Sunday, June 13, 2010

As The Warship Turns…

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used a state visit to Paris to again push French officials to finalize a deal that would allow Russia to buy one, if not four, Mistral-class warships from France. The two sides have been negotiating the deal for months, much to the worry of Russia’s neighbors Ukraine and Georgia.

The Mistral is an amphibious assault ship; its mission is to rapidly deploy several hundred battle-ready troops ashore with their tanks and other heavy equipment and to carry a squad of helicopters to provide air cover for the invading troops. Critics have questioned why Russia – the country with the world’s longest land borders and few overseas possessions – would need amphibious assault ships in the first place. The Russian military didn’t help to quell their neighbor’s fears when a high-ranking general remarked how much more smoothly Russia’s August 2008 conflict with Georgia would have gone if Russia had the Mistral in its arsenal. But last week Russian Armed Forces Staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov gave the official explanation as to why Russia needs to buy Mistrals from France – to protect the Kuril Islands.

The Kurils are a chain of rocky, barren islands in the Northern Pacific. In August 1945, Josef Stalin finally made good on a pledge to open a second Pacific front in World War II against the then all-but-defeated Imperial Japan. One of the bits of territory snatched by the Red Army in the closing days of the war were the Kuril Islands. Sixty-five years later, the Russians are still there, while Japan is still demanding the return of the four southernmost Kurils – a small dispute that has actually kept Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II. The dispute over the Kurils brings to mind an old joke about the British-Argentine war for the Falkland Islands: that it made as much sense as two bald men fighting over a comb.

It’s hard to believe the Russians would look to spend $2 billion to buy four Mistral warships to guard against a hypothetical invasion over a collection of wind-blown rocks… Russia’s interest in the Mistrals actually has less to do with the ships themselves and more to do with the technology inside them. In terms of technology, Russia’s military is lagging behind their NATO counterparts, particularly when it comes to integrated command-and-control systems (ones that link together satellite imagery, GPS coordinates, the ability for soldiers to communicate with HQ, etc). These weaknesses were shown during Russia’s 2008 conflict with Georgia. The Mistral, meanwhile, is also a command-and-control hub for the troops it sends ashore. So buying a Mistral from France would give Russia direct access to this state-of-the-art technology; building Mistrals in Russia under license (the deal Putin is pushing for) would give the Russians even more hands-on experience with these systems.

The United States has been pressing France not to make the Mistral deal, precisely for this reason (which is a bit odd since we’re all suppose to be friends now). But France has shown a willingness recently to sell their technology as a way to make big arms deals. Brazil is looking to upgrade their air force and is considering bids from the United States, Sweden and France. Only the French bid though is willing to include a transfer of key technology to Brazil as part of the deal. It remains to be seen if France is willing to cut Russia the same bargain regarding the Mistrals. One sign of how much Russia wants this agreement to go through is a separate offer made by Putin during his visit to allow France’s petroleum firm Total SA bid for a 25% stake in a Siberian natural gas field – Putin has long been a strong proponent for keeping Russian natural resources in Russian hands.
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