France became the first NATO member in history to sell offensive arms to Russia yesterday, agreeing on the sale of a Mistral class amphibious assault ship worth around 500 million euros. In addition, and despite concerns expressed by its American and eastern European allies, France is considering selling three more ships to Russia, as stated by Jacques de Lajugie, head of international sales at the French defence ministry.
The 23,000 tonne Mistral class ship will significantly boost the strength of Russia’s ageing fleet. The amphibious assault ship, which can be used as a command vessel, can carry sixteen attack helicopters, 70 vehicles including thirteen battle tanks, and up to 900 troops for thousands of miles.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Paris yesterday, said he was “deeply concerned”. Six American senators, including John McCain, had already sent a letter to the French ambassador in Washington asking him to stop the sale. Other NATO members are also uneasy about the deal, concerned by the prospect of increasing Russia’s force projection capabilities in the aftermath of its crushing victory over the Georgian military in 2008.
The openSecurity verdict: From a geopolitical perspective, the eastern European states’ concerns are well-founded. With the procurement of a Mistral vessel, and with several more in the pipeline, Moscow greatly increases its strategic range. Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, the Russian navy's commander-in-chief, has said that such a ship would have allowed Russia to land all the troops it deployed during the Russia-Georgia conflict in 40 minutes, rather than the 26 hours it took in 2008.
Russian officials responded to international anxiety by hastening to suggest more peaceful uses for the Mistral ship, such as humanitarian relief and anti-piracy operations, but it is its undeniable offensive capacity that will dominate debate. Countries on the Black Sea and Caspian are likely to pursue counter-moves, with Romania's recent accepted of an American missile defence shield a case in point.
The Baltic states are no less concerned. A Mistral-class vessel could just as well be deployed in the Baltic Sea, evidenced by the port-call of the French mistral at St Petersburg last November. Wedged between Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and having gained independence from the Soviet bloc less than 20 years ago, the Baltic states feel chronically insecure. Added to which are the problems posed by Russian minorities in the Baltic states, who have too often been pawns in the struggle between a Russia reluctant to relinquish control and the new states' assertion of nationalist independence. Putin’s did little to allay fears, responding that if purchased, he "will use it wherever deemed necessary.” Estonia, Latvia, and Lithunia have said they feel alarmed by the consequences of the deal for their national security, and have asked France to reconsider.
The French president Nicolas Sarkozy has defended the sale in the framework of an emerging ‘Franco-Russian strategic partnership’. Sarkozy said that the sale did not pose a problem, since Russia should be treated as a real partner. Hervé Morin, France’s defence minister, claimed suggested critics still talking in anachronistic cold war terms. However, while the French publicly dismiss the spheres-of-influence thinking inherited from the cold war, and claim that their dealings with Russia should not be seen as a geopolitical threat to any country, the Mistral visiting St. Petersburg in November 2009 curiously resembles a Franco-Russian naval event in St. Petersburg in 1891. This moment of great power summitry marked the start of the official Franco-Russian alliance and was a high point of ‘balance-of-power’ politics, contributing to the series alliances frequently blamed for the outbreak of the first world war.
The dubious strategic rationale for the deal led the French foreign ministry to oppose it, Le Monde reported. The paper suggested François Fillon, France’s prime minister, pushed the deal mainly because of its economic benefits. The order would give a huge boost to the Saint-Nazaire naval shipyards and for the French domestic defence industry, providing critical funds and job creation opportunities. Fillon has emerged as a key supporter in France of the rapprochement with Russia, both for its purported strategic benefits and for its lucrative business opportunities. In a 2008 NATO summit, for example, he publicly opposed Georgian and Ukrainian membership plans.
The French move also testify to the difficulty Europe has in its foreign policy approach to Russia. Moscow delights in playing off different EU member states against each other, and European countries find it difficult to present a united front, for example in external policies such as energy supply security. The Lisbon Treaty was intended to improve the cohesiveness of Europe’s external policies but little has been achieved in this regard while France appears to be circumventing EU coordination and consultation procedures in the Mistral sale.
Even in Russia itself, the deal has been subject to criticism. The declining Russian defence industry has argued strongly against arms imports, and has asked why Russia should finance jobs for French workers. Accounting for such pressures, Russia first intended to buy one Mistral along with a license to build the next ships in Russian shipyards. However, yesterday’s announcement that all ships will be constructed in France seems to indicate that at present, the Russian defence industry is incapable of providing the necessary capability to construct an advanced vessel such as the Mistral, even with the help of French technology transfers. More contested international arms deals should be expected.
US aims for new sanctions on Iran “within weeks”.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates wants a new UN resolution for sanctions on Iran “in a matter of weeks”, a Pentagon spokesperson said on Tuesday. Press secretary Geoff Morell told reporters that Gates had talked to leaders in Turkey, Italy, and France about the "urgent need” to proceed with sanctions as soon as possible. In a meeting on Monday, France’s president Sarkozy agreed to support a quick move towards new sanctions. France holds the current presidency on the UN security council, rendering its help important in the push for a new resolution.
Tensions between Iran and America and its European allies have been on the rise, with President Ahmadinejad recently threatening a “telling blow” against world leaders coupled with decision to begin enriching uranium to 20%, a big step up towards the production of the 90% required for weapons-grade material.
Among the five veto-wielding powers in the UN Security Council, only China is still unwilling to approve further sanctions. Russia, on the other hand, has been moving towards supporting UN sanctions. Gates did not give any details about how the US will deal with China's reluctance to take action against Iran, a country in which it has large commercial and energy interests.
197 people indicted for murder over Philippine massacre
Nearly 200 people have been charged with murder following a politically motivated massacre in the Philippines last December. Among those accused for the murder of 57 people is Andal Ampatuan Sr., the head of a powerful clan with connections to President Gloria Aroyo.
The accusations speak of a conspiracy to ambush and kill members of a rival clan and their political supporters near a highway in Maguindanao province. Besides Ampatuan Sr., who was the governor of the province, the people charged include 25 other members of his family, 65 soldiers and police officers, and 106 members of a civilian military force.
Prosecutors alleged that the massacre took place for political reasons. Among the victims was a rival candidate for the upcoming governorship elections in May, Esmael Mangudadatu, as well as at least 30 journalists accompanying him.
Sir Lankan opposition leader treated “like an animal”
In a dramatic turn after Sri Lankan presidential elections last month, the defeated candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, was arrested yesterday on charges of planning a military coup and various “military offences”. Today, his wife accused the government of abducting rather than arresting her husband, and of treating him “like an animal”.
General Fonseka was apparently taken by military police from his office in Colombo last night, and is now facing trial in a military court. His wife accuses President Rajapaksa, who won the elections, of settling a personal vendetta against the popular general, who is viewed as a national hero after winning the war against the rebel Tamil tigers. Fonseka has blamed the government for rigging the election, and vowed to challenge the results in the Supreme Court. Opposition politicians joined in by saying that the arrest was “undignified”, and that the way in which Fonseka was “dragged away” was a “disgrace to the security forces”.