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The signing of the $1.7 billion contract for the delivery of two Mistral ships in June 2011 has placed France in a conundrum since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine. Photo: Wikicommons
Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber reporting,
France’s Finance Minister cast doubt Thursday on what Russia had said was the imminent delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carriers, feeding uncertainty that French political analysts view as authorities’ reluctance to be seen as caving in to Russian pressure.
Finance Minister Michel Sapin said Thursday that the conditions set by French President Francois Hollande last month for delivering the first Mistral — i.e., upholding the tenuous cease-fire and reaching a political settlement in Ukraine — “had not been met at this time.”
“What are the conditions? The conditions are to have a basis for normalization in Ukraine that contributes to de-escalating the situation, and that Russia play a positive role in this process,” Sapin said in an interview with France’s RTL radio station. “Things have been going better, but some issues remain.”
The announcement runs contrary to the statements of Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of military issues, who tweeted Wednesday that the Vladivostok, the first French-made Mistral ship, would be handed over to Russia on Nov. 14. Rogozin published a photograph of a letter from DCNS, the French industrial group in charge of constructing the ships, inviting Anatoly Isaikin, head of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, to the French port city of Saint-Nazaire to attend a ceremony in honor of the ship’s delivery.
Dated Oct. 8, the letter is signed by Pierre Legros, a senior vice president in DCNS’s surface ships and naval systems division. DCNS has not confirmed the letter’s authenticity and said that no delivery date had been confirmed at this time, French media reported Thursday.
The signing of the $1.7 billion contract for the delivery of two Mistral ships in June 2011 has placed France in a conundrum since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, where the West accuses Moscow of fomenting unrest.
France’s European and other Western partners have urged it to cancel the deliveries on the basis that they would bolster Russia’s military arsenal. Meanwhile, the economic-minded factions of French politics and business circles — including the late CEO of French energy giant Total, Christophe de Margerie, who was killed at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport last week when a snowplow struck his private jet on the runway — have lobbied their government for pragmatism to prevail over politics.
Hollande said in September that the Vladivostok would be delivered by Oct. 31, before postponing his deadline for a decision to November. Observers thought Euronaval, a large exhibition specialized in naval defense held in Paris through Friday, would serve as the stage for Hollande’s announcement.
Philippe Migault, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said Hollande’s postponement of making a decision — hesitation that some observers have said is simply France waiting for tensions in Ukraine to subside — was connected to Russian authorities’ attitudes toward the delivery of the ships.
“The timeline for their delivery depends on the discretion of Russian authorities,” Migault said. “If Russia is discreet, France will likely make a quick decision and deliver the first ship. But France cannot be viewed as having made its decision under Russian pressure.”
Rogozin’s tweet was a deliberate attempt to force Paris’ hand, according to Tatiana KatsouОva-Jean, head of the Russia Center at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. The French government was coerced to confirm, deny or clarify the nature of the document published by Russia.
“Rogozin’s tweet is not a coincidence,” KatsouОva-Jean told The Moscow Times.
“This is Russia’s way of forcing the French government to admit that the Mistral will in fact be delivered [on Nov. 14], or to deny it, which is much more difficult to do when a letter of invitation is published. France’s perpetual postponing of the decision has only made the issue more complicated.”
Rock and a Hard Place
“France’s two options — to deliver or not to deliver the Mistral ship to Russia — are both bad solutions to the problem,” KatsouОva-Jean said. “There are so many factors to weigh up here — public opinion, France’s bilateral relations with different partners, its role in multilateral forums, the military industry — that greatly muddle the issue.”
French political analysts concurred that France would not change its overall stance on the delivery of the Vladivostok. Sapin’s concession that the situation in Ukraine has improved attests to France’s eagerness to deliver the Mistral while respecting the conditions it outlined with Ukraine and the West in mind. But the country’s desire to deliver the Vladivostok without sparking the ire of its European and North American partners is likely unattainable, regardless of Russia’s position on Ukraine, according to French pundits.
“Some of France’s various partners will be displeased no matter what happens,” Migault told The Moscow Times.
“In a situation in which more than 5 million people are unemployed, one in eight children live in poverty and the country’s economy is on the verge of recession, it is clear that France will not want to pay a 1 billion euro fine [for not delivering the ships] and risk losing other military contracts just to please Poland and the Baltic States.”
French military experts have said that the cancellation of the Mistral deliveries for the sake of politics could jeopardize other military deals, including ongoing negotiations for a multibillion-dollar contract for 126 Rafale combat aircraft to India.
A picture taken on Sept. 7, 2014 in Saint-Nazaire, western France, shows the Vladivostok warship, a Mistral class LHD amphibious vessel ordered by Russia to the STX France shipyard. © AFP
MOSCOW – Russia has received an invitation to take delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carriers from France on Nov. 14, RIA news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying on Oct. 29.
RIA also quoted Rogozin as saying the second vessel would be put afloat in dock on the same day, although French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday Paris would wait until next month to decide whether to deliver the first of the two vessels.
Under pressure from Western partners to scrap the deliveries because of the Ukraine crisis, French President Francois Hollande last month said he was pushing back the original end-October delivery date and that he would hand over only the first carrier.
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)
(1 US dollar = 0.7849 euro)
Smoke and flames rise over a hill near the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, Oct. 23. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
Alexey Eremenko reporting,
Moscow will not join the U.S. effort to thwart the Islamic State terrorist group until Russian-American relations improve, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this weekend.
The big question, however, is whether Russia is in fact in a position to offer any substantial aid to the anti-jihad campaign — and military analysts believe the answer is “yes.”
“Russia can do anything,” said Frants Klintsevich, a Russian lawmaker and Afghan War veteran turned military expert.
“We could solve the issue once and for all if there were only the political will to do so,” Klintsevich told The Moscow Times on Monday.
Independent experts were more reserved, but also said Russia has a lot to contribute to the fight against the Islamic State.
The list runs right up to boots on the ground: not regular troops, but private military companies that Russia is about to legalize, though possibly not in time for them to join the fray in Syria and Iraq.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that Russia had agreed to contribute military equipment, intelligence and military training to the anti-Islamic State effort.
Lavrov then debunked these claims on Russian television, saying that Moscow would only work with the U.S. on the Islamic State within the framework of broad bilateral cooperation, which is currently suspended due to U.S. sanctions slapped on Russia over its meddling in strife-torn Ukraine.
But Kerry’s checklist is still valid on all counts, and could even be expanded, Klintsevich said.
Tracking the New Breed
The Islamic State comprises a new generation of jihadists who emerged after the veterans who cut their teeth in Afghanistan and were championed by Osama bin Laden were weeded out by nonstop conflict, said Georgy Engelgardt, a leading expert on Islamic politics in Russia.
Many of the newcomers hail from Russia’s North Caucasus or the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, where Russian security services retain connections and influence.
Russian intelligence could be especially useful for tracking Islamists’ affiliates outside the Middle East, as well as Islamic State veterans retiring to safer places, Engelgardt said.
Russia could also provide some insight into jihadists’ doings in Syria, whose strongman leader Bashar Assad is a longtime client of Moscow, Engelgardt said.
“But that intel is likely to be limited, given that Assad is himself an enemy of the Islamic State,” he said.
Boots on the Ground
While Russian intelligence services may have much to offer the campaign against the Islamic State, the Russian military is unlikely to follow suit.
“Russia will not fight for wars that America started,” a leading Russian foreign affairs analyst said recently at a closed gathering of experts in Harvard.
But instead, Russia could use its own private military companies (PMCs), which it is about to legalize under a bill pending review in the State Duma, another prominent Russian expert said at the same event. Both declined to be identified because the event was closed to media.
Senator Klintsevich, who co-penned the bill, said it would take Russia a few years to produce mercenary squads capable of surviving war zones.
“Getting together a PMC takes time,” Klintsevich said.
Russia’s sole excursion into private warfare failed spectacularly last year, when anti-Assad forces in Syria reported routing a squad of Russian mercenaries.
Surviving squad members told Russian media they were offered a relatively low-risk job guarding power plants and were nonplussed when faced with direct attacks by heavily armed rebels instead.
Russia has the capability to staff enough PMCs with its own veterans, analysts agreed.
Western PMCs in Iraq and Syria already employ a limited number of Russian military professionals.
Russian troops also acted in an unofficial capacity during the takeover of Crimea and, allegedly, in the war in eastern Ukraine, though Moscow denies the latter. But those were regular troops rather than actual mercenaries.
Moscow also has a powerful fighting force in Chechnya under local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a tough-talking veteran of the Chechen war who has repeatedly slammed the Islamic State as apostates.
But Kadyrov’s own veterans of a mountain guerrilla war in Chechnya, despite their fierce reputation, may not necessarily be a match for the Islamic State’s quasi-regular army, Engelgardt said.
At least 600 Russian nationals are fighting for Islamists in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year. That includes at least one high-ranking militant leader of Chechen origins.
Russia can also go on doing what it has been doing for decades in Iraq and Syria: equipping and training governmental forces of both Soviet-era allies, analysts said.
Russia continued to supply arms to Assad during the ongoing civil war in Syria, despite U.S. protests, and was rumored to be training his officers, though it was never confirmed.
Last year, the Pentagon bought 12 Russian Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan military, with a deal for 30 more under way despite opposition in the U.S. Senate. American commanders said the Afghan army would remain grounded without the Mi-17s, which one officer said was as simple to operate “as a farm tractor.”
The Enemy of My Enemy
Finally and most importantly, the very fact of Russia throwing its weight behind the U.S. could go a long way toward curbing Islamic State’s clout in the region, where it still has many foes, even among Islamists, Engelgardt said.
He compared it to the fate of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who found themselves in global isolation and were easily smashed by the international coalition backed by Russia in 2001.
“While the big powers squabble, it’s just easier for the Islamists to operate,” Engelgardt said.
Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station after voting day in Kiev, Oct. 26, 2014. Gleb Garanich / Reuters
MOSCOW — Russia will recognize the results of Ukraine’s parliamentary election, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying Monday by RIA Novosti news agency.
“Taking everything into account, this election took place, though not on all of Ukraine’s territory,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.
“I think we will recognize this election because it is very important for us that Ukraine will finally have authorities that do not fight one another, do not drag Ukraine to the West or to the East, but that will deal with the real problems facing the country.”
Lavrov said he hoped Ukraine would form a “constructive” government and work toward easing tensions in the country as well as in its ties with Moscow, the TASS news agency reported.
“We hope that the election … will allow for the swift creation of a government that will be constructive, will not seek to continue escalating confrontational tendencies in society, [in ties] with Russia,” the news agency quoted Lavrov as saying.
A deputy foreign minister warned Monday that “nationalists” in the parliament could undermine the process, RIA reported.
An initial vote count showed pro-European parties had secured a clear victory in the Ukrainian poll, the first to be held since street protests ousted the country’s pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, earlier this year.
“Parties supporting a peaceful resolution of the internal Ukrainian crisis won a majority. This gives them a new chance to return to the agreements made, first and foremost, in Minsk,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said, referring to agreements made by Kiev, Moscow and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko hailed the election result as a show of popular support for his plan to end a pro-Russian rebellion in the east and pursue reforms.
Kiev and the West blame Moscow for destabilizing Ukraine by supporting and arming the rebels as well as reinforcing them with Russian troops. Moscow denies taking part in the armed conflict.
“The fact that openly nationalistic and chauvinistic forces won considerable support and will be represented in the Rada [parliament] creates an additional threat that again calls will sound … for the use of force, for bloodshed,” Karasin added.
“That is extremely dangerous.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. on Friday of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West.
In a 40-minute diatribe against the West that was reminiscent of the Cold War and underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West, Putin also denied trying to rebuild the Soviet empire at the expense of Russia’s neighbors.
“We did not start this,” Putin told an informal group of experts on Russia that includes many Western specialists critical of him, warning that Washington was trying to “remake the whole world” based on its own interests.
“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, are groundless,” the former KGB agent declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.
Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.
“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes [on others] have exactly the opposite effect.”
Putin, 62, has stepped up anti-Western rhetoric since returning to the Kremlin as president in 2012, helping push up his popularity ratings since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March.
Even so, the speech was one of the most hostile Putin has delivered against the West and it appeared partly intended to show Russian voters he will stand up to the rest of the world and defend their interests.
The criticisms of a world order dominated by Washington, more than two decades after the Cold War, recalled a 2007 speech in Munich in which Putin shocked the West by lambasting Washington’s “unipolar” world view. The speech prompted many Western leaders to reassess their view of Putin.
Shifting the Blame
The annual meetings of what is known as the Valdai Club have rarely featured such open, direct and tough language in their debates on Russian policy.
Critics say the meetings have become a showcase for Kremlin policy, with the session attended by Putin shown live on state television and little discussion of Russia’s record on human rights and democracy, which is criticized in the West.
Putin rejected criticism over the Ukraine crisis, in which Moscow has sided with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and threw the West’s criticisms of Moscow back in its face.
Repeating accusations that Western governments helped pro-Western groups stage a coup d’etat that ousted a pro-Moscow president in Kiev in February, Putin said: “No one wanted to listen to us, and no one wanted to talk to us.”
“Instead of a difficult but, I underline, civilized dialogue they brought about a state coup. They pushed the country into chaos, economic and social collapse, and civil war with huge losses,” he said.
Dismissing U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow as a mistake, he said: “Russia will not be posturing, get offended, ask someone for anything. Russia is self-sufficient.”
He made only passing references to the decline of Russia’s $2 trillion economy, which is in danger of sliding into recession as its currency tumbles along with the price of oil, its main export item.
But he said in a question and answer session after his speech that Russia would not burn though its gold and foreign currency reserves thoughtlessly to prop up the economy.
Putin has increasingly sought to shift blame for the economic crisis onto global problems, the sanctions and the oil price. He and other Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have also used increasingly tough language to blame the West for the Ukraine crisis.
A cease-fire has been in force in Ukraine since Sept. 5, but it has been violated daily and the West says Moscow continues to have troops and weapons in east Ukraine. Russia denies this.