France's Mighty Mistrals to Russia: Why One Is Enough

With Ukraine creating tensions between the West and Russia, it might be wise to scale back France's sale of advanced naval vessels.

Editor’s Note: Please take a look at this author’s recent TNI article Russia’s Navy Rising.

Russia’s purchase from France of two Mistral Class amphibious ships in 2011—its first ever acquisition of a major weapons system from a member of NATO—was met with loud choruses of both jeers and cheers by Western political leaders and security analysts. Some believed Russia would use the new ships to threaten its European neighbors, while others thought they would help promote greater Russia-NATO cooperation and global security. Recent events in Ukraine demonstrate those leery of Russian intentions were right to be concerned. While France is planning to deliver the first ship to Russia this fall, Western nations should ensure that the second Mistral remains in non-Russian hands.

Naval analysts classify Mistral as an amphibious transport dock (LPD), suggesting that it can deliver payloads ashore from the air or the sea. Its large flight deck is designed to be populated by an air group of sixteen multipurpose helicopters. While these helicopters would normally carry troops ashore, they could also specialize in airborne surveillance, surface or even antisubmarine warfare. The flight deck supports an array of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while the large flooded well deck can launch hovercraft or landing barges capable of ferrying scores of tanks or armored vehicles ashore in addition to several hundred Russian Naval Infantry.

On the other hand, the French vessel also has a formidable floating hospital with several emergency operating rooms and berthing spaces so spacious and plush, they are compared by Russian sailors to living in a dacha. Mistral’s communications suite is similarly impressive. These features make it the perfect vehicle to provide humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and noncombatant evacuations from distressed areas. Simply stated, these ships can do an enormous amount of either bad or good.

The most immediate oppositional response to the purchase came from nations on seacoasts close to Russia. Poland and all the Baltic states made it no secret that they felt threatened by this move. These countries remembered Admiral Vysotsky’s (Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief) comment that Mistral’s capabilities would have enabled his forces to destroy the Georgian Navy and occupy the Black Sea littoral in just forty minutes, rather than the twenty-six hours it actually took in 2008.

Some Western powers, dismissive of Cold War’s power politics, offered a more sanguine assessment. France, supported by Germany, initially touted the deal as a positive development that would enhance Russia’s status as a Western security partner—NATO’s official position in 2011. The ship would enable Russia to expand its participation in international maritime security operations against piracy and be available for disaster-relief operations. Defense contractors in Europe and the United States also noted the improved prospects for armaments trade with a new Russian market, flush with petrodollars. Further, the French painted Mistral as a mere hull, which could be stripped of all sensitive technologies before export. Again, this ship could either threaten or cooperate with NATO, which added fuel to the schizophrenic fire.

Ultimately, Russia and France settled on a deal that would deliver two 21,300 ton Mistrals a year apart, along with plans that would enable Russian shipbuilders to manufacture two more. At a total cost of 1.3bn Euros ($1.6bn), this would constitute Russia’s largest armament import since the end of the Cold War.

My assessment is that at the time of purchase, while discomfiting to many in NATO, the move did not present a direct threat to Europe. It was better understood as a reflection of Russia’s technological insecurity and incompetence coupled with a newly expanded defense-procurement budget.

When Putin returned to the presidency in 2008, he vowed to rebuild the Russian military, with a particular emphasis on restoring and reenergizing the Russian navy—which had shrunk to a shadow of its former self since the fall of the Soviet Union. Not only had the fleet shrunk, but Russia had also lost much of its capacity to build large ships, and was neither willing, nor able to commit to any project entailing large capital ships. Despite rhetorical boasts which continue until this day (Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that Russia can build its own Mistrals if France fails to deliver), the Russian leadership knew that it would either forgo capital naval ships or buy them elsewhere.

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