Scott Lucas | 05 March 2010
On Wednesday Russia, fulfilling an agreement in principle reached four weeks ago, announced that it plans to buy four Mistral-class warships from France.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that, with the first deal between a NATO member and a former Soviet state, he wanted to turn the page on the Cold War; Russia must be a partner, not a threat. Sarkozy added that the deal will build trust at a time when West is seeking Russian support on issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme:
Can we say to President Medvedev in the morning, “Ah, I trust you, vote with us at the Security Council, work with us on the same resolution against Iran,” then in the afternoon, tell him, “No no, excuse us, as we don’t trust you and we don’t work together — we won’t send you the Mistral?
The Mistral-class ships can deploy 16 helicopters, four landing barges, and up to 70 armoured vehicles, including 13 battle tanks, and 450 troops.
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania expressed their concerns about Russia’s intentions. Estonia’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ants Laaneots, said, “We don’t know what they are going to do with a Mistral, are they going to keep them in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the northern fleet?” Harri Tiido, the undersecretary for political affairs at the Estonian Foreign Ministry, argued, “Definitely, it would not add to the security of the region. And I think the nations around the Baltic Sea in that case would have to see what they have to do to change their defense planning, maybe; but also, it could influence the defense planning of NATO.” Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that the sale is a threat for his country and Eastern Europe.
Some concerns emphasized Russia’s new strategic doctrine on NATO, which labels the expanded alliance a threat, and a Baltic war-games scenario last year that included a pincer operation cutting off Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Francois Heibourg, an adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, while noting that Russia’s demand is understandable, assessed, “The Mistral is a considerable strategic tool: Russia’s power projection capability will be much increased in the Black Sea, the Baltic, and even far into Asia.”