In little over a week, a modern French warship is scheduled to visit St. Petersburg. If the Russians like what they see, and a deal can be reached, the French government has signaled that it is willing to sell Moscow a ship of its own. Should the sale go through, it will be the first ever arms sale of its kind to Russia from a NATO member. It will also be a remarkable bit of appeasement by an allied president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose signature is on the cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia from the August 2008 war--the terms of which Moscow has been violating ever since.
The vessel, a French Mistral, is a new class of carrier that can carry more than a dozen attack and landing helicopters, landing craft, nearly a thousand troops, and dozens of tanks and other land vehicles. Mistrals, in short, are major amphibious assault ships, equal in capability to virtually any vessel in its class globally. The Russians have said that the ship will be used in peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations. But, of course, "peacekeeping" in Moscow's dictionary is not always so peaceful. As Russia's Navy chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, rather pointedly noted about the possible sale: "In the conflict [with Georgia] in August last year, a ship like that would have allowed [our] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not the 26 hours it took us [to move our troops ashore]."
For other nations on the Black Sea's rim, such as Ukraine and NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania, a French sale will be an obvious concern, as well. Under the terms of a 1936 international accord that governs traffic into and out of the Black Sea, Turkey has the prerogative of denying transit rights for a capital warship like the Mistral through the Straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. But, in the past, Turkey has turned a blind eye to Moscow moving similar ships through the Straits, while being far more punctilious when it comes to approving passage for naval vessels of its allies, including those of the United States. It is doubtful, then, that the U.S. will be able reassure our friends on the Black Sea by deploying a comparable capability and even more doubtful that Turkey would allow transit of warships into the Black Sea during a time of crisis.
Undoubtedly the French government's response will be that it would not sell a "full-up" Mistral. The carrier built for the Russians will not have the advanced electronics and command-and-control suite of the Mistrals currently in the French fleet. That may be true, but the carrier bought by the Russians will still necessarily incorporate the latest French design for deck, transport and amphibious operations. Nor is the sale likely to be a one-and-done deal. The Russians are pushing for the sale to include an agreement which would allow them to build several more Mistrals in Russia as part of a joint venture.
The sale will also open the door to other countries--such as, Italy, Spain and Germany--making arms deals with Russia. Given the shrinking defense budgets of European countries and the pressure to keep domestic defense firms from going under by expanding exports, there is little question that less and less restraint would be shown by competing governments and companies on what could be sold to Moscow. The European Union's code on arms sale, which on its face prohibits military exports that run a risk of being used in an ongoing conflict or might increase regional instability, is no obstacle either. The code remains non-binding on member states. The fact is, Russia doesn't have all the money in the world to pay for weapons, but getting new designs and technology from European allies would be one avenue for them to help renew their own defense base without having to expend massive amounts on new research and development projects.
Finally, there is the signal such a sale would send Moscow about just how unserious the West is in holding Russia's feet to fire over its invasion of Georgia and the terms of the subsequent agreement. Moscow has neither withdrawn its forces to their pre-war positions nor has Moscow given the European Union or other international observers access to the areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia it now occupies. If anything, facing no substantive pushback from the U.S. or Europe, Russia has doubled down its position there: building new military bases, deploying some 10,000 troops and, in all but name, annexing the two regions.
It was only a few years ago that, under pressure from Washington and Tokyo, the European Union stepped back from lifting its arms embargo against China. One of the arguments European governments made then was that the ban could be safely lifted because China had not invaded or been involved in a major armed conflict since 1979. That certainly can't be said about Russia. And with the Russian parliament having just passed a law expanding the conditions under which Moscow reserves the right to intervene militarily in its near abroad, the timing of such a sale could hardly be worse.
Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.