France Offers Russia a Naval Power Projection Capability

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 221

Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin with his French counterpart Francois Fillon

The Mistral-class helicopter carrier, several of which France offers to sell and license to Russia, is the most modern French warship class. At 24,000 tons it is second only to the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in size. The first Mistral-class warship entered service in 2006. The French Navy currently has two Mistral-class ships in operation and is building a third.

This warship is by definition a power-projection capability. The proposed sale, even without the most sophisticated technology, would endow Russia with a modern naval and amphibious warfare capability that Russia currently lacks. In Russian hands, the Mistral can be deployed for intimidating effect on Russia’s maritime neighbors in the Black Sea, Baltic Sea, or elsewhere.

The Mistral carries 16 attack and landing helicopters (while allowing the operation of up to 30 on both decks), 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 ( These are the figures for short-term operations, which are primarily relevant to Russia for possible actions in theaters nearby (EDM, September 18, November 2).

Stunning to Russian onlookers and sailors during its just-completed St. Petersburg visit (Interfax, November 23-27), the Mistral also boasts two-bunk cabins for the lower ranks, a large sports gym, and a 70-bed hospital. The ship costs an estimated 500 million Euros ($750 million) without helicopters, tanks, and the most advanced electronics.

Russia has asked to buy at least one Mistral-class ship without helicopters and tanks, which it can itself provide. The Russian military intends to put Ka-27 and Ka-29 helicopters on the Mistral, if the sale goes ahead (Interfax, October 23; RIA Novosti, October 31). Furthermore, the Russians propose to build three Mistral “copies” under French license in Russia. Once a first ship is sold to Russia, however, the French government would like to retain as much as possible of the construction work on follow-up copy ships at French national shipyards (AFP, Le Figaro, November 26, 27).

This would be the first-ever major sale of offensive military capability by a NATO and EU member country to Russia. The French government is circumventing NATO and EU coordination and consultation procedures. It also ignores the OSCE-approved Code of Conduct on arms exports, which stipulates restraints on military equipment sales that could be used for aggression or contribute to instability.

By promoting the Mistral sale, France turns a blind eye to: Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, including the Russian naval operation and landing; the [President Dmitry] “Medvedev doctrine” on protecting arbitrarily defined “compatriots” beyond Russia’s borders, including their military “protection;” Medvedev’s decree (approved by the Duma) authorizing the president to order immediate military operations beyond Russia’s borders, in a wide variety of circumstances; Russia’s September 2009 massive, offensively-oriented military exercises near the Baltic States and Poland; and Russia’s October 2009 revisions to the draft military doctrine, now authorizing preventive military operations against neighboring and other countries.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to preserve jobs and production lines at chronically ailing, now also crisis-hit French shipyards. Prime Minister Francois Fillon is promoting the Mistral sale to Russia for that reason as well as to advance a purported grand strategy (see article above).

Hosting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in late November in Paris, Fillon declared at the concluding news conference, “We are examining the Russian government’s official request” to buy the Mistral. The Russians, however, are not only willing but also patient in bargaining over the terms. Putin declared at the same news conference that Russia has “not made a decision;” and other Russian officials also suggest that Moscow is not rushing to sign the contract, but rather waiting out for better terms from the French (Le Monde, November 28, 30).

Those terms would include not only the financial transaction but also restrictions on the armaments and sophisticated technology to go with the ship to Russia; as well as some political understanding on where the Russians would or would not deploy the Mistral. Putin’s bristling news-conference remark that Russia “would use the warships wherever they would be needed” (Interfax, Agence France Presse, November 27) suggests that Russia wants a free hand on where to deploy the Mistral. Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, accompanying Putin in Paris, declared that France is not setting any conditions in that regard (Interfax, November 27).

The Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, unwittingly embarrassed Moscow with his argument for the Mistral purchase: “In the conflict in August last year [against Georgia], a ship like that would have allowed the [Russian] 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).

Following that widely-quoted statement, Russian officials have scrambled to suggest more innocuous-sounding missions, including humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, and anti-piracy, in theaters ranging from the Baltic, Black Sea, and Barents Sea to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. To operate in an Arctic environment, or in the iced-over Gulf of Finland in winter, the Mistral’s hull would have to be reinforced.

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, in Paris during Putin’s visit, warned that Russia could deploy the Mistral in the Black Sea, to threaten Georgia or to pressure Ukraine in the Crimea (Civil Georgia, November 27; Le Monde, November 30).

The three Baltic States are also concerned over a possible Russian Mistral deployment. According to senior defense officials in the three states, this would seriously affect the balance of military capabilities in the Baltic Sea, with Russian forces clearly gaining additional strength in terms of speed and range. This would necessitate building up coastal defense capabilities and revising national defense plans accordingly The Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian foreign ministries are asking France for more factual information on the proposed deal and its implications (BNS, November 24, 25, 27, 28, 30).

Disconcertingly, NATO does not seem prepared at this stage to treat the Mistral affair as an issue for the Alliance. The United States is not being heard from either. Consequently, some officials in the Baltic States would fall back on referring the matter to the European Union’s authority on trade in strategic goods.

Two misconceptions seem occasionally to affect the debate. One of these holds that the Mistral sale to Russia would be acceptable, provided that the armaments and most sophisticated electronics are not delivered with the ship(s). This, however, would not significantly diminish the impact on Russia’s neighbors in the Black and Baltic seas. Russia would still gain a modern, fast and powerful platform for landing operations, putting Russia’s own helicopters and tanks on the highly modulable Mistral ships.

The other misconception holds that Russia’s own shipbuilding and military industries could successfully lobby against the French deal and for Russian industry to receive the procurement order. This could result in a less capable Russian warship class, delays, or outright failure. In fact, differences seem narrow and reconcilable between Russian proponents and critics of the French deal. Active proponents such as Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov, and the Naval Command are convinced that Russian defense industry cannot build a warship even remotely comparable to the Mistral. These proponents would buy one Mistral ship and task Russian shipyards and industry with building the licensed copies. This would involve French technology transfers to help modernize Russia’s own naval construction industry (Izvestiya, November 24, 25).

Such a solution should presumably satisfy Russian industrial interests. Officials, such as Sechin, who suggest that Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK) could build a Mistral equivalent (Interfax, November 27) are clearly using this argument as a bargaining tactic vis-à-vis the French.