Mistral Sales Worry Baltics

By Karoliina Raudsepp (August 10, 2011)

The long-prepared arms deal received its final signatures on June 17 when France agreed to the sale of two Mistral-type helicopter carrier warships to Russia for around one billion euros. The Russian national arms export company Rosoboronexport, and the French national ship-building company DCNS, signed the deal during the St. Petersburg economic forum, although the deal had already been agreed earlier, without naming prices or deadlines.

Estonia and the other Baltic States have expressed concerns about the deal as France is a NATO member state and relations with Russia have long been strained.

According to delfi.ee, Russia will acquire four Mistrals, with 40 percent of the first two to be built in Russia and finished in France. The construction of the first ship will begin in December in a shipyard near St Petersburg. The Mistral is an amphibious assault ship equipped for the French Navy. It can carry 16 heavy, or 35 light, helicopters, which means fast deployment to conflict zones. It has also been deployed to Libya this year in order to rescue refugees. They are high-technology warships of a kind Russia previously did not have in its Navy.

According to Reuters, the arms deal is “Moscow’s first major foreign arms purchase in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.” The deal was signed with an option to purchase two more ships, which gives Russia unprecedented access to the latest in warship technology, especially as the ships will come fully equipped with modern defense technology, which was a point of contention in the agreement.

Later it was, however, confirmed by Russian authorities that the helicopter carriers will come with the latest French technology.

American leadership has been publicly quiet about the deal, especially as Obama announced its reset-policy in regard to relations with Russia. However, several congressmen have voiced their opinions about the deal. For example, last December, according to the Washington Post, six Republican senators (including ex-presidential candidate John McCain), wrote a letter to the French Ambassador to the U.S., stating that it is not right for France to go through with the sale as it would appear to condone the Russian human rights record, and especially its behavior in Georgia (“increasingly aggressive and illegal” behavior toward its neighbors, according to the letter).

The letter highlighted the hypocrisy of the French leadership in regard to the Georgia cease-fire, which President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated, as Russian troops have remained in the territories that are internationally recognized as Georgian. With the arms deal, the sincerity of the French effort in the Georgian war becomes questionable.

In a statement, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, stated that “It is deeply troubling that France, a NATO ally, has decided to ignore the clear danger of selling advanced warships to Russia, even as Moscow is taking an increasingly hostile approach toward the U.S., its neighbors, and Europe itself. Many of our allies in the region, such as Georgia and the Baltic States, have experienced cyber attacks, severe economic pressure, and even invasion by Russia,” Ros-Lehtinen’s statement reads.

In selling advanced war technology to their rather belligerent Eastern neighbor, the Baltics are rather uneasy about the agreement. In a statement to The Baltic Times, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said that “This is a bilateral deal between France and Russia that we have kept a close eye on. We have had close contact with our French colleagues and other NATO and EU allies on this topic. We are sure that in signing this deal, all international norms and agreements concerning the sale and purchase of arms, including NATO and EU principles in regard to the sale of strategic goods to third countries [have been followed].”

Although a very surgical statement, it is clear that it is not just another arms deal. According to the latest NATO strategic reviews, Russia is no longer considered an adversary, but rather a strategic partner (in fighting international terrorism, for example). Nevertheless, the scars left by 50 years of Soviet rule have not left the Baltic States and such deals get increased scrutiny. Paet continues: “According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia acquiring two to four Mistral type ships does not significantly change the security balance in the Baltic Sea region. At the same time, however, we see a need to enhance practical cooperation with Russia by both NATO and NATO member states.”

Latvian officials were far less politically correct about the matter. According to delfi.lv, the Latvian Minister of Defense, Artis Pabriks, said in June that “if this deal changes the security balance in the Baltic Sea region, Latvia will demand compensation” in order to recreate the status quo. Pabriks explained that if the Mistral ships will be deployed to the Baltic Sea, Latvia will ask both military and political support from France and the rest of NATO. The support will have to be enough to restore balance in the region.

According to Ardo Kaljuvee, writing in Eesti Paevaleht, although the sale of the Mistrals is annoying Estonia, nothing really has been done about it. As examples of a rather passive position, Estonia has made no effort to explain its position to France, or look for allies. For example, Japan is just as worried about the sale, but is unaware of the Estonian position.

Andres Laasik, from the same paper, highlighted that the helicopter carriers cannot really significantly change the security dynamics because of our proximity to Russia. If Russia were to ever actually attack the Baltic States again, it would not need a sinkable ship to do it from, but could easily attack from land bases.

Bearing in mind the political opinions of the leaderships of the Baltic States and the strategic realities of the three states, the main worry for American and Eastern European policy makers is about a Western European state that is a EU and NATO member selling advanced military technology to an undemocratic state with little regard for issues surrounding human rights or its neighbors’ sovereignty.