Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Mistral Sale and the Russian Information War on Georgia

On December 1, 2009, the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow published a collection of essays about the August 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. The report is written in Russian so it is unlikely to be widely disseminated, but for English readers, the Jamestown Foundation has a two part summary of the report up (Part 1 and Part 2). The report is well done, although any who read the original Russian report will find plenty to quibble about.

The two part series at Jamestown Foundation is a good primer for the ongoing discussions of the Mistral amphibious ship sale to Russia, because there is a new twist in the sale that is directly related to Georgia.

You have probably heard by now how France has come up with a number of reasons how they justify the deal, beginning with the need to better integrate Russia with Europe. The French ambassador to the UN will not even discuss the subject with reporters there who ask questions, and there is no sign from the government that France considers the issue subject to influence from other nations. Russia also faces internal pressure regarding the sale from those who believe the industry needs the work. It is true, but the Russian government apparently has no faith in the shipbuilding sector in Russia right now. It is still unclear how the Mistral deal will help the Russian shipbuilding sector, but improving procedures and modernizing the shipyards is considered one aspect of the Mistral deal.

Meanwhile the Mistral deal is reportedly set for March according to some Russian officials, but there is more to the deal than meets the eye and the deal is not a sure thing. As it turns out, the Mistral deal is part of a larger Russian information war against Georgia.

First Caucasian Channel began broadcasting on Eutelsat’s new W7 satellite on January 15th, and it only took 2 days for Russia to complain about the channel. The channel was created by the Public Television of Georgia earlier this year with a main objective "to bring truth to peoples in North Caucasus - to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan as well as to Russian republics in the Caucasus that fight against the Kremlin's armed forces." The channel was taken off the air after being up for less than two weeks. The station was intended to run a few weeks as a test before a long term contract for the channel with Eutelsat would begin on January 31st. The reason the station was taken off line was originally said to be technical in nature, but Eutelsat no longer says it is a technical issue, rather claiming the trial period has now expired.

On January 27 Le Figaro ran an article suggesting the reason the channel was taken down was Russia. "Eutelsat is under strong pressure from Russia to break its contract with Georgia," asserted a diplomat in Tbilisi on Tuesday. The operator Eutelsat is about to give in to the Kremlin, "which would be very serious" and, according to the Georgian diplomat, "akin to political censorship" the Le Figaro article says.

Gia Chanturia, general director of the Georgian Public Broadcasts was in Paris this weekend seeking answers from Eutelsat and French government officials. He is unlikely to like what the French tell him, because my sources both in Washington, DC and Paris have confirmed that Moscow has made cancellation of the First Caucasian Channel by Eutelsat a condition of the Mistral sale.

While I am sure there are still negotiations ahead, it is noteworthy the French government is indeed entertaining this condition of the sale - as no contract has been signed.

And that leads me back to the CAST publication. The paper leaves an impression of political and military equilibrium between Russia and Georgia, but I either misunderstood or stand in strong disagreement with that conclusion. There is no balance between Russia and Georgia as a result of the August 2008 war, and just as the United States did nothing for Georgia when Russia had troops on Georgian soil, do not expect the United States to stand up for Georgia now. The suggestion there is some sense of balance between Russia and Georgia is a myth, whether presumed, implied, or created; and the Mistral deal with all of its conditions serves as a visible reminder of that reality.

As we watch Russia leverage their unequal national power to influence France, keep an eye on eastern European countries like Poland. This will get bigger than Russia, Georgia, and France before it is all over, and the potential for long term consequences in Eastern Europe is not trivial. It is noteworthy that foreign military sales reform is an issue in the 2010 QDR. The details of FMS will be important, because it may turn out to be the difference between our allies in Eastern Europe buying quality military equipment from the US - or seeking vast quantities of military equipment from elsewhere.

Just saying... France may trust Russia, but countries like Ukraine and Poland do not. The FMS issue in the US and the Mistral deal between Russia and France will insure that Foreign Military Sales is an enormous topic in 2010 - something I discussed in the first edition of Midrats.

(Speaking of Midrats, tune in Sundays 5:00pm - today's guest is Mackenzie Eaglen on the QDR)

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