France's reported decision to sell at least one Mistral warship to Russia is stirring sharp controversy among French policymakers and analysts about what strategic gains, if any, France and the West can obtain from the deal.
An interest in promoting Moscow's proposal for a debate on a "new joint security system" overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also is influencing Sarkozy's thinking, the newsletter suggested. But profits play a role, too. A chance to bolster France's flagging armaments exports was a primarily factor in the Mistral decision, the newsletter claimed. The Mistral has an estimated sales price of 433 million euro (about $605.7 million).
The ship, which carries a crew of 200, comes with "sizeable lift capabilities for troops, vehicles and helicopters" and can handle "multinational naval, air and land operations from the sea," said a spokesperson for DCNS, the state-funded company that manufactures the Mistral.
Despite Sarkozy's support, the Mistral's sale may not yet be a done deal. "The deal won't be all that easy to reach, specially because of disagreement within the Russian camp," Intelligence Online quoted an unnamed individual "involved in the issue" as saying.
Isabelle Facon, a Russian security and defense policy specialist at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, sees the prospective sale as "part of the French diplomatic tradition," which holds that engaging Russia is better than isolating it.
"For many years, Russia has complained that, despite the end of the Cold War and soothing declarations about friendship between the West and Russia, there have never been serious technology transfers," said Facon. "Now, primarily for commercial reasons, Paris seems about to give a strong signal, which must be seen as positive by Moscow, and expects to engage the Russians in return on various security issues. But no one knows if the Kremlin will react positively."
The debate over Russia's readiness to partner with the West has polarized decision-makers within the French presidential administration, according to one Paris-based foreign policy observer. As the debate in Paris proceeds, the biggest losers could end up being Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet states that have expressed a desire to de-emphasize ties to Russia and integrate with Western economic and security institutions.
"A split occurred on two issues: First, what relations do we want with Russia, if we want to give it a blank check in the Black Sea?; second, how do we see the role of NATO in the future?" commented Thomas Gomart, director of the Russia Center at Paris's Institut FranÃ§ais des Relations Internationales
With NATO's stepped-up campaign in Afghanistan, the Sarkozy administration sees Russia "more as partners" - albeit "difficult" ones, Gomart said. "This more global vision does not put . . . Georgia or Ukraine as the top priority," he added.
Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, a researcher at the French Institute for Geopolitics and the Institut Thomas More in Paris, scoffs at the administration's reasoning. If France wants closer security cooperation with the Kremlin, "it should at least go through the NATO procedures of consultation and ? not deal only bilaterally with Moscow," Mongrenier stated.
"France, indeed, often had in the past this kind of talk about engaging with Russia, but each time reality brought it up short, as after [the late President Charles] de Gaulle's trip to Moscow in 1966 [in which de Gaulle attempted to serve as a broker between the West and the Soviet Union after France withdrew from the NATO military command - ed]," Mongrenier continued. "In 2010, what is obvious is that Paris is giving a contradictory political signal to Russia after the war in Georgia, where Nicolas Sarkozy acted as a mediator on behalf of the EU."
In late December 2009, the chief of the European Union's monitoring mission in Georgia, HansjÃ¶rg Haber, stated that Russia has not met its obligation to withdraw its forces to positions held before the August 2008 conflict, as stipulated in the cease-fire agreement. Monitors have also not been allowed to enter Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian troops are now stationed.
Georgian National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili shares Mongrenier's opinion that selling a Mistral to Moscow at the present point in time would send the wrong message to the Kremlin.
"This signal is very dangerous because it means that a country can invade a neighbor and commit ? ethnic cleansing as ? has been proven in ? [the European Union fact-finding mission report about the 2008 Georgia-Russia war], and still purchase [a] powerful warship without being asked any question," Tkeshelashvili told EurasiaNet.
Tbilisi is similarly skeptical that France, or NATO more broadly, could gain any tangible political benefit from the sale. "We'd like to believe that Russia can become a constructive partner. We'd love to see the success of the reset policy [launched by the US administration]," Tkeshelashvili said. "But, unfortunately, the past, the very recent one, here shows the opposite."
Regis Gente is a freelance journalist covering the Caucasus and Central Asia.