I recently received a communication from a French expert on the Russian Navy that provides an interesting (and I think quite accurate) perspective on the Mistral sale.
As you know, France is about to agree to sell four Mistral LHDs to Russia. Many see it as a signal to Russia that “this is ok” to invade all the little neighbors. Personally, I think that it would have been more damaging to the East-West relations to turn down the Russian approach. Built to commercial standards, the Mistral are more like ferries painted in gray and they don’t carry very sensitive technologies.
Many in Russia now consider that the US have taken over from Britain the traditional antagonism against them that led to the Crimean War and to the Great Game. They have sort of accepted this antagonism that has nothing to do with Communism. In this context, it would be interesting to resurrect the fact that during the Crimean and the Civil wars, Russia was a strategic partner of the US against Britain.
I think that we should take into consideration the weakness of Russia, their declining population and contemplate inviting them to a closer security relation. I don’t think that it was smart to press for a Nato integration of Ukraine and Georgia. The fact that the president of tiny Georgia contemplated military victory over Russia by seizing the initiative to reconquer Ossetia is another indication of this Russian weakness. And if you look at their shipbuilding programs and at their o[rder] o[f] b[attle], they will decline even further, just like the Royal Navy. Right now, the Russians are unable to make Bulava work and replace their SSBN fleet; the replacements for destroyers, frigates and submarines are awfully late. The carrier project is an admission that carriers are more effective than missile cruisers. It means that they won’t replace their missile cruisers and just get a replacement for Kuznetsov which is getting old by Russian standards.
My French colleague’s argument reinforces the point that the Russian Navy is declining, and the Mistral, while a fine ship, will not suddenly turn it into the most formidable force in the region. Furthermore, despite ongoing reforms, the Russian military as a whole will also get weaker before it gets stronger, in part because of deteriorating equipment, in part because of a decline in available personnel, and in part because of the retirement of well-trained officers who began their careers in the Soviet period and their replacement by officers who made their careers in the 1990s, when money for training was scarce.
The second point that comes out of the argument above is that European security would be strengthened by including Russia, rather than isolating it. This doesn’t mean that NATO should be replaced by some sort of vague new European security architecture along the lines proposed recently by Medvedev. But it does mean that the U.S. and European states (including the so-called New Europe of the east) should make an effort to work with Russia on security issues of concern to both sides, rather than ostracizing it because of a combination of leftover Cold War fears (for the western states) and fears of Russian neo-colonialism (for the eastern states).
As I noted in my previous post, I don’t think that Russia is interested in restoring its former empire. Russia IS interested in preventing the emergence of hostile states on its borders — thus the rapid and somewhat excessive response to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia. The key question for NATO collectively and its member states individually is how to ensure European security while at the same time reassuring Russia that its security interests on its borders will be taken into account. France and Germany have decided that this question can best be addressed by working with Russia on sensitive issues related to regional economic and military security, rather than by isolating it. While this is something that needs to be done with suitable caution, it seems to me that it’s a better idea than isolating Russia or treating it as a potential enemy.