Wednesday, December 23, 2009

French Plans To Sell Warship To Russia Raises Fears

France is planning to sell one of its most advanced warships to Russia in a move that would greatly beef up Moscow's military might. 

However, former Soviet states are jittery about the Russians getting their hands on a Mistral warship, the second largest in the French fleet.  Some in Washington are warning the first ever sale of such high tech military equipment by a NATO country to Russia could upset regional stability.

The Russians are eager to get their hands on the French military technology, as Anatoly Tsyganok, of the Moscow-based Military Prognosis Center told Russia Today back in October.

The Mistral is indeed state of the art.  It's nicknamed the Swiss-army knife for all the functions it can perform.

Stretching to 200 meters long and weighing 21,000 tonnes, the ship can carry up to 16 heavy helicopters as well as 70 vehicles and thirteen tanks.  It can also transport up to 900 troops. 

Russia's navy chief, Vladimir Vysotsky, said the Russians could have used the Mistral in their brief war with Georgia in 2008.  He said such ships, "significantly increase a fleet's fighting capacity and mobility."

"For instance, during the August events last year such a ship would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to implement its task within 40 minutes, while it took us 26 hours to do so."

Those comments have hawks in Washington worried.

In an exclusive with the Informant, William Blum, author of "Rogue State" and "Killing Hope", a bestseller which convincingly chronicles U.S. wrongdoing around the globe, said Washington's reaction is "understandable."

"It's very understandable that the US would express displeasure at France's sale of a powerful ship to Russia; another example of building up the image of Russia as a threat, as a powerful enemy. What Washington has needed, and sorely missed, since the end of the Cold War is a dangerous foe," Blum wrote in response to an email question.

Six Senators -- all Republicans -- have warned France in a letter not to go ahead with the sale, which is estimated at $600-$750 million.  In their letter, the six -- John McCain, Jon Kyl, Sam Brownback, James Risch, Roger Wicker and Tom Coburn -- say with the sale France would be "acquiescing" with what they call Russia's "increasingly bellicose and lawless behavior."

The House of Representatives has also voiced concern over the planned sale.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the strindent top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced a resolution urging President Obama to press Paris to nix the deal. 

In eastern Europe, the fear borders on paranoia.

Not least in Georgia.

French daily Le Figaro quotes Alex Rondell, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that the Mistral purchase is merely Moscow’s latest attempt to regain its status as a superpower and reassert control over its former Soviet satellites. He, for one, has no doubts as to Russia’s plans for the warship.

“The Mistral is a formidable assault ship for attacking Georgia or the Baltic countries,” he said, adding that the potential deal was like France “giving a gun to a bandit”.

“This is why we are afraid,” Rondell said.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has said that his country wanted to know if the potential sale would include “top military technology".

Lithuanian foreign ministry spokesman Rolandas Kacinskas said that Vilnius was also seeking clarification from France, on "exactly what kind of equipment it plans to sell and what it can be used for".

The French are spinning this proposed sale as good diplomacy not as just pure business. 

Le Figaro quotes one French official close to the talks as saying that certain concessions must be made if France, and the rest of the world, want the Kremlin’s cooperation on some thorny global issues.

The unnamed official said that Europe cannot hope to build a stable continent in partnership with Moscow and expect its help on the big questions, like dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and yet refuse to sell Russia arms.

“That would be a contradiction,” he said.

The United States has always been wary of Western Europe getting too chummy with Russia. 

The former CIA spook and U.S. ambassador to the UN, Vernon Walters, was praised for his murky efforts to scuttle a detente between Western Europe and the then Soviet Union.

Such a detente would zap Washington's reason for maintaining control over European security structures. 

As this proposed sale shows, Washington will always stand in the way of Russia developing truly warmer ties with Europe.

And as the Mistral case shows, they have plenty of willing henchmen now in the former Soviet sattelite states of eastern Europe.

Having slavishly pro-American "New Europe" inside the EU, insured Washington could scuttle greater European defense cooperation plans through these proxies who rarely criticize anything Washington does.

But self interest will always trump loyalty, and when Europe realizes the 'strategic Atlantic alliance' with Washington is rather a drag than a boon, things could change. 

If Mistral sale does go through it will be just the latest sign of crumbling U.S. power.
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