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22nd Feb 2020

French warship deal opens wound in EU and Nato

  • Russian seamen: the country is updating its Cold War-era military capability (Photo: NATO)

Lithuania and Latvia have said that France's handling of an arms deal with Russia has breached good faith with its EU and Nato allies and may be in violation of an EU weapons code.

"We learned [about the deal] from media," Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Jukneviciene told EUobserver in an interview on Thursday (11 February). "If our partners would have consulted about the intended sale of the Mistral within EU or Nato this would have certainly enhanced the spirit of solidarity within both organisations."

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Maris Riekstins, the foreign minister of Latvia, said: "We would love to have seen a different sequence of events. We would be in a much better position if we had been consulted beforehand and then there had been a public announcement."

France on Monday revealed that it is in advanced talks with Russia to sell a Mistral class warship.

The vessel can deploy 900 marines, 40 assault vehicles and 16 helicopters, as well as acting as a floating command centre for 150 military staff. If the deal goes ahead, it would be the first major arms sale by a Nato country to Russia since World War II.

The French announcement comes after Russia last September held large scale war games in Kaliningrad and Belarus, described by one Estonian defence analyst as a simulated invasion of Poland and Lithuania.

Russian admiral Vladimir Vysotsky at the time said that if Russia had had a Mistral ship during the Georgia war in 2008 it could have won the conflict in 40 minutes.

Lithuania's Ms Jukneviciene plans to raise the Mistral sale at a meeting of EU defence ministers in Mallorca later this month. Latvia's Mr Riekstins denied that Riga is lobbying Nato to block the deal. But he also called for wider debate before it goes through.

"We haven't given any particular instructions to our diplomats in Nato to enter into a specific campaign. But an exchange of views in the EU and Nato families, a clarification of the issues on the table, is what should be done," he said.

There is no EU law governing arms sales by member states. But in 2008 the bloc adopted a political commitment not to sell weapons or components to countries which violate human rights, pose a risk to regional stability or hurt the security interests of EU allies.

The code was signed into life by the French EU presidency four months after the Georgia war.

"Every EU country is bound by rules regarding the control of exports of arms and dual use technology," Mr Riekstins said.

"Our lawyers consider that such a sale would allow ambiguous interpretations in regard of compliance with several important criteria of this code," Ms Jukneviciene said. "Having in mind the unpredictability of Russian politics, we cannot exclude that this military equipment may be used for illegitimate purposes inconsistent with our values and principles."

Kaarel Kaas, an analyst at the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, noted that Austrian and Finnish-made sniper rifles have in recent years been used by Russian special forces in Chechnya and Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia.

Otfried Nassauer from the arms control NGO, the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security, said: "Surely you could make such an argument [that the Mistral sale would violate the code]. But you would run into the problem of double standards. Germany has sold submarines to Pakistan which could theoretically be used to launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles."

French diplomats and EU officials declined to speak on the record. But one French contact said that Russia "is not the kind of country which is the target of the code," mentioning North Korea instead.

Meanwhile, Estonia, another small post-Soviet republic, which arguably has the worst relations with Russia of any EU state, has opted to stay out of the dispute for now.

"Technically speaking Russia is qualified as a partner for both Nato and the EU and there are no restrictions in force against arms sales to this country. Thus it could become only a moral or political issue," Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet told this website.

"We are not excluding anything but this issue should not become a divisive factor for Nato and the EU."

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