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As the West fails the test of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, one nation can step in to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and at the same time bolster its own defenses-Japan. Tokyo should work out a way to buy the Mistral-class amphibious attack ships that France has agreed to sell to Russia. That would relieve Paris of an embarrassing agreement and also help fulfill Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to upgrade Japan’s maritime defenses.
Back in 2009, before Ukraine but after Russia invaded Georgia, Paris and Moscow concluded a deal to sell up to four of the helicopter-carrying ships in a deal worth more than $1.5 billion dollars. Since then, as Russia’s aggressions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have consumed Western capitals, Paris has been at pains to uphold the deal. The French position, of course, encapsulates much of the Western confusion over how to deal with Mr. Putin’s aggression. Only in the last week, in response to the destruction of MH17, has the West enacted more robust sanctions to show its displeasure with Mr. Putin.
Since the atrocity in the skies over Ukraine, the danger of Russian aggression has become clear to the world. Yet still European leaders are hamstrung by their military weaknesses while President Barack Obama has done almost everything possible to avoid confrontation with Mr. Putin. The West’s inaction has helped Moscow steadily achieve its strategic goals.
One way to punish Vladimir Putin is to cut off Russia’s access to the global arms market. Russia is the world’s second largest arms dealer, after the United States, having sold $5.6 billion worth of military equipment so far through 2014. Western capitals should be putting as much pressure as possible on sellers to stop Moscow’s naval buildup.
Numerous reports over the past several years have indicated that Moscow might send the Mistrals to the Far East. While much of this buildup is ostensibly aimed at protecting the Russian-held Kurile Islands from a mythical Japanese threat, the real aim would be to maintain Russian strength in northeast Asian waterways in light of China’s continuing naval and air forces modernization.
Here is where some creative diplomacy could shake things up in Europe and Asia. If Paris and Tokyo came to an agreement for Japan to purchase the two Mistral ships currently planned for delivery to Moscow, it would send a message to Mr. Putin that his actions have consequences. It would also serve to limit Russia’s ongoing military buildup and give teeth to a recently-announced European Union arms embargo. It would also put the Champs-Elysees on the right side of the moral issue of opposing aggression.
A Japanese move to buy the ships would test France’s commitment to keeping the peace in Europe. If the sale is all about jobs, then Japanese yen are just as good as Russian rubles. Perhaps a weakened West just needs some options in order to do what it knows is in its best interests.
For Tokyo, purchase of the Mistrals would give it two advanced amphibious assault ships that could be used to ferry troops or carry helicopters to provide cover to threatened islands. It would complement its two large Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, one of which was launched last year. Adding the Mistrals to the mix would give Tokyo the ability to protect both the contested Senkaku Islands in the southern East China Sea, as well as to maintain a significant presence in northern waters. This one move would strengthen Japan’s ability to remain credible in light of both Russia’s and China’s military buildup.
From a diplomatic perspective, offering to cut France’s Gordian Knot over the Mistrals would be ample evidence that Mr. Abe is a leading global player committed to maintaining the liberal international order that is under assault the world over. Moral outrage is not enough to stem the weakening of global order; nations must be willing to take responsibility for defending it.
Mr. Abe may not be willing to risk worsening relations with Russia over the Mistrals. Yet, he could soften the blow by offering a fuller set of discussions on the Kuriles (what Tokyo calls the Northern Territories). Both Moscow and Tokyo fear growing Chinese presence in Asian waters, and Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin can discuss ways of protecting vital sea lanes from any future Chinese machinations. From that perspective, the Mistrals could wind up serving the purpose Mr. Putin has in mind for them, just under different flags.
There are risks for Mr. Abe in getting directly involved in Europe’s squabbles, yet there is also much to be gained. Mr. Putin, no matter his rhetoric, is wary of depending too much on China for support, and understands Japan is no real threat to Russian interests. A consummate realist, he may well decide to look the other way, while also removing a potential irritant to Russo-Japanese relations. Both Europe and Asia would benefit.
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