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Rep. Jim Bridenstine: Imminent Sale of French Warships to Russia Lets 'Evil Triumph'

Rep. Jim Bridenstine: Imminent Sale of French Warships to Russia Lets 'Evil Triumph'

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So said the great British politician and philosopher, Edmund Burke. Someone should translate Burke’s warning into French – before France sells Russia sophisticated warships. 

While Iraq dominates headlines, U.S. policymakers should not lose focus on Ukraine. Russia continues to occupy Crimea and threaten stability in eastern Ukraine. On June 16, Russia cut off natural gas deliveries to Ukraine, increasing economic pressure on the Ukrainian government. Led by the United States, most European Union and NATO member states have enacted visa bans, asset seizures, and sanctions on high-ranking individuals in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. These sanctions represent a serious show of Western solidarity, considering that Russia remains a huge trading partner and energy supplier for Europe. Despite close economic and energy ties, our European allies and partners have done something to check Putin’s insatiable territorial ambitions. 

However, one EU/NATO member has not gotten the message: France. Later this month, 400 Russian sailors will arrive in France to conduct military training aboard new sophisticated warships bound for Moscow. In 2011, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France permitted Russia to purchase two Mistral-class amphibious warships. The deal is worth $1.7 billion for France and employs about one thousand ship workers. 

Amphibious ships (known as “amphibs” in the business) land and support ground forces during an amphibious assault. Amphibs have one purpose: support large-scale combined arms invasions by moving infantry, armor, helicopters, and equipment from “ship-to-shore.” Each Mistral-class ship can carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks, and 700 soldiers. Russian military expert, Stephen Blank, noted, “Russia has nothing like it, and without French help could not build it anytime soon.” A top State Department aide, John Bass, summed up the problem with the France-Russia deal: the Mistral-class is “the wrong ship from the wrong country at the wrong time.” 

It gets worse. Russia plans to deploy one Mistral to the Black Sea region. How does Paris think Putin will use his beefed-up Black Sea fleet? According to Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, Russia’s military leadership has provided the answer. Sikorski asserted, “Russian generals have already said what these ships will be used for: to threaten Russia’s neighbors in the Black Sea, and that means Europe’s partners.” 

The United States has protested to France since the deal’s inception and well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Paris has consistently blown off U.S. objections. For Paris, it seems that Russian rubles trump solidarity with allies. I cannot say that I’m surprised. As a Navy pilot flying combat in Iraq, I watched as France abandoned the Operation Southern Watch mission to enforce the southern no-fly zone in 1998. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Saddam’s troops shot at my fellow airmen using advanced French anti-aircraft systems.

In responding to U.S. concerns, France has demonstrated a remarkable lack of flexibility. Four senior congressmen, led by Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), wrote to NATO’s secretary general urging NATO to consider purchasing or leasing the ships to relieve the French of losing the sale. NATO operates a fleet of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft with multinational aircrews, and participating allies share the cost of the AWACS mission. A similar construct could work for the two French amphibs. A rotating presence of U.S. destroyers currently patrols the Black Sea to deter further Russian adventures. That deterrence and reassurance mission could be broadened to include other allies if NATO leased the French amphibs and conducted NATO Response Force exercises in the Black Sea. There are plenty of ways NATO could employ advanced warships without selling them to Russia.

Ultimately, every military alliance like NATO requires solidarity among its members. Solidarity means that members must occasionally forgo material benefit for the common good. Those unwilling to make necessary sacrifices should face punitive consequences as a reminder of their obligations. That’s why I will introduce an amendment to the FY15 Defense Appropriations bill this week to cut off U.S. military cooperation to any nation that is selling Russia advanced weapons. All of our allies must do something, rather than watch evil triumph in Eastern Europe.

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