Russian premier Vladimir Putin met French leaders Friday on a visit aimed at boosting economic ties. But his trip sparked concern amid reports that Russia plans to buy a French warship that would significantly boost its military capabilities.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin concluded a raft of deals with French business leaders on Friday during a visit aimed at luring investment into Russia’s auto and energy industries. But his two-day trip has set off alarm bells in some parts of Europe amid reports that Moscow also has plans to purchase a French-made aircraft carrier that would significantly boost Russia’s military capabilities.
Russian and French officials have confirmed that the two nations are in continuing negotiations for the purchase of a Mistral warship and a licence to produce at least four others in an unprecedented transfer of military technology from a NATO power.
Moscow’s interest in the Mistral also marks a sea change in Kremlin policy, as Russia has long remained the sole producer of its military hardware.
The second-largest ship in the French fleet at more than 21,000 tonnes and almost 200 metres in length, the Mistral can carry 16 helicopters, up to 900 troops as well as landing craft and tanks. It is designed to transport an amphibious assault force to an area of conflict quickly.
The 'Swiss-army knife' of warships
“It’s nicknamed the Swiss-army knife because it has so many different functions,” FRANCE 24’s international editor, Armen Georgian, says of the ship, which also boasts a 69-bed on-board hospital.
The commander of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, has noted publicly that if the Mistral had been used during Russia's August 2008 conflict with Georgia, the Black Sea fleet could have deployed its troops in 40 minutes instead of the 26 hours it took to do so.
Such a blunt assessment has sparked unease in several nations formerly under Kremlin control, with Baltic governments expressing concern this week over a revamp of Russian military capability. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told journalists on Tuesday that his country wanted to know if a Mistral sale would include “top military technology". Lithuanian foreign ministry spokesman Rolandas Kacinskas told AFP on Wednesday that Vilnius was also seeking clarification from France, on "exactly what kind of equipment it plans to sell and what it can be used for".
French daily Le Figaro quotes Alex Rondell, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that a Mistral purchase would merely be Moscow’s latest attempt to regain its status as a superpower and reassert control over its former Soviet satellites. He, for one, has no doubts as to Russia’s long-term plans for the ship.
“The Mistral is a formidable assault ship for attacking Georgia or the Baltic countries,” Rondell said, adding that the potential deal was like France “giving a gun to a bandit”.
“This is why we are afraid,” he said.
The Monday arrival of the Mistral in St Petersburg, just days before Putin's visit to France, fuelled fears that a deal was imminent. But the Russian premier said Friday that no decision had yet been made on the purchase.
Arms for arbitration?
France has tried to soothe these fears by emphasising that it would not be selling a fully weaponised, battle-ready warship.
Although clearly motivated by the financial benefits of the Mistral deal, France also does not view the sale as compromising Georgian or Baltic security, says George Frederick Jewsbury of the Centre for Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies in Paris. He notes that as NATO members, the Baltic states are ostensibly protected by Article Five, which calls for the alliance to respond to an attack on one member as an attack on all.
As for non-member Georgia, Jewsbury says the French view a Mistral sale as doing little to heighten the risk of another Russian incursion. He says Paris is likely estimating that Georgia would be “as exposed before as it would be after the sale of the ship”.
“They’re exposed anyway,” he says.
Le Figaro quotes one French official close to the talks as pragmatically noting that certain concessions must be made if France, and the rest of the world, want the Kremlin’s cooperation on some thorny global issues.
The unnamed official said that Europe cannot hope to build a stable continent in partnership with Moscow and expect its help on the big questions, like dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, and yet refuse to sell Russia arms.
By Khatya CHHOR