Moscow is flush with cash from energy sales and arms producers in France, Italy and Germany are happy to take large chunks of it. They are busily selling Russia advanced weapons, sensitive dual-use systems and military supplies. All this indicatesunprecedented Russian openness about (and need to) buy advanced weapons systems. Moreover, Moscow-based experts say privately that the Kremlin hopes the arms deals help revive the Russian-French-German axis that began to emerge in 2003 in opposition to the US-Iraq war.
Recent military sales include a record-breaking deal signed on June 17 between France and Russia. Moscow bought two French Mistral-class assault ships/helicopter carriers worth more than $1.4 billion, and it has options for purchasing two more. 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.
On the same day, Germany’s leading producer of military technology, Reinmetall, signed a $398 million contract with Russia to develop a “combat training center for Russian ground forces.”
This brings back memories of the post-Rapallo 1920s and early 1930s secret cooperation between the USSR’s Red Army and the Weimar Germany’s Reichswehr, which allowed the latter to develop and test weapons in Russia, forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles.
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 détente, NATO allies should not rush to abandon trans-Atlantic ties for the newfound Russian arms market. Certainly the newest alliance members and Russia’s closest neighbors aren’t happy.
Many Eastern European countries were forced into the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact. Once freed, they sought NATO membership as a means of protection from Russia. Historic memories are painful, and these nations have a lot of them: the 1848 occupation of Budapest by the Russian Imperial Army after the Hungarian rebellion; the four partitions of Poland in the 18th and the 20th centuries; the 1956 suppression of the Hungarian revolution; the 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring; and the 1939 Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. It’s very heavy baggage.
The Russians themselves are divided over foreign military imports. The country’s media is rife with accusations that some of the contracts may involve pay-offs to senior officials. Prominent Russian weapons designers publish damning exposés in the national media on how military contracting in the country is broken down. Others are worried that imports will destroy the domestic military-industrial base.
Yet, one would hope these arms deals will not undermine NATO’s commitment (under Article 5 of its charter) to defend its members from foreign attack. Establishing a military-technology relationship with Russia could start small, but Moscow hopes this bond would allow it to have a direct link to advanced military technology and training. Washington should watch further sales to Russia, keeping in mind the overall defensive purpose of the alliance for all NATO members, including the newest and most loyal partners.
Russia has been bargaining with many European military companies for a couple of years and more deals are expected soon. However, these sales may trigger a move in NATO to develop a unified long-term strategy on arms sales for the twenty-first century.
The United States has remained remarkably quiet on this issue, but outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others in the Pentagon have tacitly objected to these and other deals. Nevertheless, the Obama administration decided against going to bat against such arms sales. At this point, Washington and its key NATO allies can ill afford another spat that may compromise its near-term operations, like those in Afghanistan and in Libya. And, of course, should Washington raise vocal opposition, it might jeopardize the “reset,” the ultimate objective of Obama’s Russia policy.
Robert L. Nicholson, The Heritage Foundation Young Leaders Program member, assisted in the preparation of this article.
Image from www.kremlin.ru