The Franco-Russian military partnership: The elephant in NATO’s room

The Franco-Russian military partnership: The elephant in NATO’s room

As NATO suspends military ties with the Russian Federation, France has no intention of following suit. The delivery of the modified version of the Mistral class BPC, the Vladivostok, is going according to plan.  
Discretely launched last October, the Vladivostok Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) is now undergoing her first sea trials. Some 400 Russian sailors are scheduled to arrive in June in Saint Nazaire for the handover of the powerful vessel. She will then sail to St. Petersburg in autumn. Only three years after the signing of the 1.2 billion euro defense contract, work has already started on the second warship, the Sebastopol. 

The ground-breaking Mistral contract was the cherry on the cake of a period of intense diplomatic and cultural activities between the two countries. Almost a century after the Bolsheviks repudiated the military treaty uniting tsarist Russia and republican France into a grand alliance (1892-1917), the two European powers decided to renew their military ties. In effect a military modernization partnership was launched under the impetus of Nicolas Sarkozy. President François Hollande has never questioned the deal because he knows that every job saved counts.   

If the French defense industry was not alone in crossing the strategic Rubicon (Germany and Italy waded across too), it did so with a splash by starting negotiations in the aftermath of the 2008 Georgia war. The move by the EU peace-broker shocked its Western partners, but no objections were raised (at least officially) by NATO which regarded the defense contract as a “sovereign matter between France and Russia.” As Russian forces tighten their grip on the energy-rich and strategically important Crimean peninsula, the Western alliance faces another awkward French moment. 

In 2011, Washington made its displeasure known through the chairman of the Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had warned that, “France, a NATO ally, had ignored the evident dangers of selling sophisticated warships to Russia when Moscow adopts an increasingly hostile attitude toward the United States, its neighbors and Europe itself.”  Since the beginning of the annexation of Crimea, Europe’s security bankroller has remained silent on the controversial issue. 

There is no sign of panic at the Elysée Palace, where American concerns about its foreign policy decisions are traditionally shrugged off, no doubt, at times with the French version of the F-word. Mindful not to jeopardize a fruitful military partnership with Russia, Paris argues for the continuation of dialogue and hides behind EU sanctions. Moscow’s usual nationalist mouthpieces are tight-lipped. Its fleet, an obsolescing Soviet-era tool, needs the technology transfer and the modern “power projectors” its inefficient and corrupt shipbuilding industry could not hope to deliver in less than 10 years.

Frustrating as it may be for the Americans, the Gaullist tradition of political independence on defense issues and the quest for a special relationship “between eternal France and Russia” is here to stay. As a new Cold War era seemingly grips East-West relations, France continues to deal with Russia according to its national interests, including those of its defense industry.

The situation in the Ukraine is fast-moving and not easy to foretell, but it can be predicted that the Vladivostok helicopter carrier will be delivered. Where the French red line lies with regards to the second LHD is not clear, and will depend on developments in Sebastopol.