Why the double standard on French and Israeli arms sales to Russia?
Remember when France started discussing the possibility of selling its Mistral helicopter carrier ships to Russia? Georgia and its defenders in the West flipped out. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that if Russia "gets tanks, ships, missiles—technology which he's also shopping for—then we are getting into a very, very risky zone."
And several American senators officially complained to France. Reported The Cable at the time:
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put forward a bill calling on the Obama administration to try to stop the potential sale. The Russians are in violation of the agreement struck after last year's Georgian war, the bill asserts, along with several other concerns.
Now, as expected, senators are weighing in. Six senators, all from the GOP, have signed a letter to French Amb. H.E. Pierre Vimont outlining their concerns with the sale.
"Such a sale would be the most significant military sale ever between a NATO member country and Russia, and we believe it would have significant implications for all NATO members," the letter reads.
The signees were Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, Tom Coburn, R-OK, Roger Wicker, R-MS, Sam Brownback, R-KS, and James Risch, R-ID.
The letter points disapprovingly to comments by Russian Navy Commander Adm. Vladimir Vysotskiy, who said in September: "In the conflict in August last year [against Georgia], a ship like that would have allowed [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours which is how long it took us [to land the troops ashore]."
And that was only over the potential of a sale (which still hasn't happened yet). Contrast that with the reaction when Russia actually signed, earlier this month, a $400 million deal for unmanned drone aircraft, which Pavel Felgenhauer called "the biggest defense technology transfer deal between Russia and a Western nation since 1945."
The number one lesson that Russia learned after its war with Georgia was that it needed better UAVs:
Defense experts say Russia found itself painfully lacking drones during last August's military thrust into southern neighboring Georgia, while the Georgian side made wide use of such Israeli devices, including in an attack that seriously wounded Russia's commander in the Caucasus, General Anatoly Khrulev. "The Russian army found itself working practically blind," Kommersant claimed.
So it's a bit surprising that there has been pretty much no reaction to the Israeli sale either from Tbilisi or Washington. But there is a different explanation on this silence from each side.
In the U.S., many of Georgia's "defenders" are motivated primarily by a distrust of Russia, and use Georgia as a tool to wield against Russia. These tend to be political conservatives, who also tend to be strong supporters of Israel. So they're obviously less inclined to call out Israel than they are France (which, remember, just a few years ago was subjected to the wrath of the "freedom fries" era).
In Georgia, it's somewhat more subtle. A Georgian source I asked about this explained that Georgia's leaders understand that even without Mistrals or UAVs, Russia's military is so much stronger than Georgia's that such sales don't really matter much to the balance of power. So their objection to the French Mistral sale was more a worry that NATO was forsaking Georgia. (Georgia also didn't publicly complain when Israel imposed a de facto arms embargo against them.)
So none of this is too shocking, but the double standard should be kept in mind when we hear someone complaining about the perfidy of France in daring to sell high-tech weapons to Georgia.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.