By Guil Sho
After the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the international community that Russia is taking an active role in the war against Ukraine and is supporting terrorism. Despite this, France is not suspending military cooperation with Russia and is planning to deliver two Mistral class advanced invasion ships to Russia. We offer an analysis of an embarrassing deal against which world leaders, such as Obama and Merkel, have taken position.
The Mistral Deal signed despite Russia’s expansionism
France signed this deal despite evidence that Russian expansionism would destabilize the region. In 2010, Galia Ackerman interviewed Pavel FELGENHAUER, a Russian military expert. She asked him whether he thought that a Russian military operation in Crimea was possible. He answered that in his opinion, even though Russia may want it, it was not possible yet. He said that in order for such an operation to be successful, not only would Russia have to crush the Ukrainian army, but also it would have to take over the region quickly without violence and bloodshed. He said that it would have to be an Anschluss. In his opinion, in 2010, Russia did not have the military capabilities for such an operation. But, he added that Russia will have such capabilities once it completes its army reform, “5 or 10 years from now”. He also said that annexing Crimea alone made no sense, and that Crimea had to be taken with Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa and Kharkov.
In this interview, in 2010, FELGENHAUER stated that Russia wants to buy Mistral ships in order to carry out such an operation against Ukraine. He said that such ships are not used for defense, but for attack, and would prove extremely useful in order to attack Odessa or Transnistria and achieve a quick victory.
1 year following this interview, in 2011, only 3 years after the Georgian war and despite protests from its historical allies, France signed a contract to sell to Russia two Mistral class ships, for EUR1,2bn, with an option on two more vessels. It was the first time that a NATO member accepted to deliver sensitive military equipment to Moscow. This contract also covers transfers of technology, as Russian engineers are working with French engineers on building the boat. This is the most worrying point, as after this deal, Russians will be able to build their own advanced invasion ships.
The delivery of the first vessel, the Vladivostok is scheduled for October 2014. The second vessel, the Sebastopol, is scheduled for delivery mid-2015.
The Mistral is an amphibious assault vessel, designed to lead invasions from sea to land. The commander in chief of the Russian Navy during the Georgia war said that with such vessels, the attack against Georgia would have lasted only 40 minutes, and not 26 hours as was the case. A Mistral can carry 16 helicopters, 4 landing craft utilities, 60 BTRs including about 15 tanks, and up to 900 soldiers. It is not just a command ship with a hospital, as the French like to describe it, but a real strategic weapon capable of significant strikes.
The current situation
Four years later, Felgenhauer’s prediction has come true – Russia has annexed Crimea and is supporting war in Donbas. On French radio, he has recently reiterated that Russia bought these ships in order to use them in the Black Sea against Odessa, or in the Pacific against US bases or Japan.
In addition, over the past few years, Russia has openly adopted an expansionist and anti-European rhetoric, claiming Russian rights on former USSR republics and bearing worrying resemblances with Nazi Germany’s rhetoric of the 1930s.
Understandably, more and more allies are voicing concerns about this deal. President Barack Obama has said to President Hollande that he thinks the deal should be paused. Various top level officials from Poland and the Baltic States have clearly said that France should not sell these ships. Ukraine, EU’s newest partner following the signature of the Association Agreement, is now suffering from Russian invasion. A civil airplane was just shot down by Russia backed separatists in Donbas.
Civil society also constantly expresses concerns. The activist group “No Mistrals for Putin” organizes regular demonstrations around the world against this deal and against French military cooperation with Russia. The latest round of protests was organized around July 14th, French Bastille Day, with demonstrations in 18 cities and 13 countries. In Kyiv, about 300 protesters gathered outside of a museum where the French ambassador was organizing a banquet.
Opponents to this deal suggest that France could find other clients. American and Canadian senators have suggested that NATO, the US or Canada should buy these ships.
Claudia Major and Christian Mölling, fellows at the German Institute for International Affairs and Security (SWP) have suggested that the European Union should buy these ships. They have pointed out that one of the priorities of the French president is to build a common defense, and they have suggested that these two ships could become the first step in that direction.
With a bit of creative thinking and good will, it is thus possible to find alternative solutions for these ships. It may cost a bit of money (penalties for cancelling the contract), but this seems nothing in comparison to becoming an ally of an aggressive, totalitarian state like Putin’s Russia; and in comparison to peace and stability in Europe.
France going ahead with the deal
In this context, it is more and more difficult to understand why France is not cancelling this sale. So far, the deal is going forward, and 400 Russian sailors have arrived in France to undergo training. Mainstream politicians and media have not commented this at length. The Front National, French extreme right party, has even praised this, as a sign that French foreign policy is independent from US influence.
France is trying to justify itself with this decision to go ahead, but it fails to convince. One reason invoked are jobs. However, this is not true. A union representative in St Nazaire (where the ships are being built) has confirmed that jobs do not depend on the Mistrals, while the director of STX, the company building the ships, has said that their order book is full until 2019, with a delivery of a large ship scheduled every year until then.
Another reason invoked is reputation. But what is more dangerous in terms of reputation, arming an aggressor and supporting Russian expansionism, or breaking a contract in order to preserve peace, stability and democracy on the continent?
In its attempt to justify the delivery of these ships, French propaganda sometimes takes a ridiculous turn. For instance, on his way back from Ukraine, where he attended Poroshenko’s inauguration, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that just like Russia honors its signature, France will too. This was said after Russia broke the Memorandum of Budapest, illegally occupied Crimea and started to support terrorists in Donbas.
The reason behind this stubborn French position is most likely money. In case the contract is broken, France has said that it will have to pay big penalties. Also, cancelling the deal with Russia could have negative implications for French’s arms exports globally. Let’s note here that France is among the top weapons exporters in the world. Behind the words, behind the pledges to protect democracy and peace, despite the promises to support Ukraine and other allies, despite the strong engagement against arms proliferation, by continuing this deal with Russia, France is showing to the world that it cares more about blood dollars than about peace and democratic principles.
Malaysia Airline’s Crash
On July 17th,Russia backed separatists, with the help of Russian personnel, shot down a civilian planewith 298 passengers on board. This new terrorist act has sent a shock wave around the world, and following this tragedy, some more world leaders such as Merkel, have joined in saying that France should not sell Mistrals to Russia. Robert C. O’Brien, a former US representative in the UN, suggested that the US should use the proceeds from the BNP Paribas fine to buy and arm the Mistrals. After the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines, this deal has become a major, global issue affecting world security.
Let’s hope that France, in light of this tragedy, will remember its founding principles and decide to look for new clients for these ships. But considering that France has not moved during the time of the Ukrainian conflict despite mounting evidence of Russian involvement, and based on comments from French officials after the crash, who said that they want to keep the Boeing tragedy and the arms deal separate, we can legitimately fear that France will not cancel this contract, even though going on with this sale would have a devastating effect on its reputation, especially after this tragedy.
What can be done
In case France is not forced by third level sanctions or by allies to stop exporting arms to Russia, then legal procedures could block this deal, as it breaks the European code of conduct on arms export, which regulates how member states can export arms to non EU countries.
This code of conduct lists several criteria that the buyer should respect in order for the sale to be legal. For the sale to become illegal, it is enough that the destination country breaks just one criteria. However, as explained by M. Samus, Russia is breaking 6 of these criteria. One criteria states that the buyer should respect human rights, which is not the case of Russia if we look at how it treats political opponents and journalists. Another criteria states that the buyer should respect international law, which is not the case for Russia with the illegal occupation of Crimea, the fact that it supports war in Donbas, and the fact that it broke the Budapest Memorandum. A third criteria states that the sale should not put at risk the security of allies and partners of France. Poland and the Baltic States have expressed concerns for their security, and Ukraine is under attack.
This code of conduct has become a “common position” in 2008 (ironically under French influence), and as such, theoretically, this code of conduct is legally binding. This was confirmed by Hervé Morin, then minister of defense, in the French parliament on the 2nd of February 2010: “This common position constitute a legally binding act, which does not necessitate the adoption of new national legislation, it imposes itself directly on the French administration (…). As a result, the decisions of the Intergovernmental Commission for the Export of War Equipment, when delivering their permission for arms exports, should rigorously take into consideration embargos and restrictive measures in force, on the basis of exhaustive and up to date lists from the UN and on the basis of the common positions of the EU”.
The Intergovernmental Commission for the Export of War Equipment (CIEEMG in French) is thus theoretically expected to strictly apply this common position, and to ban the export of Mistral ships. In case the Commission decides to ignore European legislation, or in case France decides to go through, in theory, any EU citizen can sue France for breaking fundamental EU law. According to Sylvie Matelly, such a procedure would be difficult, but represents a risk for any member state or firm breaching the common position.
Another approach would be for Ukraine and other concerned states (most likely Russia’s neighbors, states bordering the Black Sea, the Baltic States, the US, Canada and why not even Japan and allies in the Pacific) to act at the government level and to find EU members willing to pressure France so that it respects EU law and principles. Pressure from the street and from media will also be effective in bringing shame on France and pushing other governments to use the influence and legal means at their disposal to stop this deal.
Despite all French efforts to quietly sell Mistrals to Russia, surprises will come up along the way…