March 4, 2014

Arms and (no) influence

The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok is seen at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, western France, November 25, 2014. France suspended indefinitely on Tuesday delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carrier warships to Russia, citing conflict in eastern Ukraine where the West accuses Moscow of fomenting separatism. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe (FRANCE - Tags: BUSINESS MILITARY POLITICS MARITIME)
The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok is seen at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, western France, November 25, 2014. France suspended indefinitely on Tuesday delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carrier warships to Russia, citing conflict in eastern Ukraine where the West accuses Moscow of fomenting separatism. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe (FRANCE - Tags: BUSINESS MILITARY POLITICS MARITIME)

In the light of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the EU says it might ponder targeted sanctions against the Kremlin which could also involve suspending some of military cooperation activities. The ambiguities of national positions and limitations of Western leverage aside, there is one particular area which should immediately be on the table for discussion – military equipment exports, armament cooperation and military technology transfers that are taking place between some of the EU countries and Russia.

In the light of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the EU says it might ponder targeted sanctions against the Kremlin which could also involve suspending some of military cooperation activities. The ambiguities of national positions and limitations of Western leverage aside, there is one particular area which should immediately be on the table for discussion – military equipment exports, armament cooperation and military technology transfers that are taking place between some of the EU countries and Russia.

A few years ago, the Baltic states were considered ’hysterical’ for raising objections to the French agreement with Moscow to sell its state-of-the-art ’Mistral’-class amphibious assault (also known as ‘projection and command’) ships. The deal came soon after the Russian invasion into Georgia – a conflict which unnerved many NATO Allies. It not only boosts Russia’s ’power projection’ capabilities, but also involves transfer of some sophisticated military technology that Russia will be all too glad to incorporate into developing its domestic defence industrial base and future military capabilities. A powerful signal was sent to everyone concerned: no matter what the Kremlin is up to in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond, no matter how much selling arms to it upsets the allies and no matter what are the long-term strategic consequences of such policy, earning a buck (billions, actually) is a higher priority.
’Mistral’, as it turned out, was also – figuratively speaking – an ice-breaker of sorts. Other projects and deals followed, including common development of a new generation Infantry Fighting Vehicles, ’Thales’ production line for thermal-vision equipment (equipping the Russian armed forces with a critical night operations capability), and so on. As recently as last month, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of defence industry, announced that a new era of intensive Franco-Russian military-technical cooperation, involving joining up the competences and trusted exchange of information, is commencing. The party is galore, regardless that one party-goer is acting like a drunk who is smashing windows and breaking furniture of his neighbours.
The French are, however, not the only gullible of this tremendous lack of strategic foresight and empathy with the legitimate security concerns of their allies within NATO and the EU. The country which has silently been gliding under the radar screen in expanding its military exports to Russia is Germany – number three in the league of top arms exporters in the world. Its Federal Security Council headed by the Chancellor has made a habit of it to doll out export permits to the left and to the right, sending German-made military equipment to the countries around the world which have dubious human rights and regional behaviour credentials and which could potentially misuse the acquired weapons and equipment to supress domestic dissent or to stir up regional conflicts. Russia is among them, quickly becoming a very valuable customer on the list (between 250 and 500 export permits in 2011 alone, according to Military Equipment Export Report, which is in the same category as to South Korea and India).
One of the most recent sales is particularly worrying: German authorities have agreed to sell to Russia a state-of-the-art brigade-level training facility. Basically, it is a replica of a top-notch headquarters of all-arms brigade combat team with all its equipment, currently available to only technologically most advanced Western nations. For Rheinmetall Defence, one of Germany’s largest producers of military equipment the order is worth well over 100 million Euros, including further options. It will enable Russian brigade-sized units to test combat readiness for combined-arms operations, using Rheinmetall’s state-of-the-art equipment to simulate realistic battlefield conditions and assess troop and staff performance. This will be not a step, but a leap for the Russian armed forces and their capability to conduct large-scale conventional military operations. Thus, although modest in monetary terms, the deal constitutes a significant transfer of technology, with sensitive computing and communications hardware and software ending up in the hands of the Russian military – to be studied, copied and built-upon in the future.
Deals like that with many other countries would sit nicely within the so-called ‘Merkel Doctrine’ currently underpinning the German arms exports policy, which in a nutshell was stipulated by the Chancellor herself: ‘I am convinced that it is in our interest to enable partners to effectively participate in upholding or re-establishing security and peace in their regions’. But this also means that to Germany — and also to France, Italy and other Western nations that sell military equipment to Russia — Moscow is a partner; a partner who both in 2008 in Georgia and now in Ukraine is apparently just ’upholding or re-establishing security and peace’ and who needs to be ’enabled’ (??). And a lucrative one at that, helping to keep production lines and shipyards humming, jobs intact – not something to turn a blind eye to when economic times are tough – and politicians re-elected in their constituencies with major defence industry facilities located there.
More cunningly, there is perhaps an underlying assumption that military equipment sales to the Kremlin and other uncanny regimes might bring about a measure of influence over their behaviour, which the selling side may choose to leverage at critical points in time. But such influence is evidently not something that has entered Putin’s calculus: if Georgia war did not put any damper on expanding military equipment sales, armament cooperation and technology transfers, why should occupying a part of Ukraine? He certainly thinks that this cooperation is mutually too beneficial to be curtailed by such nuisances as putting one wayward nation in Russia’s ’privileged sphere of influence’ into line. Indeed, he may well expect that it is the calculus of Paris and Berlin which is affected far more than his own. Influence, including influence flowing from military exports or technology sharing, is a tricky non-linear concept when money talks loud, crude geopolitics rules again and regime security is at stake. So, actually, a legitimate question to be asked is who influences whom under the present circumstances.
Enter the EU. Perhaps, the situation will start changing if sanctions to Russia are really put on the table? It would be obvious and natural to include terminating any military exports and armament cooperation as well as cutting any transfer of military (or even dual-use technology) to Russia into the overall package of such sanctions. But this might prove to be a rather naive expectation, given how much the fragmented European defence industry needs cash from sources other than dwindling defence budgets of NATO and EU nations and how protective are national governments of their defence industries as well as of their national sovereignty in making decisions about armament cooperation and technology sharing. Apparently, it does not really matter that the existing policy, sanctions or not, is slowly but surely contributing to the erosion of Western technological dominance in military affairs, is strengthening an increasingly aggressive (not only assertive) geopolitical rival as well as deepening regional military imbalances and undermining regional security.
In the long term, to take a leaf from President Obama’s book, there will be, and should be, costs of such policy. The ambitions to have more pan-European defence industrial integration – both on the demand and on the supply side – will remain hostage to national interests and fears, thus further diminishing the prospects of the EU ever emerging as a powerful entity in international security affairs. Some NATO and the EU nations bordering Russia will be increasingly driven to trust less the European suppliers (and governments behind them) who are in cahoots with Russia’s military-industrial complex and to increase their reliance on armament and military technology cooperation with the United States instead. And, when push comes to shove, NATO planners will find themselves facing a far more capable military opponent (even though the one whose some technology will be conveniently familiar), able and willing to further test the limits of the ’appease and make profits’ stand, perhaps even on this side of NATO’s ’firewall’.
The first rule of a hole stipulates that, once you are in it, stop digging. But do Paris and Berlin even realise they are digging a hole, if not for themselves than surely for their allies? The impact of the current crisis on their military exports, armament cooperation and technology transfer policy vis-à-vis Russia will amply demonstrate that. We won‘t be holding our breath.

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