France, Russia and the Mistral

The French sale of a Mistral-class amphibious attack vessel to Russia has gotten all sorts of attention Stateside over the past few weeks, culminating in Defense Secretary Robert Gates visiting Paris in part to energetically convey the U.S. administration’s disapproval of the deal. Curiously, the deal has gotten far less coverage in the French press, even following the announcement by a French Defense Ministry official that the sale had been approved, with a Russian request for three more also under consideration.

The issue warrants attention, because it gets to the heart of the odd configuration that currently characterizes U.S.-Europe-Russia relations. But first it would be helpful to cut loose some of the emotionally charged ballast that has been unfortunately attached to the debate.

To begin with, as even U.S. officials accompanying Gates agreed, the deal has more significance for the symbolic message it sends, specifically to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, than for any operational impact it would have. Yes, a frequently cited Russian admiral did celebrate the fact that the Mistral would have allowed the Russian navy to accomplish its mission during the Georgia War in 40 minutes, instead of 26 hours. However, the added 25 hours and 20 minutes did not seem to play a meaningful role in that war’s outcome. More importantly, the ship is a lightly armed version of an essentially commercial design, so it’s hardly a formidable warship.

Also, although the Defense Ministry did make an announcement that the deal had been approved, I’ve yet to see it formally announced by the French political authorities — i.e. Elysée Palace. So there is still some time to attach leverage to the transaction.

With regard to the message, there’s also a bit of simplistic interpretation going on. Because as much as anything else, the sale underlines the very weakness of Russia’s defense sector — and in particular, its shipbuilding — that will ultimately play a larger role in the future security balance in Europe than Moscow’s current chest-beating great power revival.

What the Mistral deal most significantly illustrates is the competing visions of European security currently being advanced, and more specifically, how to situate Russia within them.

In her recent speech in Paris, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the updated but still classic U.S.-NATO approach: NATO as the principal security instrument, both in Europe and beyond, with EU defense providing a rapid response crisis intervention capability and Russia as a partner on a case by case basis.

The Russians, meanwhile, are proposing a radical overhaul of European security, replacing NATO with a new tripartite arrangement that more formally integrates Russian security concerns in the Euro-Atlantic structure.

And somewhere in between is the French vision, which amounts to a more pronounced Europeanization of European security. In addition to a more robust EU defense capability, that also includes de-pathologizing security cooperation with Russia in advance of formal agreements. The logic being that such deals will ultimately usher in a more stable modus operandi.

That said, the French certainly are guilty of extreme clumsiness with regard to the sensitivities of Eastern European partners, whether NATO members or not. And that could very well prove costly with regard to Paris’ cherished project of advancing EU defense. In fact, the timing on that score is rotten, given the recent signs of an attitude shift on EU defense among the British and Poles, both of whom harbor much greater distrust of the Russians than do the French or Germans. (The German foreign minister also very strongly embraced EU defense at the Munich security conference, going so far as to fix the ultimate objective as a European army under parliamentary control.)

All of which leads me to believe that the deal is meant as much to bring a debate that had faded since France reintegrated NATO’s command structure back into the spotlight. Even if an agreement is ultimately approved and inked, it will be years before the vessel will be completed or delivered, during which time events will ultimately arbitrate between the arguments on both sides.

More World Politics Review