French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, received Russia’s defense and foreign affairs ministers, Anatoliy Serdyukov and Sergei Lavrov, at the Elysee Palace on September 7, capping a regular meeting of the Franco-Russian Council for Security Cooperation. This body brings together the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers and some military officials. The council’s September 7 meeting resolved, inter alia, to upgrade and regularize future military representation.
Russian procurement of French Mistral-class warships figured prominently in the discussions (“Russia Launches International Tender for Warship Procurement,” EDM, September 10) as one element in an ambitious strategic agenda. The Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, attended the Paris session. Vysotskiy had been the first official on either side to announce the start of negotiations for the Mistral procurement in September 2009, arguing that Russia could have subdued Georgia faster and more effectively in 2008, if the Russian navy had possessed a power-projection ship of the Mistral class at that time. Vysotskiy’s observation remains relevant for all contingency planning regarding Georgia’s defense from a hypothetical Russian attack. A Mistral-class ship (with its escort) can advance unopposed in the Black Sea to stage an amphibious and airborne assault on Georgia’s coast, or cut off Georgian ports. Such an operation could be far more effective, compared (again on a contingency basis) with a Russian southward move from Abkhazia overland, where it would face multiple challenges.
According to the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, “our large amphibious ships are three to four times smaller than a Mistral-class ship, consume three times more fuel than a Mistral,” while moving more slowly and lacking the multi-functional capabilities of the Mistral class (ITAR-TASS, September 9).
With NATO stifling internal debate on the Franco-Russian negotiation, Georgia became its main critic. Consequently, the Mistral issue almost became a Georgia issue within international public opinion. This appearance is misleading as well as undermining the case. In fact, Russia seeks four Mistral-class ships, one for each of Russia’s four fleets. Deployment of this power-projection ship with Russia’s Baltic Fleet would change the naval balance there, necessitating adjustments to NATO planning for the Baltic region.
On September 8-10, Russia’s Baltic Fleet (along with land and air force units attached to that fleet) conducted offense-oriented exercises, featuring an assault against fixed coastal defenses. This involved a helicopter-borne paratroop assault as well as an amphibious landing, using 40 armored personnel carriers (a number equivalent to the APC’s aboard a Mistral-class ship) (Russian Television Channel One, Interfax, September 8, 9). The spirit of this exercise seems consistent with that of Russia’s September 2009 Zapad exercise, which was held in a wider Baltic area. It also may reflect Russian contingency planning for amphibious and airborne landings in the Baltic region. Possession of a Mistral-class ship would greatly strengthen Russia’s power-projection capabilities in this region, as well as in the Black Sea.
Apart from the highly capable platform for landing operations (the helicopters and armored vehicles will be Russian), Moscow pursues three additional goals in the negotiations with France: acquiring the advanced electronics with the Mistral-class ships, obtaining the license for continuing serial production in Russian shipyards, and creating a precedent for West European countries selling and licensing weapons systems to Russia, thus undermining NATO. With such bold objectives from a position of relative weakness, Moscow is nevertheless dominating and manipulating the French side in the negotiations.
Moscow exploits the French president’s and government’s all-too-obvious eagerness for a deal, the economic crisis, Sarkozy’s internal political predicament, and his populist promises to rescue French shipbuilding with the Russian procurement of four Mistral-class ships. It also plays on the current French leadership’s sense that Paris ought to catch up with Berlin as a special partner to Russia. To stimulate French ardor, Moscow announced an international tender for Mistral-analogue warships, shortly before the September 7 Paris meeting of the Franco-Russian Council for Security Cooperation.
Using the international tender as leverage, Moscow keeps the French off-balance and nervous. Lavrov’s assessment of his French counterparts led him to disrespect them at the Paris meeting. When reminded that President, Dmitry Medvedev, had agreed with Sarkozy in March to conduct “exclusive negotiations” with France (not a tender) for this naval procurement, Lavrov replied that “exclusive” negotiations would presuppose the transfer of the most advanced technology to Russia. When asked whether the international tender is compatible with the “exclusive negotiations” promise, Lavrov replied that the tender is mandatory because “Russia is a state based on law,” and moreover follows EU practice in holding this naval tender. When French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, was asked at the joint press conference to comment on Russia’s military presence in Georgia, Lavrov cut in with a “let me preempt that” and gave Moscow’s view, before Kouchner could reply (Agence France Presse, Le Figaro, Le Monde, September 8; Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs transcripts, September 7, 9).
According to Serdyukov’s briefing, in Moscow, the sides have agreed to set up Franco-Russian working groups on military and military-industrial cooperation, at the level of the armed forces’ service commanders and their deputies, linked with the Franco-Russian Council for Security Cooperation. If the Mistral procurement terms are suitable to Russia, the latter could then buy French-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) and other French military equipment. According to Serdyukov, the French are keenly interested and have already submitted proposals to the Russian delegation (Interfax, September 8).
Current Russian procurement policy envisages buying the first batch of military equipment in the West, then launching serial production in joint ventures on Russian territory. Moscow seems to feel that it can set the conditions in dealing with France, alternating between pressures and incentives and playing off potential suppliers against each other. Sarkozy has gone very far in advertising the Mistral sale to Russia and claiming political credit for it. The Russian international tender shocked him into sending the head of his military staff, Army Corps General Benoit Puga, in late August to Russia for clarifications. Serdyukov and Lavrov have now provided these. The Elysee Palace is putting a brave face on the new situation: President Sarkozy “has understood it,” and “we are continuing our discussions with full confidence” (Agence France Presse, September 7).