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Medvedev, Putin, and the Mistral

8:30 AM, Mar 5, 2010 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Russian president Dmitri Medvedev's state visit to France on March 1-3 was built up to be an historic event. It was supposed to be a moment for Nicolas Sarkozy to cement his position as the man who has good relations both with Moscow and Washington. Which, in turn, would position himself in a place to persuade Moscow to agree to tougher sanctions against Iran.

Medvedev, Putin, and the Mistral

But in reality, Medvedev's goal was mainly to increase Russia's military power. One of his aims was to discuss the purchase of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship by Russia, a sale which has brought strong objections from Georgia.

The Georgian government sees the purchase by Moscow as a sword over their heads, as operating the ship in Georgian and Ukrainian coastal waters off the Black Sea is a major threat. Just last September, the commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, boasted that if Russia only possessed just one Mistral during the 2008 war with Georgia, it could have subdued the nation in just 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.

But Russia has no intention of just acquiring one of these 23,700 ton, 210 meter long, helicopter carrying, assault ships.  The deal being discussed between Moscow and Paris is for one ship to be sold outright to Russia, and another three to be licensed and then manufactured at Russian shipyards. They may also be deployed to the Arctic, in order to cast a threatening shadow over the new NATO-member Baltic States.

In addition to Georgian objections, both the Latvian and Lithuanian defense ministers have lodged complaints with France over the Mistral sale.  But, despite complaints from all of these nations who know just how capricious and untrustworthy their big neighbor can be, the French defense minister, Herve Morin, has defended the Mistral sale.  His rationale: Russia should no longer be looked at as if it were still the Soviet Union. “Russia has changed, and we have to change the way we look at Russia,” he said during a press briefing prior to Medvedev’s visit.

Except, it has not changed.  Russia’s recently released military doctrine reads like it's a kinder, gentler document from the same NATO-phobic Soviet government that once covered half of Europe with an army of occupation.  Medvedev signed the new military doctrine articles on February 5 (intending to show up the annual Munich security conference). The doctrine lists NATO as first of Russia’s eleven most predominant military threats.  (Global terrorism only ranks tenth on the Russian's list.)

The response to criticism of this document by Medvedev is indelible proof that he was trained as a lawyer.  When questioned about why the new doctrine seemed to be a giant step backward into the Cold War, he offered a circular response:  NATO is not a "threat," it's the number one "danger." Most observers are still trying to figure out whether there is a difference. 

So, according to this new Russian military doctrine, France – as a NATO state – is now officially an enemy of Moscow.  "With ‘enemies’ like France selling super-modern assault ships," opined one Moscow military analyst, "Russian doesn’t need ‘friends’ like Venezuela, Iran or Cuba."

The Mistral sale has been discussed between the DCNS and the Russian Navy for some time now.  Depending on its configuration, the Mistral carries a price tag of some €300-500 million (or $404 to $670 million), which would be the largest sale ever of military hardware to Russia by a NATO member state.  Georgian sources told me that the French manufacturer, DCNS, will attempt to make the deal appear innocuous by proposing to sell Russia an ‘empty’ vessel that is not equipped with the same advanced electronics as those in service already with the Marine Nationale.  In reality, they will install these same systems as an after-sale retrofit once the ship has already been delivered to the Russian Navy.

The theme of the Sarkozy-Medvedev dialogue that Moscow was trying to promote was “who needs Washington.  Europe and Russia can manage their own problems without NATO expansion or other U.S. involvement.”  This rationale provides cover for the Mistral sale because Russia, France, and everyone else on the continent are capable of handling their differences inside the “common European home” – a concept that former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev tried to promote a quarter of a century ago.

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