21st Oct 2016

Georgian leader warns Europe against Russia warship deal

Georgia on Thursday (19 February) warned Europe against a proposed French sale of warships to Russia, as it would allow Moscow to invade any former Soviet republic "within hours," echoing concerns raised by Baltic leaders that the deal is in breach of an EU code on arms trade.

During a visit to London, President Mikheil Saakashvili said that the warship sale was "very risky" and would "reward" Russia's continued military presence in Georgia's breakaway provinces, in violation of a French-brokered ceasefire agreement after a brief war in 2008.

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  • Mikheil Saakashvili has been declared persona non grata in Russia (Photo: Communications Office of the President of Georgia)

Russia is negotiating a €500 million deal to buy at least one Mistral, an assault ship capable of carrying up to 16 helicopters and a 750-strong landing force. It has also expressed interest in three others.

Mr Sarkozy has defended the sale, saying "one cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don't treat it as one." The deal would be a considerable boost for France's Saint-Nazaire shipyard, which builds Mistrals. The owner of the yard, South Korean-controlled shipbuilder STX Europe AS, announced last year it was cutting 351 jobs there due to a lack of orders.

Mr Saakashvili said that if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "gets tanks, ships, missiles - technology which he's also shopping for- then we are getting into a very, very risky zone." He added that Georgia has had an "informal exchange of opinions" with Paris about the warship deal but hadn't made an official protest.

The Georgian leader also referred to remarks made last year by admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the commander of Russia's navy, who said that if his country had such a ship in 2008, it could have won the war against Georgia "in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours."

Selling assault ships to a "revisionist power that might become revanchist" was extremely risky, he said. Vladimir Putin was now searching for a new conflict to underpin his bid to recapture the Russian presidency in 2012, Mr Saakashvili claimed.

Baltic ministers last week also warned against the deal with Russia, which would be the first time a Nato country sells advanced military technology to the former Cold War enemy.

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.

"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," Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Jukneviciene told EUobserver.

Earlier this month, a Pentagon spokesman said the US's "friends and allies" in Eastern Europe had "good reason" to be nervous about the deal.

On Wednesday, Moscow signed a military treaty with the Georgian breakaway province of Abkhazia, which has access to the Black Sea. The deal includes setting up a Russian military base for at least 45 years. Moscow has currently about 1,700 troops in the self-declared independent province, despite the ceasefire agreement stipulating a scale-back in its military presence.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh in Moscow, Russian President said Medvedev said that the treaty marked a new "milestone" in bilateral relations. Mr Medvedev also said on that occasion that Mr Saakashvili was "persona non grata" in Russia and he could envisage normal relations with Tbilisi only once the Georgian leader was out of office.

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