Last week, Lithuanian politicians were paying great attention to the French government’s decision to sell Mistral-class warships to Russia. On Monday, the Minister of National Defence, Rasa Juknevičienė, met with the French ambassador and expressed her repeated criticism over the Mistral sale to Russia that was, purportedly, premature, Lietuvos zinios daily reported on 23 January.
Having voiced her concerns regarding the sale, the Chairman of Seimas, Irena Degutienė, suggested involving as many Nordic and Baltic parliamentary committees on foreign affairs and defence as possible in discussing the Mistral sale. She presented her suggestion to Per Westenberg, Head of the Swedish Parliament, who was visiting Lithuania at the time. Mr. Westenberg noted that consultations on this particular issue as well as on other security matters could be held at least several times a year. However, the resolution openly to negotiate such matters does not mean that Sweden approves of the Lithuanian position. Mr. Westenberg urged on examining other issues, such as securing energy resources and strengthening energy independence, thus implying, perhaps, that these issues were more important.
Likewise, the respective Seimas committees kept pace. On Wednesday, both the Committee on National Defence and Security (CNDS) and the Committee on Foreign Affairs offered recommendations to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defence on how to prevent similar sales in the future. As it was a secret session, it remains unknown what the specific offers were. Still, it is hardly probable that members of the committees and a handful of their advisers would have come up with something ‘extraordinary’.
Yet the person who mainly determines the course of Lithuanian foreign policy has kept silent. President Dalia Grybauskaitė noted that the transaction was concluded, and Lithuania now has concrete plans for defensibility, so it is safer than before.
Many of NATO countries – not just Lithuania – are displeased with the Mistral sale. Certain documents published by WikiLeaks show that in February last year, the US Minister of Defence Robert Gates insistently encouraged the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Hervé Morin to reconsider the upcoming transaction, and that his instigations were rejected with the same level of resolution. France had no intention to concede. It made a sovereign decision. Moreover, Russia, purportedly, posed no harm to NATO countries, so selling the ships would not infringe allies’ interests, and it would allow France to create new jobs and sustaining military industry (which is beneficial to NATO, in general). Presumably, no one would get harmed, and France would gain. Last summer, the French ambassador in Estonia even went on to say that selling arms would symbolise an end to the Cold War.
I am not sure what Lithuanian politicians are trying to achieve by this belated attention to the Mistral sale. The warships are already sold, and the transaction will not be rescinded. If Paris has withstood pressure from Washington, it will also discount the concerns raised by Vilnius.
Arvydas Anušauskas, the Chairman of CNDS, noted that there was a “lack of regulatory mechanisms that would allow neutralising negative outcomes due to uncontrolled export”. Hopefully, there will now be an attempt to develop mechanisms that would prevent such transactions in the future. This would be a respectable, but a quixotic aspiration. Arms-exporting countries, such as the USA, France and Great Britain, will not accept any constraining regulations – especially today, when the world is fighting unemployment, when defence budgets are being reduced and export is becoming an increasingly important source of income for military industry. Major NATO resolutions need to be supported by all of its members, and the bigger countries will oppose any limitations to their sovereignty. It should also be noted that according to NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, France was within its rights to make the decision on selling the ships. Hence, it is not only the larger states that find it unnecessary to apply any stricter rules.
There are other possibilities, too. It has long been discussed that Lithuania should harmonise its position with that of other countries; it should gain their support to make its voice weightier. Maybe now words will finally turn into actions, especially when the Baltic and Nordic countries are natural partners for Lithuania. The idea of consulting our neighbours is surely welcome, but the Mistral sale is not an optimal case – not only because it is after the fact. Sweden and Finland do not belong to NATO, and Norway is energetically improving its relationship with Russia, especially following the visit by the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, when he made unexpected and significant concessions and signed the Agreement on the Border in the Arctic Ocean.
Perhaps the prominence I give to Mr. Westerberg’s suggestion of securing energetic resources and to strengthen energetic independence is gratuitous, seeing it as an impetus to pay greater attention to realistic, and not symbolic, questions and issues that Lithuania has solid means to resolve; and such issues are numerous. On Wednesday, Mr. Anušauskas personally declared that the neighbouring states were seeking to form a Lithuanian information space, which affects life within the country, as well as politicians and the media. Scandinavian countries are not indifferent to this matter, and Scandinavian companies have actually invested in the Baltic media. It is a much more appropriate topic for consultations and cooperation than ‘lamenting’ about Mistral.
The actions of Lithuanian politicians will not go unnoticed either in France or in Russia. I am certain that President Nicolas Sarkozy has not yet forgotten the disappointment expressed by the then President Valdas Adamkus regarding the French stance towards the conflict between Georgia and Russia. France, professedly, failed to take a strong and clear position, “it did not take either side”. The hawks in Kremlin will surely suggest that agiotage about Mistral shows Lithuanian insincerity and unwillingness to improve the relationship, so they will promote countermeasures. However, any major after-effects are not likely. The more pugnacious talks will be counterbalanced by the President’s silence. Little regard is given to statements made by the Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, because everybody understands that it is Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and not Mr. Rogozin, who determine the politics of Russia.