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Mistral mystery

By Messenger Staff
Friday, March 5
The prospect of the French selling Mistral warships to Russia has been met with some alarm in Georgia. Everyone, be they Government officials, opposition members, ordinary citizens, analysts, you name it, has expressed their utmost concern and indignation over the proposed sale.

Georgia's concern is based on the possible appearance of the helicopter carrier in the Black Sea. The idea that this represents a threat to security is given substance by the senior Russian Naval officer who stated that if Russia had had this ship in August 2008 it would have occupied Georgia in 40 minutes. This is strange statement to make if you do not actually have the intention of doing this: all military hardware causes some kind of damage, but military personnel do not state publicly after buying these weapons how long it will take to subdue a neighbouring country with them. But as Ted Jonas said in his letter to the editor published on page 8 of March 4's Messenger, the Russians will do what they want anyway, so there is no point Georgia complaining about this or that potential threat.

Georgia’s humble protests and attempts to stop the deal have not of course been considered by either side, particularly the French, who have made a good deal and are most probably rubbing their hands with pleasure. They have sold not one but four Mistral ships to Russia if reports are to be believed. Of course not all of these will be used in the Black Sea, they will probably cover the Baltic, the northern ocean and the Pacific, but there is no guarantee that one will not be permanently pointed towards Georgia. The Mistral deal has prompted Georgian state officials, in particular Minister of Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili, to state that Georgia must immediately be allowed to enter NATO and given the means to buy defensive weapons. But we repeat, if Russia wants to do something it will do it.

Georgia’s dreams of using this sale as a tool to accelerate NATO accession are naive. If a NATO member country sells Russia weapons and thus establishes close military cooperation with it one can presume it will also veto any Georgian attempt to integrate with the alliance, in line with Russia’s position. Georgia cannot effort efficient defensive armaments to protect itself from an overwhelming Russian aggression, and no one will lend it money to buy arms. Georgia has been receiving most of its arms from Ukraine, but now the pro-Russian Yanukovich has become Ukraine’s President this supply will be blocked. It is unlikely that Georgia will ever be able to afford anything effective enough to resist Mistral, so Ted Jonas' position appears to be justified.

But there is one more element to the Mistral mystery. The Russian-French deal is a serious blow to Georgia’s Western orientation. Russian-oriented politicians and analysts have started disseminating the idea of building better relations with Moscow, citing this deal as a step by a NATO member country to promote closer relations with Russia. NATO as well as EU countries put their interests first, above possibly higher values, so Georgia is now being advised to do the same. Pro-Russian analysts suggest we made a bad mistake confronting Russia. So why do we not now reorient ourselves in the northern direction? Because a Mistral in the Black Sea will not only be a problem for Georgia. It may shift the balance in the Black Sea in Russia's favour, particularly now the chances of the Russian fleet staying in Sevastopol have increased with Yanukovich's victory. You can only talk peace with those who practice it. If the Black Sea is ruled by a nakedly aggressive nation this poses a risk to every nation around it and those who depend on their gas, oil and other goods.

The mystery of why the Mistral is being sold to a Russia condemned by NATO for its aggressive actions will be discussed further within NATO and other bodies. This deal will obviously have deeper and more long-lasting consequences than Russia simply getting another ship. Once again Georgia is a small boat in a rough sea: a big ship has come to shelter the small boat, but we do not know what sort of flag it sails under. It has the shape of the Mistral, but is it a friend or an enemy?