EU arms embargo on Russia will make little impact if France can still sell Putin warships

You’re selling him WHAT?! EPA/Christophe Ena

The Council of the EU is currently struggling over whether to impose an arms embargo on Russia as punishment for its role in destabilising Ukraine. Several governments in the EU, including the UK, have already announced that they are denying arms export licences for Russia and revoking those that have previously been granted.

Also in place is a Council Common Position that governs exports of military technology and equipment. This already obliges EU member states to deny arms export licences if there are concerns about the recipient’s respect for international humanitarian and human rights law or non-proliferation – or if they are involved in internal, regional or international conflict and tensions.

Arms embargoes are a vital part of the EU’s “smart sanctions” toolbox, with 22 currently in force. They have no negative humanitarian impact and are usually deployed to restrict arms flows and change target behaviour, and send political signals. The targets of EU arms embargoes tend not to be significant importers of EU-produced arms.

Russia plans to spend more than $700 billion on military equipment in the decade to 2020, and its domestic arms industry will be the main beneficiary of these plans. However, under former Russian defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov (2007-2012), licensed production agreements were struck with EU arms producers for armoured vehicles, helicopters and small arms, as well as parts and components for Russian systems.

Anti-Mistral deal protesters in Kiev. EPA/Roman Pilipey

This means Russia’s garguantuan €1.1 billion order for two Mistral amphibious assault ships from France is on a very different scale from other deals. It dwarfs Rheinmetall’s €120m contract to build a military training centre in Mulino, a deal suspended earlier in 2014 in response to the Crimean crisis.

Opening the books

EU member states are among the most open in the world when it comes to providing information on arms exports; they annually report on their deliveries of major conventional weapons to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. That register reveals that during 2008-2012, most of the EU’s arms exports to Russia were destined for a museum or destruction.

EU member states are also obliged to provide annual data on the value of all arms export licences issued and deliveries made, broken down by destination and categories of military equipment. This data is presented in a publicly-available EU annual report on arms exports.

But while all states provide information on licences issued, major exporters such as Germany and the UK do not provide information on their deliveries.

Here’s what we do know: during 2008-2012, EU member states issued export licences worth €925m for Russia, representing just 0.5% of the total value of all export licences issued. France accounted for more than a third of this value, issuing licenses worth €382.5m during this period and delivering €131m worth of military equipment.

Most EU member states provide information in annual reports that appear before the publication of the EU annual report. For its part, the UK has an online database that provides additional information, including descriptions of the items. In addition, the UK’s active and inquisitive parliamentary Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), provide oversight of these decisions. They have been closely scrutinising the UK’s exports to Russia of late.

For example, on July 23 2013, the CAEC’s Sir John Stanley asked the UK’s prime minister and foreign minister to confirm whether the UK has suspended all 285 licences issued for exports of military equipment and dual-use items for Russia, in line with a government statement made in the spring.

Embargo could damage EU

Russia is a limited market for complete weapons systems produced in the EU. Since the dismissal of Serdyukov, Vladimir Putin has spoken of greater arms production cooperation among the BRICS, not with the EU. Dmitriy Rogozin, the deputy prime minister, has already made it clear that he regards an EU arms embargo as having a greater impact on France than Russia.

A leaked European Commission sanctions memo indicates that an EU arms embargo might exempt contracts already concluded with Russia – in particular the French Mistral deal. That would mean France could deliver the first Mistral to Russia this year, in accordance with its contractual obligations. That the deal was authorised in the aftermath of Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia showed the depth of EU divisions over Russia.

Allowing France to complete such a vast arms deal at this deeply sensitive time will reinforce the view that EU arms embargoes are tokenistic measures, staged to give the impression of “doing something” – as long as it does not significantly damage the interests of the EU’s largest members.

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