- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010

France is soon expected to become the first Western European NATO member to sell advanced military equipment to Russia, amid an aggressive search by Moscow for Western arms suppliers that has divided the country’s elite, diplomats and defense analysts say.

The likely deal for at least one Mistral-class amphibious ship for the Russian navy is being watched closely in Washington — not only because of European willingness to arm NATO’s former archenemy, but also because of Moscow’s tacit acknowledgment of the poor state of its own military industry.

Intelligence Online, a Paris-based Web site with good sources in the French government, reported Friday that President Nicolas Sarkozy “has agreed to allow Mistral-class amphibious ships to be sold to the Russian navy.” It quoted “sources at the Elysees Palace” as saying that the decision “will be announced in March, when [Russian President] Dmitry Medvedev visits Paris.”

Emmanuel Lenain, a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington, said that “discussions are going on, but no formal decision has been made yet.”

Still, Mr. Lenain dismissed suggestions that his country would help Russia upgrade its offensive capabilities — a grave concern in some former Soviet republics, such as the Baltic states and Georgia.

“We cannot be suspected of complacency toward Russia,” he said. “Sarkozy played a key role in [resolving] the Georgian crisis in the summer of 2008, and we still have French men and women on the ground, as part of a European effort to maintain the peace agreement.”

The Georgian war strained NATO’s relations with Moscow, though ties improved after President Obama took office last year. Mr. Obama has tried to “reset” the relationship after ties were frayed during the George W. Bush administration. In September, Mr. Obama scrapped his predecessor’s plans for a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

“A Mistral-class ship is a support ship that France has used in particular for humanitarian or national evacuation missions due to its transport and medical capabilities,” Mr. Lenain said. “It would not represent a threat.”

NATO member Turkey has sold some military equipment to Russia in the past, but a French deal would be much more significant, diplomats said.

The State Department declined to comment, as did the Russian Embassy. But Russian military leaders have said that such a ship would have made a significant difference in Georgia.

“Everything that we did in the space of 26 hours at the time, this ship will do within 40 minutes,” Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky, chief of the Russian navy, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency in September.

France is not the only NATO member that appears eager to export military equipment to Russia. Spain’s Navantia shipyard has emerged as a serious rival to the French manufacturer DCNS. In addition, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop said last year that the Russians had approached Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding in the Netherlands.

“Should this sale proceed, an already divided alliance would become even more deeply divided on the eve of drafting its next strategic concept,” said Heather Conley, Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said NATO members should not expand military cooperation with Russia until it “restores its credibility and friendship with the West.”

“At a time when Moscow still views NATO as an adversary, abandons the Conventional [Armed] Forces in Europe Treaty, and occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory, a major warship sale to the Russian navy by a NATO ally is premature,” he said. “This is especially true when the sale is a part of a major naval modernization, which may jeopardize NATO’s flanks and important energy routes.”

Gerrard Cowan, Europe editor of the British publication Jane’s Defense Weekly, wrote earlier this month that the recent activity “is an indication of how far Europe is willing to help Russia modernize its military — even at the expense of erstwhile NATO allies on Russia’s borders.”

“It would point to the emergence of an increasingly normal relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe, one of the key foreign-policy goals of Mr. Obama,” he wrote on Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site.

In November, a Mistral-class ship made a visit to St. Petersburg, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hometown. It engaged in maneuvers with Russian warships and Russian helicopters landed on the French vessel, the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported.

Those exercises intensified a debate in Russia, which was once immensely proud of its military industry, about relying on Western Europe to modernize its armed forces. Some members of the military establishment still argue that Russia does not need to buy from abroad.

“The fact that Russia is seriously considering buying a military vessel from its former NATO adversaries says much about the poor condition of its manufacturing base,” Mr. Cowan wrote.

Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin have criticized their domestic manufacturers for being too slow to modernize, though the president has been tougher.

“Unfortunately, the policy of ‘patching the holes’ is still in place and, to be frank, the sector has not achieved the goal of upgrading its technology to the latest standards,” Mr. Medvedev told defense industrialists in October, according to a transcript on the Kremlin’s Web site. “This directly affects the quality of products delivered to our armed forces and to markets abroad. … This is a question of survival.”

Adm. Vysotsky predicted a favorable deal for Moscow soon. He said the United States was not part of the negotiations with France, Spain and the Netherlands “for understandable reasons.” Washington is “highly sensitive,” he said, about the transfer of new — especially dual-purpose — technology, which the Russians want to be included in any deal with the Europeans.

• Nicholas Kralev can be reached at nkralev@washingtontimes.com.

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