Washington Mum as France, Germany Arm Russia

Ariel Cohen /

Amidst the ongoing aerial campaign against Muammar Qadhafi’s forces in Libya, NATO is struggling with a problem that is affecting the integrity of the alliance. Arms producers in France, Italy, and Germany are selling advanced weapons, sensitive dual-use systems, and military supplies to Russia.

These military sales to Moscow, which is flush with cash from oil and gas sales, signal the decline in strategic cohesiveness among some of NATO’s most important members.

Such military sales include a record-breaking deal signed on June 17 between France and Russia in which Russia bought two French Mistral-class assault ships/helicopter carriers worth more than $1.4 billion, with options for purchasing two more. A Mistral-built ship can carry up to 16 helicopters and tens of armored vehicles, which would enable Russia “to land hundreds of troops quickly on foreign soil” from one ship.

Experts call the Mistral ship “an unmatched, state-of-the-art model in Europe.” Russian navy commander Vladimir Vysotsky stated that “the Russian Navy has taken an interest in this ship because of its multi-functionality.” Vystorsky added that if the Black Sea navy had it in 2008, it would have taken them 30 minutes, not 26 hours, to subjugate Georgia.

This is the largest deal between a NATO country and Russia since the alliance’s inception and the largest defense sale from a Western power to Russia since the World War II–era Land Lease. Only before the October 1917 Bolshevik putsch did Western powers regularly sell naval assets to the Romanov Empire.

On the same day, Germany’s leading producer of military technology, Rheinmetall, signed a $398 million contract with Russia to develop a “combat training center for Russian ground forces.” There is a resemblance between this sale and the 1920s and early 1930s secret cooperation between the USSR’s Red Army and the Weimar Germany’s Reichswehr—especially if more sales and joint activities ensue.

France, Germany, and Russia were quick to glorify these deals as “watershed” moments signaling “an unprecedented level of cooperation.” As much as Western European politicians and manufacturers may celebrate this apparent détente, NATO’s newest members and Russia’s closest neighbors have reason to be concerned.

Eastern European countries, many of which remember Soviet occupation (1945–1989), wanted to become members of NATO in order to be protected from Russia. Historical memories are painful, from the 1848 occupation of Budapest after the Hungarian rebellion to the four partitions of Poland in the 18th and the 20th centuries and from the 1956 suppression of the Hungarian revolution to the 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring.

Establishing a military technology relationship with Russia could start small, but this bond could allow Russia to have a direct link to advanced military technology that would not only diminish the overall value of the alliance among NATO newest and most loyal partners but also put Russia’s neighbors in greater danger from a potential Russian attack made possible by Western European hardware.

Russia has been bargaining with many European military companies for a couple of years, and more deals are expected soon. Based on these trends, it seems that some in Western Europe do not see Russia as a concern to NATO’s future security, although Eastern Europe and Russia’s other neighbors would beg to differ.

The United States has remained remarkably quiet on this issue. Apparently, the White House’s desire to keep the faltering “reset policy” afloat makes it see no evil. “Reset” prevented Washington from intervening in Paris and Berlin and blocking the sale despite outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s tacit objections to these and other deals. These military deals are another example of “the West, not Russia, being transformed by such Western engagement with Russia.”

Co-Authored by Robert Nicholson, a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm