russia has neither the will nor the means to pursue aggression against new NATO allies.

"Any increase in capability will make Russia more capable, [but] what it's likely to do about that is a different issue," Oliker said.

However, Oliker doubts Russia presents a threat in the foreseeable future. "Whether more capable means that it poses a real threat to the Baltic States is yet another question,” she said. “I would argue that no, the purchase of Mistral-class helicopter carriers is not going to turn the tide in any way sufficient that the Baltic States should worry unduly."

Eastern European appeals to Washington have so far produced limited results.

The head of RUSI's European security program, Alastair Cameron, told RFE/RL that a group of U.S. senators in December wrote Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador in the United States, warning that Russia's continuing occupation of parts of Georgia and its failure to comply with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty show it is not a reliable partner. The senators said that Russia's possession of an advanced weapon platform such as the Mistral could harm Western interests.

Cameron says France has responded by saying it is fully committed to NATO's Article Five mutual defense clause and indicating the matter should not concern the United States.

‘Reset’ Interrupted

RAND Corporation analyst Oliker points out that a direct intervention on the part of the United States could adversely affect President Barack Obama's "reset" strategy of smoothing relations with Russia. She adds that "telling countries of the European Union who they can or cannot sell major weapons system to" could also hurt U.S. relations with its Western European allies.

France has yet to make a decision on the sale. However, it is known to be keen to cultivate a closer relationship with Russia; 2010 is both the "Year of Russia" in France and the "Year of France" in Russia.

French enthusiasm for Russia is partly explained by its long-standing ambition to fashion the EU into a counterweight to U.S. power in the world, and partly by its intense intra-European rivalry with Germany. Berlin has so far enjoyed an unchallenged lead role in the evolving EU-Russia partnership.

Commenting on this, RUSI's Jonathan Eyal remarks that "the reality is that the Germans are determined to make as many concessions as they possibly can to Russia and ignore almost anything the Russians do. And the French are not very far behind."

Perhaps mindful of the controversy, Russia is hedging its bets. It has approached the Netherlands and Spain to explore possibilities for having warships built there, should France turn it down.

Analysts consulted by RFE/RL note that Moscow has initiated a major military modernization drive. "Mistral is just a part of the bigger picture," says Eyal. Apart from beefing up its navy, Russia is upgrading its nuclear arsenal, missile delivery systems, and air force. Negotiations are underway to purchase various advanced weapons platforms from Scandinavian countries, Italy, and Israel, among others.

Russia certainly seems to approach the challenge of military modernization with gusto and money to spend. Apart from Western Europe, it has also approached Libya for a possible $2 billion arms deal.

Paul Holtom of SIPRI says the scope of this massive and unprecedented Russian shopping spree is explained by the realization that Russia's own military-industrial production sector is no longer up to the required standard.

"I think, on the one hand, there is a realization within the Russian arms industry that when it comes to cutting-edge high technology, they're not quite up to the grade, they're not cutting the mustard," Holtom observes. "They have decent platforms, but when it comes to the electronics and advanced aspects of these systems, they know, for example, that their export customers are seeking from other suppliers to upgrade and modernize, and to equip platforms that are supplied by Russian [manufacturers]."

Russia appears keen to learn from the West and assimilate as much as it can. Thus, Admiral Vysotsky has said that if Russia succeeds in buying a Mistral, it will use it as a model from which to build another three or four similar ships itself.

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