After months of stalled negotiations, at the end of last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy finally confirmed the sale of up to four Mistral Class amphibious assault ships to Russia. This unprecedented sale of advanced military equipment by a NATO member to Moscow will increase tensions between alliance allies regarding their relationship with Russia, as it highlights differing views of the threat from their Eastern neighbor.
The Mistral deal has been important for both nations, and it is estimated to be worth around 1 billion euros. For Russia, the purchase of the ships — which can each carry a small task force of infantry, tanks and helicopters — will help fulfill their ambitious military reform agenda, as well as upgrade their rusting naval capabilities. For France, the deal offers a lucrative opportunity to boost arms sales and to maintain their struggling naval shipyards.
However, many of France’s NATO allies view this development with some concern. The most vocal opponents have been the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. This is not surprising; these states were involuntarily part of the Soviet Union as recently as 23 years ago, and joined NATO in 2004 to shield themselves from any potential Russian interference.
For these countries, the sale of military equipment to their looming neighbor by a NATO ally has been difficult to comprehend; particularly when it is the sale of amphibious vessels ideal for operations in the Baltic Sea. These states — with the support of Poland — even went so far to propose new arms export limitations via the European Union in a bid to shut down the deal. France has managed to delay any such attempt.
More broadly, this dispute highlights a growing disconnect between the strategic vision of NATO’s former-Soviet members and larger nations such as France or the U.S.
For the Baltic states, Russia — militarily diminished since the 1980’s —still constitutes a fundamental threat to their security, and is not a viable market for Western defense technology. As Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins said, “I’m not sure that the best way to turn the page on the Cold War is by trading in items of hot war.”
Yet this exclusive security focus on Russia does not correspond with many other members of the alliance. As this French defense sale proves, most members now view Russia as a regional foreign policy irritant, not an existential threat. This means they may be politically wary of Russian military aggression in places such as Georgia, but not enough to stop signing a lucrative defense contract with them.
So as NATO operations increasingly focus on security goals in regions of instability exterior to Europe — such as Afghanistan, the Gulf of Aden and Libya — NATO’s Baltic and Eastern European members may start to feel their fundamental interests, and fear of Russia, are being ignored by their alliance partners.
This will cause further friction. As another member with bitter Soviet memories, Poland is rapidly becoming an important player in the realm of defense. If France is not careful, this could lead to even more vocal disputes over this issue in the coming years, as these states struggle to make their concerns heard.
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