Russia-NATO arms deals could bolster regional security

Another Oxford Analytica piece, this one from late September. Some of the details have been overtaken by events (i.e. Mistral sale), but the overall point is still valid, so it’s worth posting.

I’ll have one more of these next week. New posts will resume in mid-January. Happy holidays!


EVENT: Russia and France have finalised the details on the long-discussed sale of Mistral-class ships, according to comments yesterday from a senior Russian naval officer.

SIGNIFICANCE: Russian efforts to procure Western military equipment are gradually bearing fruit, as the taboo on NATO sharing sensitive military technologies with Russia is fading.

ANALYSIS: Moscow’s cooperation with NATO and its member states is accelerating, as the Russian government and military adjust their threat assessments to focus more on Russia’s unstable southern neighbours and on China. In recent years, Russia and NATO states have conducted joint anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. They have also reached agreements for extensive intelligence-sharing in the area of counter-terrorism. Russia has played a critical role in NATO operations in Afghanistan by allowing for the transit of both lethal and non-lethal cargoes to the region by both land and air routes.  One of the potentially most fruitful areas for further cooperation involves the rapidly accelerating trend toward Russian procurement of military equipment from NATO countries.

Signed contracts The Russian military has considered a number of purchases from NATO countries. Contracts have been signed to purchase:

  • UK sniper rifles and Austrian pistols for special forces units;
  • thermal imaging equipment for T-90 tanks, to be manufactured at a Russian plant in Vologda under license from the French firm Thales;
  • avionics for Russian military aircraft, manufactured in France by Thales; and
  • communications units for armoured vehicles, also purchased from France.

Procurement possibilities Negotiations are underway to purchase the following equipment:

  • The French Safran Corporation manufactures infantry integrated equipment and communications units (FELIN).  The FELIN units include a set of navigation tools, secure radio communications equipment, computer equipment, GPS receivers, helmet sights for individual small arms and integrated electronic targeting devices. A limited number of these may be purchased for Military Intelligence Directorate special forces units.
  • The Defence Ministry is also interested in Italian armour for installation on Russian-designed armoured vehicles.  This scales back previously discussed plans to license production of Italian LMV armoured vehicles to be built in Russia.
  • The most visible of Russia’s negotiations has been the ongoing effort to procure French Mistral amphibious assault ships.

In addition, the Russian military has received 12 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Israel, with another 36 (worth 100 million dollars) to be delivered later this year. Those received so far include:

  • two Bird Eye 400 systems (worth 4 million dollars);
  • eight I View MK150 tactical UAVs (37 million dollars); and
  • two Searcher Mk II multi-mission UAVs (12 million dollars).

Russian and Israeli negotiators are currently discussing the possibility of forming a joint venture to build more UAVs for the Russian military, which estimates it will need 100 or more UAVs to ensure effective battlefield reconnaissance.

Mistral negotiations The purchase of up to four of these ships has been under discussion for over a year. Recently, the Russian military announced that it would conduct an open tender for an amphibious assault ship, rather than negotiating exclusively with the French. Other potential participants include amphibious assault ships such as:

  • the Spanish Juan Carlos class;
  • South Korean Dokdos; and
  • the Dutch Johan de Witt class.

The Russian United Shipbuilding Corporation is also expected to make an offer, though its spokesman announced that it would participate in cooperation with foreign partners. In other words, Russian shipbuilders have admitted that they are not capable of building such a ship without foreign assistance.

It is likely that the tender is purely a formal exercise, designed to satisfy Russian laws and mollify domestic critics who oppose such a major platform being purchased abroad. There have been no discussions with the other potential foreign sellers, so the French Mistral will most likely win the tender, with two ships being built in France and two more in Russia under license.  Furthermore, top Russian military officials have recently announced that if Russia purchases the Mistral, it will have the same equipment as the French version, excluding only the codes for communicating with NATO battle control systems. This means that the Russian military would be allowed to purchase French communication, navigation and weapons control systems for these ships.

NATO worries Some Central-East European governments, as well as some Western analysts, oppose NATO arms sales to Russia on the grounds that Russia continues to pose a military threat to parts of Europe. The argument is that the Russian Navy could use these ships to launch an amphibious assault on Georgia or the Baltic states.

Setting aside Russia’s lack of desire to invade these countries except to defend against another attack — as was the case in the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war — such a scenario is highly unlikely for several practical reasons. Russian naval commanders have stated that these ships are intended primarily for the Northern and Pacific Fleets. Furthermore, even if some of the ships were assigned to the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, possession thereof  would not significantly increase Russian amphibious capabilities in those areas. The Russian Navy’s current amphibious landing ships are as fast and can carry as many troops as the Mistral-class ships.

Instead, the Mistrals would be used by the Russian Navy primarily as command and control vessels for overseas operations.  However, the main purpose of the purchase is to revitalise domestic shipbuilding capabilities through the introduction of Western technologies and methods for construction of the two ships to be built domestically.  The ships would be able to carry 450 troops and as many as 40 tanks, capabilities similar to existing Alligator-class landing ships, as well as the Ivan Gren-class ships currently under construction.

Revitalising cooperation? On the other hand, arms sales have the potential to bring Russia and NATO member states closer together on military and security issues. Using NATO equipment would lead to greater ‘interoperability’ between Russian and NATO military forces, making their efforts at military cooperation more effective. Since the two sides are much more likely to work together on potential issues such as piracy, smuggling and counter-terrorism than they are to actually fight each other, selling NATO equipment to Russia is likely to lead to improvements in security for NATO states.

Greater ties between states generally reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or other NATO states sell military equipment to Russia, they will not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO. This would further lessen any perceived threat arising from Russia.

CONCLUSION: Major arms sales by NATO states to Russia would increase Russian dependence on the West, decreasing the likelihood that Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests. Such sales would also enhance regional security by improving the ability of Russian forces to cooperate with NATO against threats to their mutual interests.