Sell French Warships to NATO, Not Russia

Austin Bay

8/6/2014 12:01:00 AM - Austin Bay

Arming a geopolitical foe is a grave mistake, especially one led by a cunning and utterly amoral character like Vladimir Putin. However, NATO-member France is on the verge of selling Putin's Russian regime two highly capable Mistral amphibious assault ships. The first warship, the Vladivostok, is almost ready for delivery. The second, ironically named the Sevastopol (Crimea's chief seaport), is under construction. Unfortunately, the two warships are ideal naval platforms for landing tanks and marines on Ukraine's Black Sea coast.

Russia, while led by the likes of Putin, is a foe of the United States, NATO and the European Union. The 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula confirmed Putin intends to recover former Soviet territory. He publicly laments the USSR's collapse. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney argued that Putin's Russia is America's chief geopolitical foe. Romney was derided as a benighted Cold War revivalist. Subsequent history has proved Romney prescient. Putin will invade a neighbor, if given the opportunity and the capability.

The French warships -- offensive naval platforms built to support invasions -- serve Putin's expansionary goals. Mistrals are essentially small aircraft carriers configured to support helicopters. Helicopters can hunt submarines, but from assault ships they transport marines ashore. The multi-role Mistrals, however, also have a well deck for amphibious vehicles and landing craft. They can carry up to 40 tanks.


Jump jets could operate from a Mistral's deck. This means high-performance fighter-bombers could support invading forces. In the Falklands War, Harrier Jump Jets operated from British helicopter carriers and provided air cover for the fleet. In the early 1990s, Russia developed a supersonic jump jet, the Yak-141. The plane is not in Russia's current arsenal, but it could be.

If Russia had had a Mistral available for the 2008 Russo-Georgia war, we might have seen Russia seize a Georgian seaport. During Ukraine's troubles in the city of Odessa, a Mistral could have quickly landed two dozen tanks and a battalion of infantry. The quick-strike Crimean invasion proved Putin believes he has mastered fait accompli diplomacy.Put bluntly, the French assault ships give Putin's Kremlin new and reliable offensive capabilities, which is why the sale must be stopped.

Understand, the Russo-French warship deal met opposition was when it was announced. Japan opposed it. And Poland, with a Baltic Sea coast, was outraged. The Crimean invasion and annexation spurred more intense criticism from NATO military officers and knowledgeable defense analysts. So Putin and his cronies devoted a great deal of political jaw time to discussing the sanctity of construction contracts. The Kremlin argued, post-Crimea, that France couldn't break a signed contract. France will owe Russia millions of euros in penalties. Moreover, according to the Kremlin, breaking the contract will throw French shipwrights out of work.

Of course, Putin had broken, with malice, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine's territorial sovereignty. Sanctity of contracts? False sanctimony. The tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 changed the political calculus. As Felix Seidler noted on his security policy blog several members of the German parliament have proposed that NATO buy the two warships.The idea has gained instant traction, and it should. NATO naval personnel regularly cross-train on allied ships. NATO's airborne early warning aircraft fly Luxembourg flags. The EU has discussed operating C-17 transports as a consortium.

A combined NATO buy, however, is precisely the kind of unified political response that Europe has failed to make. The message is clear. The invasion and annexation of Crimea is unacceptable. Putin's Kremlin cannot expect to successfully exploit economic interests and escape penalties for destroying the diplomatic agreements, which framed post-Cold War peace.A NATO-flagged Vladivostok -- with a new name -- could be equipped as a natural disaster response ship for operations in the Mediterranean. As for the Sevastopol? Finish the ship and keep the name. But deploy it as a NATO-flagged combat vessel.