RIGA, Latvia: France’s plan to sell Moscow four warships has triggered anger in former Soviet republics now firmly anchored in the European Union and NATO, fearful their new western allies underestimate the Kremlin.
In interviews with AFP, top officials in the Baltic states questioned France’s willingness to go ahead with what would be an unprecedented transfer of advanced military technology by a NATO member to Russia.
They insisted that, while they too want better ties with their Soviet-era master, Paris’s stance is wrong-headed and sends the wrong signal to a Moscow government already all-too keen to assert itself in its region.
France argues Russia must be treated as a partner and not as a threat, saying it is time to time to turn the page on the Cold War.
“I’m not sure that the best way to turn the page on the Cold War is by trading in items of hot war,” said Latvia’s Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins.
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have repeatedly raised concerns since plans to sell Mistral-class amphibious assault vessels were first floated last year
But the issue came more sharply into focus on Monday when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Paris for talks with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy and both confirmed that the deal would go ahead in some form.
Speaking alongside Medvedev, Sarkozy said a sale would be a symbol of trust, as the West seeks to get Moscow on-side in crises such as the stand-off with Iran. He said the warships would be delivered unarmed.
While Paris, keen to preserve jobs in its naval shipyards and to get Russia to agree new UN sanctions against Iran, has played up the ships’ possible role in humanitarian operations, experts say they are a potent military asset.
“The Mistral will remind countries in Russia’s zone of influence that, in military terms, Moscow is still the boss and wants global prestige,” said Thomas Gomart at the French Institute of International Relations.
“We don’t know what they are going to do with a Mistral,” said Lieutenant General Ants Laaneots, Estonia’s chief of staff. “Are they going to keep them in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the northern fleet?”
Laaneots noted Russia that recently boosted a marine brigade in its Baltic territory of Kaliningrad from a decade-old strength of 1,200 to 2,700.
The officials also pointed to Russia’s new strategic doctrine on NATO which dubs the expanded alliance a threat, and a Baltic war-games scenario last year that included a pincer operation cutting off Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“This trend deepens our concern,” said Lithuania’s Defence Minister Rasa Jukneviciene.
France’s European affairs minister Pierre Lellouche made a whistle-stop tour of the Baltic last week, attempting to allay concerns, without success. But Francois Heibourg, an adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said fears about the sale were understandable.
“The Mistral is a considerable strategic tool: Russia’s power projection capability will be much increased in the Black Sea, the Baltic and even far into Asia,” he said.
The warship plan also comes less than two years after Russia’s August 2008 war with pro-Western, ex-Soviet Georgia. Estonia’s Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said Russia has since failed to live up to a ceasefire brokered by Sarkozy.
“Trust-building is important for Russia, not only for EU or NATO member states,” Ansip said.
The Baltic states were seized by the Soviet Union during World War II, were scarred by mass deportations of their people and finally won freedom when the communist bloc crumbled in 1991.
The Kremlin only pulled out its troops in 1994 and the newly independent nations, with a combined population of only 6.8 million, still have rocky relations with giant Russia, notably since their NATO and EU entry in 2004.