Tuesday, March 02, 2010

NATO Exercises In The Baltics As Russia Seeks More French Warships

NATO is looking to limber up in the Baltic Sea region later this month.  No push-ups here.  Soldiers for the globe's dominant military pact will be playing war games with lots of expensive toys to show, as a NATO spokesman put it, "solidarity with NATO's Baltic members."  US naval forces are already 'training' in the Black Sea with Georgian troops. The military maneuvers come with Russia negotiation with France for four more high-tech warships.  That has Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia sweating a bit.

The planned military exercises will involve air forces and will take place in the skies over the three Baltic states from March 17-20.  

A NATO spokesman said French Mirage 2000, Polish F-16 fighters, and U.S. aerial tankers will take part. 

NATO's presence in the Baltics has been a constant in the region since the three small states joined NATO in 2004, keeping a rotating detachment of fighter jets for air policing duties. 

The Baltics have a lot of history, bad at that, with Russia and are very willing members of NATO. 

Of course when NATO conducts exercises in the Baltics, no one blinks.  When the Russians do it on a much less frequent basis it raises shackles in Vilnius, Tallinn, and Riga. 

Late last year, military exercises involving Russia and Belarus troops in Belarus had officialdom quaking in the Baltics.  A report mentioning those exercises with a video can be accessed here

Interestly if not highly convenient, NATO announced the Baltic exercises the same day Moscow and Paris say up to four more French 20,000 ton (got to throw that in there for the fear effect) Mistral warships could be sold to the Russian navy, firming up previous rumors.  

The French warship announcement came with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Paris on a two-day visit. With Nicolas Sarkozy at his side, Medvedev stated French investment in Russia had dethroned the Americans from the top FDI spot.  

The Russians are eager to get their hands on the state-of-war-craft Mistral.  A Russian admiral drooled that if such ships had been in the fleet in 2008, Russian forces would have overrun Georgia "within 40 minutes", rather than in 26 hours.

Despite all the kumbaya hogwash that Russia and NATO are now chummy friends, Paris is under pressure over the Mistral deal, especially from Washington.  The idea of a NATO member selling high-tech weaponry to "friend" Russia is revolting to many among Beltway mandarins, not to mention pencil-pushing EU techno-geeks.

Again, Georgian gadfly, Mikheil Saakashvili can be counted on to oppose something like this sale, saying it was "very unusual and very, very risky."

He said that if Russia deployed Mistrals in the Black Sea "there is a direct risk of standoff between French-built Mistrals and basically NATO forces."

Saakashvili spoke as US naval forces started exercises with Georgian coast guards along the Black Sea coast. 

The tie-chomping Saakashvili can take comfort from the following from an Economist article with a dollop of braggadocio:

But if Russia wants to attack Georgia again, it can do so without Mistrals. And to make the new ships usable, Russia will need to buy or build flotillas of escort vessels, as well as advanced (and expensive) weapons and electronic systems. Even then, the Russian navy would be no match for NATO’s navies.

In what has to been seen as a slap in the face, the French announced the first sale in December when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Paris.  Ouch!

So why are the French doing it?  The Informant chalked it up to economics trumping fuzzy notions about allies.  And an Economist blog has backed up that thinking, although it notes splits in the government over the sale. 

Several news outlets have named the French prime minister, François Fillon, as the driving force behind the deal. The Figaro, house journal of the Sarkozy administration, has talked of "doubts" among officials working for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, which were finally overcome by the "necessity" of finding work for the French naval shipyards of Saint-Nazaire. Various clever-clogs in the French civil service also came up with a nice line repeated by several government members, that "one cannot say we need to build a partnership with Russia and then refuse to sell it arms." French officials have also briefed that the ship would be sold "bare", without advanced weapons systems. Yet last year, Le Monde talked of opposition to the sale from the French foreign ministry.

The Saint-Nazaire shipyard is on the ropes.  It has won only one order, from the French navy, in the past three years; 350 workers there are being asked to quit. The French state recently bought a third of the shipyard company to save jobs and know-how.

For most NATO states, Russia is still the enemy.  For the French, Moscow could be a savior.
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