France, Russia Ink Landmark Arms Deal

Despite Western criticism of Russian justice, and misgivings by Eastern European NATO countries, France and Russia signed on a major arms package

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 20:32

Mistral Helicopter Carrier
Mistral Helicopter Carrier
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Russia had to absorb Western condemnation over the guilty verdict delivered at the Khodorkovsky trial, but as Moscow and other players realize, names and condemnations will never harm the Russians. The ultimate proof came with the official announcement that France and Russia had signed a contract for the construction of four Mistral class helicopter carriers capable of transporting troops and military equipment. France and Russia haggled for an appreciable time over the contract, namely over the what part of it would be built in France and what would be built under license in Russia and in the end they split down the middle-- two ships will be built in France and the next two ships will be built in Russia.

The deal is significant because it constitutes a breakthrough in terms of a major purchase by Russia from a NATO country. Russia's chief of the Navy,  Adm. Vladimir S. Vysotskyhas, been salivating over the ship for a long time claiming that it could perform the work of Russian's ponderous ground forces much more expeditiously.

The sale drew concern from NATO countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union such as Lithuania and Latvia. "I think that is a mistake" declared Lithuanian defense minister Rasa Jukneviciene "it is a precedent for a member of NATO and the European Union to sell offensive weapons to a country where democracy is not at a level that allows us to feel secure."

The emphasis on the precedent is the key here. The helicopter carriers do not appreciably alter the security balance in the Baltic if as WikiLeaks disclosed, the US is prepared to station aircraft in Poland. However, the idea of Russia as a normal arms customer for NATO countries is undoubtedly more worrisome. Together with Western Europe's dependence on Russian energy exports the allure of the Russian arms market may induce NATO countries to exercise restraint in their dealings with Russia.

For Georgia that engaged Russia in a brief war in 2008 there was a sense of betrayal. French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a deal between Russia and Georgia that included a Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory, a term that Russia has yet to comply with. Nicola Sarkozy celebrated the arms deal representing four years of work for 1000 employees at shipyards in Saint-Nazaire. Sarkozy undoubtedly believes that the deal will constitute an opening wedge for France to sell other military and civilian high value-added products to the Russians.

France in addition to citing the deal's economic advantage to both parties, defended the sale as a confidence building gesture towards Russia. One could not say that Russia was trusted by the West and simultaneously embargo the sale of weapons to her.

For Nicolas Sarkozy this may also be a way of repositioning himself. After his election in 2007 "Sarko" was feted by the Americans because he appeared to be the total opposite of his predecessor Jaques Chirac in seeking cordial relations with the Americans. Some circles in France even derisively referred to him as Sarko the American. By disregarding American criticism of the deal as indicated in the WikiLeaks, Sarko is reclaiming the tradition of the Gaullist party that he heads of adopting an intermediate position between the United States and Russia.