France’s Opportunistic Defense Double-Dealing

Jason Stverak President, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
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NATO members convene in Wales this week with a full agenda and urgent matters at hand. Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, has said, “This is the most operationally important summit since the fall of the [Berlin] wall because things are changing so fundamentally with Russia and with the Arab Spring, the changes are in the operational zone.”

One major issue that has not received nearly enough focus is the role of France and whether it can ever be trusted as a NATO ally in the face of Russian aggression.

Amid the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, the French recently entered into negotiations with Russia to sell them sophisticated Mistral assault helicopter carriers. Meanwhile, France is also a frontrunner to sell Poland the latest and most critical component of the Polish missile shield. Double dealing and putting financial gain ahead of global security and trusted alliances is a dangerous game for the French to play.

It’s no surprise the Russians are especially interested in these Mistral carriers because of their state-of-the-art communications centers. The ship’s communication capabilities enable the ships to be used as command and control centers for naval and amphibious operations, something Russia badly needs, having fallen far behind the West in developing electronic communications.

After Western allies – including the U.S. and U.K. – demanded France step away from the Russian Mistral deal, French leaders have temporarily bowed to international pressure, putting the sale of the ships on hold. But the deal does not appear dead – French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has previously said bluntly, “There is a rule that contracts that have been signed and paid for are honoured.” The jobs and economic boost from the Franco-Russian deal appears paramount for French leaders, despite its allies’ strong concerns about Russian aggression.

The Mistral controversy is only the most visible of the military trade relationships between France and Russia. The French are involved in selling Russia sophisticated satellite equipment, fighter-jet engines, machine tools, and sniper rifles. Even Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has not slowed the ongoing trade.

One French activist told NPR: “These people, they represent Putin’s regime. And sure, it’s not only frustrating, but excuse me, it’s disgusting. This collaboration is a shame for France.”

Beyond the obvious military implications is a significant diplomatic one. France is making a clear statement to the Russians: We are willing to ignore NATO. Both the symbolic and practical repercussions of France’s arms trade have not been lost on those most threatened by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist policies designed to resurrect imperial Russia.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybausakaite compared the situation with the days when the West refused to acknowledge the threat posed by Hitler. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski saw the French arms trade as a public testimonial to the meaninglessness of the sanctions.

The two Mistrals in question are not going to singlehandedly change the balance of power in Eastern Europe, but Sikorski’s allegations that the Russians will use the assault ships in the Black Sea are an ominous sign about Russian intentions, especially after the Russian military operations in Crimea and Ukraine.

Of course, the tremendous irony is that Poland – the key bastion in Eastern Europe and the frontline against Russian aggression – is itself considering the purchase of a major French missile system — SAMP/T. This medium-range system would serve as the center piece of the new Polish shield, which is being expedited in the face of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The proposed Polish missile defense site will serve as a crucial check on Russian ambition in the region, and there must be no doubt about its effectiveness at achieving that goal.

Already in use in France and Italy, the SAMP/T employs an Aster-30 missile with a proven longer reach than Poland’s other options. But according to Defense Industry Daily, SAMP/T’s “cost and France’s snake-eyes diplomacy” could destroy its chances in Poland. “America’s relationship with Poland had been damaged before the Ukrainian crisis, but France’s continued willingness to sell Russia amphibious assault ships after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an odd case of ‘anything vous can do, nous can do meilleur’.”

NATO nations are left with an intriguing dilemma: if the Polish shield is our first line of defense in Eastern Europe, do we trust a French-made system when France has a strong military partnership with the very aggressor we are trying to protect against?

More importantly, what message would it send Russia if our most crucial ally – Poland – were to embrace France’s double dealing?

NATO allies should renounce France’s conflict of interest and urge Poland to reject the SAMP/T, lest they allow the French to simultaneously enter into arms deals with Moscow while claiming to protect Eastern Europe against further Russian aggression.

Putin has an agenda. And for the right amount of euros or rubles, the French will help him get there while potentially controlling a key asset to stopping him – the Polish shield.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.