|Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation — November 2, 2009 — Volume 6, Issue 201|
|November 02, 2009|
IN THIS ISSUE
* France ready to sell offensive helicopter carriers to Russia
Allons Enfants de la Russie in the Black Sea?
The French government and, apparently, the Élysée Palace are moving fast to sell at least one Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Russia, possibly for deployment in the Black Sea. Such a sale would endow Russia with a modern naval and amphibious warfare capability that Russia currently lacks. The Mistral is by definition a power-projection capability and it can be deployed for intimidating effect on Russia’s maritime neighbors.
Less than two months ago the Russian Navy's Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, had announced Moscow’s intention to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France and the license to build several ships of this class in Russia. He also hinted at possible Russian deployment of this capability to meet contingencies in the Black Sea: “In the conflict in August last year [against Georgia], a ship like that would have allowed [Russia’s] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours which is how long it took us [to land the troops ashore]” (Interfax, September 11, 15).
The Mistral is a state-of-the-art class in the French naval inventory, with only two vessels of this type on active duty thus far and a third under construction. It carries 16 attack and landing helicopters (while allowing the operation of up to 30 on both decks), up to 900 troops, four conventional landing craft (also allowing the operation of two hovercraft), and 40 Leclerc tanks, or alternatively 13 tanks and 40 other vehicles (http://www.netmarine.net/bat/tcd/mistral/histoire01.htm). These are the figures for short-term operations, the only ones relevant to Russia for possible actions in theaters nearby.
According to West European observers (Financial Times, October 13), Russian deployment of a helicopter-carrying ship in the Black Sea would not necessarily violate the 1936 Montreux Convention. While that convention bans aircraft carriers from passing through Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, Russia could argue that a helicopter carrier does not qualify as an aircraft carrier. The interpretation might then depend on Turkey, Russia’s latest “strategic partner” in the Black Sea.
With Russia’s other strategic partner, France, negotiations are proceeding apace over the technical and financial terms of the Mistral sale. As currently envisaged, the first ship and, possibly, a second one would be built in France, to be sold without sophisticated electronics. Two or three additional ships would then be built jointly, under French license in Russia. The French decision is expected to be finalized during the first half of November.
Selling the Mistral without sophisticated electronics would not reassure Russia’s maritime neighbors. Russia would even in that case acquire a potentially threatening capability for power projection, which most of its maritime neighbors could by no means match or offset. The Russian military intends to put Russian Ka-27 and Ka-29 helicopters on the Mistral, if the sale goes ahead (Interfax, October 23; RIA Novosti, October 31).
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has declared in a speech at the École Militaire that partnership with Russia “can take several forms in the defense sphere, from military cooperation to close industrial partnership,” alluding to the Mistral deal (Agence France Presse, October 9). Last year at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Fillon had voiced concerns that membership action plans for Georgia and Ukraine would upset the “balance of power” to the detriment of Russia. Whether delivery of the Mistral would upset the balance of power to the detriment of France’s NATO allies and its partners in the Black Sea or other theaters, however, does not seem to be a consideration for official Paris.
The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin, discussed the Mistral sale during their latest visit to Moscow, where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev received them. Kouchner and Morin joined their Russian counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and Anatoly Serdyukov, in the regular Franco-Russian 2+2 ministerial consultations on foreign and defense policies. At the joint news conference, Morin welcomed Russia’s intention to purchase the Mistral while Kouchner expressed hope that Russia would soon acquire this “great,” “wonderful” class of ships, once the technical and political procedures are completed (Interfax, Ekho Moskvy, October 1).
From the official French standpoint, the Mistral sale to Russia would both express the “strategic partnership” and provide an economic stimulus for the crisis-hit STX France shipyard. The latter would team up with the French DCNS naval shipyards to build the Mistral for Russia. The STX, traditionally known as Chantiers de l’Atlantique, currently two-thirds South Korean-owned and one-third French state owned, badly needs shipbuilding orders to save French jobs. President Nicolas Sarkozy promised this when visiting the shipyard almost one year ago. Apparently, he wants the government to secure a Russian contract (Les Echos, October 7).
Meanwhile, Moscow is alluding to possible deals with the Netherlands or with Spain for helicopter carriers made in those countries. Such hints serve to goad Paris to rush the sale of the Mistral.
Russia’s naval command is now equivocating about the number, possible missions and areas of deployment for the Mistral in Russia. According to Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the First Deputy Chief of the Russian Navy’s Main Staff, Russia may acquire and build up to five ships of this class for possible deployment anywhere from the Northern or Pacific Fleets to Somalia. The Russian shipyards in Severodvinsk or in St. Petersburg could build these ships under French license (RIA Novosti, Ekho Moskvy, Zvezda TV, October 31).
French authorities ignore warnings such as that of Sorbonne professor Francoise Thom: “Is it wise to arm a country that has just dismembered a neighboring state, Georgia, and no longer conceals its intentions to restore, by force if necessary, its hegemony in the ex-Soviet space? Is France, in the name of its ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia, closing its eyes to Russian preparations for future wars of aggression, which will become possible once Russia’s military reform, launched in September 2008, will have borne fruit? We must not be deluded into selling offensive armaments to Russia” (Le Monde, October 7).
In Brussels, an unidentified “senior figure at NATO Headquarters” sees no problem there: “This is a legal and bilateral issue between France and Russia and there has been no discussion about it at NATO” (Financial Times, October 13). If this is indeed the case, it would only reflect the deterioration in the quality of consultation processes there since August. Candid discussion of this issue there could be one way to restore that quality.
Iranian “Litmus Test” for Medvedev’s Problem Free Foreign Policy
Pavel K. Baev
The style of Russia’s foreign policy has softened remarkably during the last year as President Dmitry Medvedev seeks to bring closure to the “episode” of the war with Georgia and wipe out all speculation on a hypothetical new Cold War. Gone are the “visionary” anti-American prophecies of a multi-polar world and bitter complaints of insufficient respect paid to a “rising” Russia by the declining West, that were trademarks of Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Russia’s new friendly face is perhaps an improvement, but with the change of style the substance of foreign policy has all but disappeared. When Medvedev presides over military exercises together with Alyaksandr Lukashenka or Nursultan Nazarbayev, it does not signify a surge in military cooperation with allies. Equally, his angry letter to Viktor Yushchenko, does not mean that a new Russian-Ukrainian “gas war” is in the making, while Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Yulia Timoshenko might indeed make it happen (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 16; Kommersant, October 31).
The current culmination of the long-running conflict over the Iranian nuclear program illustrates perfectly this lack of content in Medvedev’s policy. Moscow did play a useful role in hammering out –together with U.S. and the European troika– a joint proposal for sending the bulk of Iran’s low-enrichment uranium abroad and returning it as fuel for nuclear reactors. It does not, however, seem particularly disappointed with the predictable counter-proposal from Tehran that is aimed at buying more time for its uranium enrichment project (www.gazeta.ru, October 28; Vremya Novostei, October 26). During his meeting in September with U.S. President Barack Obama, Medvedev agreed that “in some cases, the use of sanctions is inevitable,” but the Iranian case apparently warrants only patient diplomatic maneuvers. Moscow appears eager to upgrade the “reset” of relations with the U.S. to a meaningful partnership, but it is perfectly happy with the strong support for Iranian defiance expressed recently by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (www.newsru.com, October 27).
Voicing “principled” reservations against sanctions, Moscow equally finds every possible reason for delaying the launch of the Bushehr nuclear power plant –much to the frustration of its Iranian partners and no small damage to Russia’s reputation as a competitive nuclear contractor (RIA Novosti, October 26). Even more ambivalence exists around the $1 billion export contract on the surface-to-air missile system S-300PMU-2, which Moscow has never admitted signing and now characterizes as “frozen” (www.lenta.ru, October 23). This contract might have been the subject of the secret visit to Moscow of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September, and it resulted in considerable speculation around the still unexplained hijacking of the Arctic Sea freighter in the improbable location of the Baltic Sea (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 30). Medvedev, however, prefers to speak in general terms that “Iran needs a set of motives to behave appropriately.”
Medvedev’s only foreign policy success is not of his making as Washington sends its top negotiators to Moscow –National Security Advisor James Jones following U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton– in order to maintain the dynamics of strategic rapprochement. Arms control is the main focus of these efforts and the new text that is to replace the expiring START I is taking shape, even if the Russian side is hugely reluctant to reciprocate with compromises. The key proposition in the agreement remains the same –strategic parity understood as numerical equality– and it is difficult to implement it as Russia’s aging nuclear arsenal is shrinking fast towards a level, which is uncomfortably low for the U.S. This desperate weakness in Russia’s position was aggravated by yet another unsuccessful test of the Bulava sea-based missile last week (this time it failed to clear the launch tube on the Dmitry Donskoy strategic nuclear-powered submarine), which the navy command has tried to deny (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30). Medvedev uttered some unusually critical words about the outdated and over-priced products of the defense industry, but as far as negotiations are concerned, he cannot afford to be seen as giving too much ground to the pushy Americans (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 30).
There is certainly some value in more sober self-assessments than the recent delusions about “resurgent Russia,” but Medvedev’s increasingly obvious problem is his inability to initiate, not to mention enforce, any meaningful changes. He is a product of bureaucratic policies and court intrigues, trapped in the position of fake leadership, where a crowd of courtiers praises his every order without any intention of fulfilling it. He does not know how to connect with the real world and is afraid to expel Putin’s cronies from positions of power, because they know it too well. A few liberal advisors who recognize his predicament suggest leaving Putin’s “executive vertical” alone and building a parallel “vertical of modernization” that would take charge of Russia’s advancement in key strategic directions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30). This plan for circumventing the ruling bureaucracy has slim chances for implementation, but it reflects the maturing feeling of fin de siècle in the political elite as Putin’s reassurances that “business as usual” would return are disproved by the deepening recession (www.grani.ru, October 26).
October 30 in Russia is Remembrance Day for the victims of political repression, and Medvedev posted an entry in his video-blog condemning the “revisionist falsification of our history” aimed at justifying Stalin’s crimes; he asserted that “there is no excuse for repression.” This departure from Putin’s line of glorifying Russia’s past and erasing its dark pages may be just an attempt to re-establish his liberal credentials, which were compromised by sanctioning the results of the recent shamelessly falsified regional elections, particularly in Moscow (Novaya Gazeta, October 23). Nevertheless, it is a bold statement that goes against not only Stalin’s rising approval ratings, but also the widely-held conviction that Russia can only be governed by a “strong hand” (Ekho Moskvy, October 30). Medvedev’s “modernization project” –which still exists only as discourse– seeks to introduce a different model of creating room for “bottom-up” innovations, but as such it is incompatible with the system of power over which he is presiding so ambivalently.
Kadyrov Exaggerating the Threat of Suicide Attacks Backfires
Chechen authorities are increasingly reporting successes in operations against suicide bombers. Official data suggests that the number of suicide bombers has increased exponentially and that they are now occurring everywhere. The latest attempt on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s life again made the issue of suicide bombers a topical problem in Chechnya. On October 23, Russian news agencies reported from Grozny that an attempt on the lives of Ramzan Kadyrov and Adam Delimkhanov had been prevented in the Chechen capital (www.newsru.com, October 23).
The circumstances of the attempt remain obscure. The official media report mentioned only that during an inspection tour by Adam Delimkhanov of the construction site at the memorial center of Akhmad-Hadji Kadyrov (Ramzan Kadyrov’s assassinated father), a suicide attacker tried to break through in a motor vehicle. In all likelihood, Adam Delimkhanov (a member of the Russian parliament who is wanted by Interpol in connection with the murder of Sulim Yamadaev, the former commander of the GRU’s Vostok battalion, this past March 28 in Dubai, and who accompanies Ramzan Kadyrov wherever he goes in Chechnya) was awaiting the Chechen president at the site. While waiting for Kadyrov, a VAZ-2114 compact vehicle with Ingush registration plates tried to break through to the site at breakneck speed. According to the Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Roman Edilov, the police spotted a metal tank inside the car, fired warning shots, and then opened direct fire (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 23). The slain driver turned out to be Bislan Bashtaev, a resident of the city of Urus-Martan. Bashtaev was immediately called emir (leader) of the Urus-Martan jamaat (www.argumenti.ru, October 24). The people of Chechnya find out about the slain guerillas being alleged emirs only after their death. The fact is that the true emir of Urus-Martan is Abdul-Malik, who has no connection with Bislan Bashtaev.
Some local observers (employees of the local human rights organization “Abu”) have noted that much about the attack remains obscure. The question at issue is that while the news video recording showed Delimkhanov at the construction area, and the voiceover was reporting that the suicide bomber was trying to break through to the site, it is unclear why not a single shot could be heard (Grozny TV, October 23). If the vehicle had tinted windows, then how were the guards able to spot the tank inside? If the guards shot up the vehicle, then why were no traces of this shooting visible on it? Why was the vehicle not defused on site, but instead “towed out of town” and blown up there, endangering local residents? According to observers who shared their opinion with human rights information resource Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot), it all “looked more like theater, rather than an actual attempted assassination (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 25).
That was already the second recent report about an averted attempt on the life of Ramzan Kadyrov (www.kommersant.ru, October 24). According to Interfax, on the evening of October 22, a housing estate was completely destroyed in a special operation in Grozny. Four bodies were found in the rubble (two men and two women). All those killed were presented as combatants who had been preparing explosives for an attack against Kadyrov. It was just a continuation of the operation conducted in Grozny on the previous day. In the course of these operations, again according to the authorities, the emir of Gudermes, Saidemi Khizriev, was killed (www.lenta.ru, October 22). The slain Khizriev was better known not as a fighter, but as one of Sulim Yamadaev’s people. Most probably the information about those killed in Grozny was received after the detention of someone close to the Sulim Yamadaev group, who knew the group’s plans all too well. It was precisely his tip that helped to locate the other members of the group who were preparing an armed attack on Ramzan Kadyrov. So, despite the murder of Sulim Yamadaev and the utter defeat of his group (http://studies.agentura.ru/tr/russia/sk/chechnya), his people remain potentially dangerous for Kadyrov and are not ceasing their attempts to inflict a strike in retaliation for the death of their leader.
It is worth noting that earlier this year two young Chechen students in Moscow were charged with plotting an attempt on Kadyrov’s life. Kadyrov himself did not bear a grudge against the young men, because he understood that the whole process was staged by the police. In spite of that the Moscow college students Lors Hamiev and Umar Batukaev were sentenced to eight and five years in a strict regime colony “for organizing an assassination attempt” (www.kommersant.ru, April 3).
Prior to 2009 no one spoke about attempts on Kadyrov’s life in Chechnya. If there were people who did, they all relied on unverified rumors. It all stemmed from the directive that Kadyrov’s position of strong authority should not be questioned, and nobody was supposed to be able to organize an assassination attempt against him.
That all changed in the summer of 2009 when, while trying to demonstrate the effectiveness of their counter-insurgency activities, Kadyrov’s image-makers decided to show him against the backdrop of daily peril. These changes can obviously be traced to the appointment of the former correspondent of the Russian news agency Interfax, Alvi Kerimov, as Kadyrov’s press secretary.
Frequent reports of the elimination of potential suicide bombers and special operations carried out by security services in Grozny make the capital’s residents doubt the reassuring prognostications made by authorities on local television. The image of the leader constantly jeopardizing his life for his people is increasingly having the opposite effect. That is exactly what was on Kadyrov’s mind when, at a meeting with the chiefs of the official broadcasting agencies of the republic last month, he instructed them to substitute negative news stories for positive ones (www.gazeta.ru , September 11).
The truth of the matter, however, is that the situation in Chechnya looks much more unstable today than it was last year or even at the beginning of 2009.
Turkish-Azerbaijani “Cold War:” Moscow Benefits from Washington’s Indecisiveness
Recent weeks have seen unprecedented and potentially far reaching damage to the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. Ever since Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced its intension to normalize relations with Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia, the relationship between Ankara and Baku has cooled. The Azerbaijani leadership sent a strong message to Ankara in April, when President Ilham Aliyev refused to accept Turkish President Abdulah Gul’s invitation to attend the U.N. conference “Alliance of civilizations,” held in Istanbul.
Yet, it was after the signing of the protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia that Baku’s outrage spiraled. Both the Azerbaijani public and its political leadership openly condemned this one-sided Turkish policy. Indeed, the Azeri foreign ministry immediately issued a press release in which it said that the signing of the protocols “directly contradicts the national interests of Azerbaijan and overshadows the spirit of brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey built on deep historical roots” (www.mfa.gov.az, October 12).
That apparent cooling of the bilateral relationship, moved toward a cold war when Azerbaijani flags were banned during the Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Bursa on October 14 and Azerbaijani media outlets broadcast images of the Azerbaijani flag being torn apart and thrown into trash bins by Turkish police officers. In addition, the Azeri public was outraged by reports that the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, whom Azerbaijanis view as one of the main organizers of the Khojali massacre in 1992, was warmly embraced by President Gul and his wife during the soccer match. Gul’s wife, reportedly, even cooked for Sargsyan and Gul offered his bedroom to his Armenian counterpart.
Such news has caused deep anti-Turkish sentiments to flourish in Baku. Traditionally an ally, brother and last resort of hope, Turkey is no longer trusted in the Azerbaijani capital. In an effort to gain an additional friendly neighbor, Ankara seems to have overstretched and nearly ruined its strategic relations with Azerbaijan.
The reaction in Baku was swift. Turkish flags, hanging in the memorial for martyred Turkish soldiers, were lowered. Youth groups and opposition parties lashed out at the Turkish leadership for the humiliation and disrespect shown to the Azerbaijani flag in Bursa. And parliament held heated debates about the “flag incident,” during which Vice-Speaker Ziyafat Asgarov said, “I take the disrespect shown against the Azerbaijani flag as a personal insult” (AZTV, October 16).
Moreover, on October 16 Aliyev announced during his cabinet meeting that Azerbaijan would consider alternative options to export its gas, since Turkish-Azerbaijani talks on gas transit have not produced concrete results (www.day.az, October 16). He accused Turkey of stalling these negotiations by offering unacceptably low prices for Azerbaijani gas and did not hesitate to mention that until now, Azerbaijan has been selling natural gas to Turkey at 30 percent of its value on international markets. Aliyev also mentioned Russia, Iran and the Black sea as alternatives routes for Azeri gas and coincidently, in the same week, Gazprom and Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company SOCAR signed an agreement in Baku for the export of 500 million cubic meters of Azeri gas to Russia at the price Aliyev described as “mutually beneficial” (Trend News Agency, October 16).
It is clear that the recent developments in the South Caucasus and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement have seriously damaged the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. This partnership has been the backbone of East-West energy and its future transportation corridors, security, political and geostrategic balance in the region as well as the overall Turkish (or Western) entrance into the Caspian region. Without this strategic partnership, the Turkish, E.U. and U.S. axis of influence in the South Caucasus and further into the Central Asian region is at risk. This geopolitical miscalculation on the part of Turkish, E.U. and U.S. officials, all of whom have actively pushed for a one-sided normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations without the consideration of Azerbaijan’s interests and the resolution of the Karabakh conflict will see a boomerang effect.
Russia may utilize this excellent opportunity to further advance its political agenda in the region: the isolation of Georgia by cutting it off from new transit routes; shelving the E.U. and U.S.-backed Nabucco gas pipeline project by destroying the Azerbaijani-Turkish strategic partnership and thus forcing Azerbaijan to sell its gas to Russia; drawing Turkey into its own orbit of influence undermining the E.U.-U.S.-Turkey axis of influence in the region. Before Washington realizes, it will be too late to protect the South Caucasus as a sovereign and independent region. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. appears to underestimate what is unfolding in the region. A lack of clear vision on the part of the U.S. administration clearly plays into Russian hands. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov so actively pushed his Armenian counterpart to sign the protocol with Turkey.
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