Tuesday, August 12, 2014

French Distraction

By Chris Philips

Last month a civilian airliner was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing almost 300 civilian passengers and crew. In the wake of the tragedy, the Obama administration and Congress have loudly and repeatedly condemned the action but so far have provided no other concrete response, while declining requests from the Ukraine government for military aid. Meanwhile, US commentators from both sides of the political aisle have taken to condemning the sale by France of a new Mistral-class warship to Russia.

The 199-meter by 32-meter amphibious assault ship Vladivostok is part of a two-ship, 1.2 billion (US$1.6 billion) contract between France and Russia signed in 2011. 

Each ice-strengthened ship will carry a group of 16 Russian Ka-32 Alligator attack helicopters and the cargo deck can accommodate more than 40 tanks or 70 motor vehicles. The vessels will be positioned at a new facility being prepared in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok.

The first ship is due this fall, with the second to be delivered by the end of 2015. France has credited the order for employing more than 1,000 workers at the STX France shipyard in St. Nazaire. Over objections from the US, French President Fran├žois Hollande said France plans to go forward with the sale of the warship while offering the possibility he might cancel the delivery of the second vessel.

Delivery of the initial ship is moving ahead, Mr. Hollande said, because “the Russians have already paid” for the vessel, and France doesn’t want to reimburse the Kremlin.

In an ironic (or perhaps prophetic) twist, the second ship is to be named Sevastopol, after the Crimean headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which was Ukrainian territory when the contract was signed but has since been invaded and annexed by Russia earlier this year.

While the two French Mistral-class ships will give Russia advanced capabilities and greater sea-power in the future, the recent acquisition of the Crimean shipyards has effectively removed any barrier to Russia’s building of its own warships in the future, as described by our Russian correspondent Eugene Gerden in the June, 2014 issue of Pacific Maritime Magazine. Moscow intends to spend up to $6.82 billion in Crimea this year to support the Crimean economy.

After Russia took Crimea, President Obama expressed concern about the French warship contract, saying that it “would have been preferable to press the pause button” on the deal. Late last month, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said “We don’t think anyone should be providing arms to Russia.”

And yet, US trade with Russia continues unabated. The latest US government figures available show that exports to Russia from the US through May of this year totaled $5.1 billion, with $1.4 billion just in aerospace exports alone. Another $95 million was earned in information and communications technology, $2 million in advanced weapons systems and $2 million in nuclear technology.

Meanwhile, the US sanctions imposed on Russia after the Crimean takeover seem to have had little effect, and the US continues to import more than 10.4 million barrels of oil from Russia each month.

In light of the billions in exports flowing from the US to Russia every month, a tempest over France’s existing, $800 million contract seems like nothing more than a distraction from the real problems facing the US, including the buildup of ice-strengthened military power in the Russian Far East.