Mistral merely a thank-you?
June 21 is the deadline by which Moscow and Paris are to sign a contract for Russia to purchase at least two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, following an agreement reached by presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy at the G8 summit in Deauville. The media report that the deal will be concluded during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to Paris in the second half of June.
The speculation surrounding the French assault ships seems to have finally been settled. Yet the Russian expert community is still hotly debating why Russia needs the Mistral at all, and, so far, no one has a clear answer. The admirals of the Russian Navy have kept as conspicuously silent as the political leadership. But why?
Perhaps one answer is that a Mistral-class vessel does not fit into the structure and missions of the Russian Navy. A French amphibious vessel is designed above all for expeditions and landing operations, including peacekeeping missions in places such as Africa – in Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, or any other former French “overseas territory.” Russia’s military doctrine provides for no such expeditions. Its navy is tasked to protect the coastline, the country’s maritime economic zones, and sea and ocean lanes – not land forces on foreign soil. And, besides, where would Russia land them? General of the Army Vladimir Popovkin, a former deputy defense minister (who now heads the Roskosmos space agency), said that the Mistral ships would be based in the Pacific to guard the Kuril Islands. But in that area, Russia has no immediate neighbors besides Japan, China, the Koreas, and Vietnam. Will Russia send landing parties to Hokkaido or Incheon? It is absurd to even consider.
There are other questions that remain unanswered. For instance, in which other operations could a helicopter carrier be used? The Mistral is so poorly armed that it is not even fit to protect Russia’s own coasts. Its anti-aircraft guns and missile systems have a short range and will need to be replaced, which is a costly re-design and assembly job. What is more, due to their size, Russian-built rotary wing aircraft do not stow into the ship’s helicopter hangar, which means that the deck will have to be raised. But that means additional design work and additional financial costs. Besides, the hull of the vessel is designed for warm seas and will have to be adapted to survive in the cold waters of the northern Pacific. If such a decision is made, its hull would have to undergo further costly improvements and be ice-strengthened to operate in Russia’s northern seas.
The ship also has some other features that make it poorly suited for operations in the seas where it is likely to roam. All that goes without mention of the fact that a special base system will need to be created in order to serve the unique needs of the Mistral and avoid the previous fate of the Soviet Minsk and Leningrad helicopter carriers, which spent most their lives moored to buoys. There are also issues of maintenance and spare parts. Who will pay for them and which companies (French or Russian) will supply them? Experts say that it is easier to design and build a new ship than to re-engineer and upgrade a Mistral-type vessel – an entirely new project would in fact be cheaper.
Mistral-class craft have one strong point, however, which deserves mention for fairness’ sake. It is its command and control system – both that of the ship itself and of the intermodal task force it might lead on a distant cruise mission. This system (whether or not it is handed over to Russia, and whether or not a license for it is sold) has been the subject of debate between Russian and French negotiators for a second year now. Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces and General of the Army Nikolai Makarov insists that Russia does not need the ships without this system. NATO headquarters is trying to persuade Paris to drop it from the contract in order to keep it unique to the alliance. Sources close to the negotiators have issued contradictory statements as to in which form and with which restrictions it can be sold to Russia if at all.
When considering the Mistral contact, one cannot help recalling the Ukrainian saying: “The woman had no worries, so she bought herself a sow.”
It is clear that Moscow’s purchase of the Mistral is a gesture of gratitude from the Russian president to the president of France for help in settling the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian armed conflicts in August 2008, in which Russia became involved against its will and as a result of which serious repercussions are still felt. It also represents a show of support for Nicolas Sarkozy in the next elections. A billion Euros may not be a great sum for the purpose. But in this case the true reasons for the contract should be made open and clear, rather than masked in statements that “Russia is acquiring modern ships that will serve its interests.”
Russia, too, is able to build modern ships. The missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky is evidence enough of that. But one should go about it in a consistent and statesmanlike manner, not simply from time to time.
Viktor Litovkin is Executive Editor, Independent Military Review.