Will Paris go through with a deal to deliver advanced helicopter carriers to Russia?
Russian officials are mocking the sanctions the West is imposing on them over Crimea. Why shouldn’t they? Consider the French response.
Three years ago, France agreed to build two advanced-technology Mistral-class helicopter carriers for Russia. The €1.4 billion deal was hailed at the time for the 1,000 jobs it promised for the country’s state-owned DCNS shipbuilder, and for signaling a final end to the Cold War. The first carrier, “Vladivostok,” just finished its sea trials and is berthed at the French port of Saint-Nazaire. Russian crew-members are already being trained by French specialists, according to Russian state news agency Itar-Tass.
French officials don’t want to talk about the carriers. Earlier this month President François Hollande told a news conference: “We keep to the terms of the signed contracts. Right now we have no plans to cancel them and we hope to avoid this.” This week, in an televised interview, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius allowed that “if Putin carries on like this, we could consider canceling these sales,” even as he stressed that such a move would only be appear in a third round of sanctions against Moscow.
But stopping the delivery of the carriers should be a first priority. One former French military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it to me thusly: “This is about the very credibility of our foreign policy. How can anyone treat France with respect if we talk tough and then deliver advanced-technology weapons to Russia?”
Reuters in 2011 reported that among “the main sticking points in the negotiations was whether Russia will get access to the technology used in French ships, giving it a glimpse of more advanced naval weapons and defense systems.” Anatoly Isaikin, the head of Russia’s arms monopoly, assured Reuters at the time that Russia would indeed be buying fully equipped vessels.
Russia clearly wants the hardware. One Russian admiral told the Journal’s Stacy Meichtry this week that Moscow could have smashed Georgian forces in “40 minutes” had a Mistral been available in 2008 to the Black Sea Fleet.
The Strategic Studies Institute, an arm of the U.S. Army War College, in 2011 issued a report on Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, which noted that Russia frequently inserted elite special-forces commandos in black uniforms behind Georgian lines to conduct subversion and espionage. The same tactics were used in Crimea this month.
But the SSI report concluded that Russia’s experience in Georgia “highlighted the need for improvements in the area of amphibious landing platforms. The limitations in this capability exposed by the war were certainly part of the reason for Russia’s recent decision to buy Mistral-class ships from France. The Mistral, a multi-role ship capable of transporting and deploying 16 helicopters, 70 armored vehicles, and up to 450 personnel . . . has leading-edge command, control, communications, and intelligence capabilities.”
The 2011 report concludes that “Russian ship-based attack helicopters are particularly important for naval reach and punch. Vladimir Putin has made no secret that he would deploy the Mistral-class ships wherever he wants. . . . Europe’s acquiescence in the face of the Russian power projection aspirations is both obvious and disturbing.”
It’s important for the West to act decisively if it hopes to deter future aggression, including by other countries. China, for instance, has made territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea and has sometimes used military force to back up the claims.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., remarked to me recently that “You can bet [Chinese officials] are watching the West’s response to Crimea.” Same goes for officials in Tehran working toward a nuclear bomb.
What will such countries conclude if the West fails not only to effectively sanction Russia, but allows France to deliver sophisticated helicopter carriers that can ferry elite commando forces to the next target of Russia’s choosing? There is only one answer: that appeasement wasn’t buried in the ashes of the 1938 Munich Agreement, but is alive and well in the 21st century.
Mr. Fund is the national-affairs columnist for National Review magazine and one of the speakers of Free Market Road Show.