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.

Thus, they chose a willing dance partner—France—and the Mistral deal was done in 2011. The discussion surrounding their ultimate roles, missions and home porting was at times both confusing and comical. “Now what do I do with this toy?”, the Russians were likely thinking after the deal was inked. Admiral Vysotsky’s previous comments were probably no more than rationale for his service staking claim to a larger portion of the growing defense-procurement budget. In 2011, I would evaluate Russian intentions as either confused or benign and its capabilities deficient. Little reason to worry.

This has changed dramatically with the onset of the Ukrainian crisis and the growth of the Russian military, driven by President Putin’s domestically popular call to increase Russian power, prestige and military presence around the world. His lightning annexation of Crimea and subsequent justification speech to the Russian Duma got the world’s attention in that he refused any type of partnership with the “perfidious” West. Putin and other Russian leaders unabashedly accused the West of interfering in its sphere of influence and dishonorably breaking a string of post–Cold War agreements and commitments.

At the same time, European and American leadership were issuing warnings to the Kremlin about interference in Ukraine, 400 Russian sailors arrived at the French STX shipyard in Saint Nazaire to take control of the first ship, Vladivostok. The French concluded that despite Russia’s military endeavors, the ship would be delivered this fall, as previously planned. France noted that the agreement between the two nations is a business contract which cannot be abrogated at this point.

The second ship, Sevastopol, will be ready to deliver in 2015, and President Hollande appears willing to take global opinion into account in deciding whether or not to deliver the vessel to Russia.

Speculation about the ships’ ultimate homeports, which had been ongoing for years, seems to have ended. It now appears that they will land in their namesake cities after appropriate infrastructure to berth and support them has been built. Ukraine (as well as Japan), in addition to all other Black Sea nations, took special note. Sevastopol would thus be the likely candidate to become the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet and in this capacity to act as command center for any Russian naval operation—to include amphibious assault—in the region. Additionally, she would be well positioned to serve as a command ship for the recently revived Russian permanent task force in the Mediterranean Sea. With Putin’s hardline comments still reverberating, there is little reason to believe that Mistral’s principal missions will be in support of international maritime security.

Western security experts have floated numerous logical proposals to steer these vessels to friendlier destinations. These include subsidized purchases by the European Union (under the European Defense Agency), NATO, France, Poland and even the United Kingdom. However, the billion-dollar bottom line made all these ideas unworkable until not long ago.

Putin’s actions may ultimately dictate whether or not France delivers the second ship (I assume that Vladivostok is essentially Russian property). His positioning of troops on the Ukrainian border continues to rankle Western leadership and is helping to build pressure on the Hollande administration to withhold delivery. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would likely push the West past its breaking point. However, the American-led West would be right not to cede this initiative to Russia.

Russia continues to increase its annual defense budget—rivaling that of China—despite the great pressure this places on the Russian economy. Its shipbuilding industry is finally delivering frigates and submarines to the Russian Navy. The addition of large amphibious ships may have seemed innocuous even a year ago, but the unpredictability and irrationality with which Putin played his hand in Ukraine suggests a need for worst-case analysis. His curt reply to French reporters that “I can assure you that if we buy something, we will use it wherever we want” should be reason enough to find a way to thwart the delivery of the second ship.

The upward ratcheting of sanctions should include a plan for some Western institution or nation to take ownership of Sevastopol, and for France to be duly compensated. A recent Economist editorial mirrors this conclusion: “The world needs to face the danger Mr. Putin poses. If it does not stand up to him today, worse will follow.”

 Tom Fedyszyn is the Director of the Europe-Russia Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport R.I.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Toulon/CC by 2.0