Special Report

France’s New Russian Partner

Putin goes shopping in Paris -- hoping to get his hands on four Mistral warships.

By 6.16.10

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PARIS -- We all want to have it both ways, but the French have long been past masters at it. And we're not just talking mistresses on the side or eating foie gras and staying slim. It's also been true on the international stage. The surprising thing is that their friends and allies regularly let them get away with it, as if France were some sort of frivolous luxury they could afford to indulge.

In 1940, to start there, they capitulated after six weeks and then, once we had stormed the Normandy beaches four years later, symbolically "liberated" Paris with General Leclerc's pitiful, ragtag division as Eisenhower conveniently held back our advancing troops. When the war ended, they swept years of craven collaboration with the Nazis under the rug, claimed victory over Germany, and, masquerading as a great power, wangled a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Threatened by an aggressive Soviet Union, they joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 and benefited from the American security umbrella while contributing a minimum to NATO's available military resources. When it suited them, they ordered NATO headquarters out of Paris in the mid-1960s, closed American bases in France, and withdrew their troops from its integrated military command -- but remained enough of an alliance member to enjoy its protection.

Such Cold War French antics satisfied the then-powerful French Communist Party, which consistently polled 20 percent or more of the vote, and, a fortiori, played into the hands of the Soviets. Then as now, one of Moscow's long-term goals has been to divide the Atlantic Alliance and weaken Western cohesion. Like the good chess players they are, the Russians always like to achieve at least two goals with each move.

Thus last week's visit to Paris by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as part of France's current Year of Russia. Sporting the red Legion of Honor pin that Jacques Chirac had awarded him some years ago, Putin inaugurated a five-day Russian exhibit at Paris's prestigious Grand Palais just off the Champs Elysées. Showcasing Russia's industrial and technological clout complete with 40-foot-tall matryoshka dolls, the exhibit focuses on the energy, space, and aviation sectors.

Lagging behind Germany as Russia's trade partner, France is desperately keen to expand business; Premier François Fillon led the cheering with a rousing speech at the exhibit opening, concluding with a resounding Vive la Russie! President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is going to Saint Petersburg this week to speak at a major economic forum, added, "We want to erase the Cold War. Russia is not an adversary but a partner." Putin responded that it was time to "deepen our cooperation" and urged the French oil giant Total to expand its activity in Russia. "You can count on us," the company's chairman chirped. You betcha, and Putin is close to his first goal of getting France permanently hooked on East-West trade, and particularly on Russian oil and gas that can be powerful leverage in times of international tension.

Putin also visited a French government building being sold to Russia. In a prime location near the Eiffel Tower, the building will house what Putin called a "spiritual cultural center." He denied media reports that the locale could be used by Russian secret services, scoffing there were "no grounds at all" for such silly speculation. As a former top KGB agent, he doubtless knows whereof he speaks.

Human rights activists regretted that Putin was not queried by Sarkozy and other officials about rights abuses in Chechnya, as well as the torture and killing of journalists and other critics of Russia's authoritarian regime. When a French television journalist timidly raised human rights with Putin, he shot back a smart-alecky reply: "There are threats to human rights everywhere. Take for example the threats to human rights in the French penitentiary system." End of discussion.

PUTIN ALSO ADVANCED toward his second, more important goal: getting his hands on French military equipment and technology, starting with four Mistral-class warships. If he brings it off, it will be the first time in the 61-year history of the Atlantic Alliance that a member state has sold advanced military hardware to Russia -- and a major step toward dividing the West.

Over 200 yards long and with a displacement of some 22,000 tons, capable of carrying 500 or more troops, 35 combat helicopters, a squadron of battle tanks and a full field hospital, the Mistral is a powerful means of force projection second only to an aircraft carrier. Russian officials, who had a chance to look it over last November when France showed it off at a Saint Petersburg dock, have already made plans to assign one each to their four naval fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific).

Acquiring this warship would boost Russia's global prestige and capacity for military intimidation. The chief of staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said last week that a Mistral would be used to patrol waters around the Kuril Islands, the subject of a long-running territorial dispute with Japan. (At latest report, Japan is still a U.S. ally.) Russia's neighbors like Georgia, as well as NATO's new member states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, also have good reason to worry. As a Russian admiral put it, virtually smacking his lips in anticipation, "With a ship like this in our Black Sea Fleet, we could have invaded Georgia in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours."

To those who raise such concerns, Putin has another snappy comeback. "France has such ships," he says, "So who is France preparing to attack? Why do people automatically assume that Russia will use this to attack someone?" Well, of course, why would anyone in his right mind distrust Moscow? Especially when Russia's official military doctrine designates NATO as its number one enemy.

As much as Sarkozy wants this sale to save France's moribund shipyards -- he argues with utmost sincerity that it's not so much the money as an important political signal to keep Russia engaged with the West -- it's not yet a done deal. Haggling began last February. France wants two of the ships built in its shipyards, while Russia wants to build three itself. Either way, the sale would entail a transfer of certain military technology. Sarkozy claims this would not include sophisticated navigation, radar, weapons systems and other sensitive equipment. But Putin is frankly pugnacious about what he is after. "We already know how to build this type of ship," he has said. "We want the technology, not an empty hull."

On the other hand, Allied reaction to the potential deal -- which could set a precedent and open the way to further sales such as submarines, amphibious tanks, and fighter aircraft by France and possibly other NATO members -- is anything but frank or pugnacious. As a spokesman at the American Embassy in Paris cautiously put the U.S. position to me, "Decisions about such sales are a matter for sovereign states, taking into account international law and regional stability." Similarly, NATO's Secretary General, the pallid Anders Fogh Rasmussen, boldly sticks his head deep in the sand: "NATO as such doesn't have any role in this sale. I take it for granted that the sale will take place in accordance with all international rules and regulations, [and] that Russia will not use or misuse such military equipment against any neighbor."

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.