Saturday, November 28, 2009

Russia's Making Friends

I'm not including a picture because I'm writing this post on the world's slowest computer.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Francios Fillon attended a Franco-Russian summit today to sign “at least 25” agreements between French companies, Russian companies, and the Russian government. The French electricity company EDF took a ten percent stake in Gazprom’s South Stream project, and France’s energy utility company GDF Suez moved closer to taking a nine percent stake in the Nord Stream project. Both of these gas pipelines circumvent the Nabucco pipeline which would take gas to Europe from the Caspian Sea region, and which was backed by the United States and the EU. Other outcomes of the meeting included an alliance between French carmaker Renault and Russian Avtovaz, agreements between French and Russian pharmaceutical companies, and (perhaps most importantly) the possible selling of a French amphibious assault ship to Russia.

So from the French side of the table, we can deduce that the French administration is interested in expanding its business interests in Russia and is unconcerned about the possible geopolitical consequences of tying its energy grid to its Eastern neighbor. In the past, Russia has had a tendency to shut off gas to Europe, but they did so as a measure to punish Ukraine and Belarus for stealing gas, not to punish Europe or flex its geopolitical muscles in front of NATO. A pipeline that circumvents Eastern Europe may provide unimpeded gas flows to Western Europe. On the other hand, if Russia was not bothered by punishing Belarus for a couple of days at the price of some lost gas revenue, why would it not do the same for the rest of Europe?

From the Russian side of the table, we can deduce that Putin and company have no problem looking to the west for business opportunities, and also that this administration has an interest in reforming its military (which was thoroughly embarrassed after the Georgia war last year). The Mistral class ship that Russia is looking to purchase is designed for the type of power projection that Russia is trying to exercise in its near abroad. There was a very good article in Newsweek published a few days ago that described President Medvedev’s and Prime Minister Putin’s reform of Russia’s bloated military. The reforms under consideration include ending conscription, reducing the number of military personnel, getting ride of the top-heavy command structure (currently, there are 2.5 officers for every enlisted soldier), procuring new equipment such as breathable clothing and night vision goggles for all soldiers, and organizing the army into agile 2,000 soldier brigades rather than divisions of 5,000 troops. Russia has even been showing off a streamlined 5,000 soldier strong regional rapid response force. It has also demonstrated to its highly subsidized military industrial complex that it willing to look overseas to procure modern equipment (aside from the French ship, Russia has also purchased firearms from Austria and Britain, and aerial drones from Israel).

What these events tell me is that (a) Russia has made becoming a regional power with influence in Western Europe a priority, (b) France is ok with that, and (c) France is not really bothered that its actions may irritate the United States and NATO’s Eastern European members (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland have all expressed grievances with Russia). The US has even agreed to provide some military assistance to Georgia. It seems to me that France’s penchant for independence is having some rather profound effects on its neighbors, and its not really paying attention to the security concerns of Eastern Europe.

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