Allons Enfants de la Russie in the Black Sea?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 201

France's Mistral Class Ship

The French government and, apparently, the Élysée Palace are moving fast to sell at least one Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Russia, possibly for deployment in the Black Sea. Such a sale would endow Russia with a modern naval and amphibious warfare capability that Russia currently lacks. The Mistral is by definition a power-projection capability and it can be deployed for intimidating effect on Russia’s maritime neighbors.

Less than two months ago the Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, had announced Moscow’s intention to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France and the license to build several ships of this class in Russia. He also hinted at possible Russian deployment of this capability to meet contingencies in the Black Sea: “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]” (Interfax, September 11, 15).

The Mistral is a state-of-the-art class in the French naval inventory, with only two vessels of this type on active duty thus far and a third under construction. It carries 16 attack and landing helicopters (while allowing the operation of up to 30 on both decks), up to 900 troops, four conventional landing craft (also allowing the operation of two hovercraft), and 40 Leclerc tanks, or alternatively 13 tanks and 40 other vehicles (http://www.netmarine.net/bat/tcd/mistral/histoire01.htm). These are the figures for short-term operations, the only ones relevant to Russia for possible actions in theaters nearby.

According to West European observers (Financial Times, October 13), Russian deployment of a helicopter-carrying ship in the Black Sea would not necessarily violate the 1936 Montreux Convention. While that convention bans aircraft carriers from passing through Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, Russia could argue that a helicopter carrier does not qualify as an aircraft carrier. The interpretation might then depend on Turkey, Russia’s latest “strategic partner” in the Black Sea.

With Russia’s other strategic partner, France, negotiations are proceeding apace over the technical and financial terms of the Mistral sale. As currently envisaged, the first ship and, possibly, a second one would be built in France, to be sold without sophisticated electronics. Two or three additional ships would then be built jointly, under French license in Russia. The French decision is expected to be finalized during the first half of November.

Selling the Mistral without sophisticated electronics would not reassure Russia’s maritime neighbors. Russia would even in that case acquire a potentially threatening capability for power projection, which most of its maritime neighbors could by no means match or offset. The Russian military intends to put Russian Ka-27 and Ka-29 helicopters on the Mistral, if the sale goes ahead (Interfax, October 23; RIA Novosti, October 31).

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has declared in a speech at the École Militaire that partnership with Russia “can take several forms in the defense sphere, from military cooperation to close industrial partnership,” alluding to the Mistral deal (Agence France Presse, October 9). Last year at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Fillon had voiced concerns that membership action plans for Georgia and Ukraine would upset the “balance of power” to the detriment of Russia. Whether delivery of the Mistral would upset the balance of power to the detriment of France’s NATO allies and its partners in the Black Sea or other theaters, however, does not seem to be a consideration for official Paris.

The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin, discussed the Mistral sale during their latest visit to Moscow, where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev received them. Kouchner and Morin joined their Russian counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and Anatoly Serdyukov, in the regular Franco-Russian 2+2 ministerial consultations on foreign and defense policies. At the joint news conference, Morin welcomed Russia’s intention to purchase the Mistral while Kouchner expressed hope that Russia would soon acquire this “great,” “wonderful” class of ships, once the technical and political procedures are completed (Interfax, Ekho Moskvy, October 1).

From the official French standpoint, the Mistral sale to Russia would both express the “strategic partnership” and provide an economic stimulus for the crisis-hit STX France shipyard. The latter would team up with the French DCNS naval shipyards to build the Mistral for Russia. The STX, traditionally known as Chantiers de l’Atlantique, currently two-thirds South Korean-owned and one-third French state owned, badly needs shipbuilding orders to save French jobs. President Nicolas Sarkozy promised this when visiting the shipyard almost one year ago. Apparently, he wants the government to secure a Russian contract (Les Echos, October 7).

Meanwhile, Moscow is alluding to possible deals with the Netherlands or with Spain for helicopter carriers made in those countries. Such hints serve to goad Paris to rush the sale of the Mistral.

Russia’s naval command is now equivocating about the number, possible missions and areas of deployment for the Mistral in Russia. According to Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the First Deputy Chief of the Russian Navy’s Main Staff, Russia may acquire and build up to five ships of this class for possible deployment anywhere from the Northern or Pacific Fleets to Somalia. The Russian shipyards in Severodvinsk or in St. Petersburg could build these ships under French license (RIA Novosti, Ekho Moskvy, Zvezda TV, October 31).

French authorities ignore warnings such as that of Sorbonne professor Francoise Thom: “Is it wise to arm a country that has just dismembered a neighboring state, Georgia, and no longer conceals its intentions to restore, by force if necessary, its hegemony in the ex-Soviet space? Is France, in the name of its ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia, closing its eyes to Russian preparations for future wars of aggression, which will become possible once Russia’s military reform, launched in September 2008, will have borne fruit? We must not be deluded into selling offensive armaments to Russia” (Le Monde, October 7).

In Brussels, an unidentified “senior figure at NATO Headquarters” sees no problem there: “This is a legal and bilateral issue between France and Russia and there has been no discussion about it at NATO” (Financial Times, October 13). If this is indeed the case, it would only reflect the deterioration in the quality of consultation processes there since August. Candid discussion of this issue there could be one way to restore that quality.