By Michael Birnbaum
The Washington Post | June 17, 2014
MOSCOW — The French are sending Russia advanced helicopter carriers. Germans built it a high-tech military training facility. Italians have been shipping armored vehicles.
Deep into a crisis in which Russia’s military deployed on Ukrainian soil, European nations are struggling to balance economic considerations with political ones. Now France is poised this month to invite 400 Russian sailors to train on a massive new ship that a Russian admiral once said would have enabled his nation to beat neighboring Georgia in its 2008 war in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours.”
French leaders have refused to cancel the $1.7 billion sale of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers — capable of transporting 16 attack helicopters, dozens of tanks and 700 soldiers — despite Russia’s recent aggression, including its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March. The plans have drawn condemnation from allies including the United States and NATO, which say that supplying military equipment to Russia with one hand while condemning its military actions with the other is clearly contradictory.
The Mistral deal and other arms shipments lay bare the difficulty of applying pressure on Russia, even at a time when tensions between the West and Russia are at their worst since the Cold War.
European leaders have sought to protect their defense industries even as they have sanctioned Russian officials over the Crimea annexation.
“We are executing the contract in full legal compliance because we’re not at that level of sanctions,” French President François Hollande told reporters this month. If sanctions escalate, he said, France may hold back on sending the ships.
Obama said this month: “I have expressed some concerns, and I don’t think I am alone. . . . I think it would have been preferable to press the pause button.”
Still, no nation has stepped forward with money to help France avoid shouldering the financial burden of any cancellation alone. That, too, demonstrates the difficulty of achieving a unified Western response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, analysts said.
Just a few years ago, Russia’s military almost never bought equipment made outside the Soviet bloc. Even today, Russia remains a major arms exporter. But after Russia’s brief war with neighboring Georgia in 2008, top leaders rethought their old habits. Although Russia ultimately prevailed in that conflict, its soldiers proved ill-equipped and disorganized, struggling with Soviet-era equipment that failed them on numerous occasions. So leaders turned to the West to boost their capabilities.
“At the highest level they found that the Russian equipment didn’t live up to their expectations anymore,” said Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks arms transfers. The Russians began “buying not just complete weapons systems but also technology,” he said.
They found a continent that was eager to oblige. The 2008 global financial crisis and Europe’s subsequent economic struggles made policymakers desperate for any chance to boost jobs and exports.
Although precise figures are shrouded in secrecy and difficult to compile, France was the most enthusiastic trading partner, analysts say. Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic have also been involved in selling equipment to Russia in recent years, according to data compiled by SIPRI. The sales involve aircraft, armored vehicles and communications supplies.
French deliveries of arms and defense equipment to Russia tripled in value between 2009 and 2010, then kept increasing, according to French parliamentary reports, and the 2011 Mistral deal — which more than 1,000 jobs depend on — was an order of magnitude larger.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said this month that if France follows through on the ships, more Russian orders may soon come, a potentially attractive proposition for Hollande, who has presided over a stagnant economy.
“If everything goes as we agreed, we will not rule out the possibility of further orders, and not necessarily in naval shipbuilding. They may concern other sectors as well,” Putin told French journalists ahead of a trip to Normandy this month. “Overall, our relations in this area are developing well, and we would like to continue strengthening them — in aviation, shipbuilding and other sectors.”
The two Mistral-class carriers give broad new capabilities to the Russian navy, analysts said. The first ship, the Vladivostok, will be delivered to Russia in the fall.
“The Mistral brings a new concept, a new philosophy of maritime war,’’ said Alexander Golts, a leading Russian defense expert.
Russia has also purchased 60 armored personnel vehicles from Italy, according to SIPRI figures, along with new electronics and radio systems to upgrade military aircraft.
A $163 million high-tech military training facility built in Russia by the German defense contractor Rheinmetall was near completion when German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel halted work on it in late March, citing the situation in Crimea. Whether work will resume remains unclear.
The exports from Europe have been critical to the Russian military’s efforts to modernize, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
“It’s rather difficult to build any modern system without using Western parts,” Sutyagin said. Russia is interested in Western electronics, computing and command-and-control systems, he said. “Russian electronics are still lagging behind the West, and they are very, very important.”
He added that the communications systems of the Mistral may be particularly useful to Russia, since they can be studied and recreated elsewhere.
In France, where the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy signed off on the deal in 2011, Hollande is going through with the sale without major domestic opposition.
“The issue is monetary, first and foremost. But it’s also one of reputation,” said Etienne de Durand, the director of security studies at the French Institute of International Relations. “It’s kind of difficult when you’re in the business of selling arms to cancel any kind of sale.”