France’s Sale of the Mistral to Russia: The Challenge to NATO’s Transatlantic Partners


Following two years of negotiations, France and Russia have at last signed a contract finalizing the sale of two French Mistral-class amphibious-assault, helicopter-carrier ships to the Russian Navy for $1.7 billion. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev oversaw the signing ceremony on June 17, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The two vessels will be constructed in France, employing 1,000 French shipyard workers, with some minor hull work being subcontracted to a Russian shipyard. Assuming the contract comes into force on schedule, France will deliver the first completed Mistral to Russia in 2014 and the second in 2015. According to a Russian official, the Mistrals will be equipped with the latest Senit-9 electronics equipment. The signed contract allows Moscow to further negotiate a second contract for two more Mistral vessels, which will be built in Russia under French licenses.

The deal has been praised by French officials as an instrument for strengthening Russian and NATO relations. Yet, the more likely goal for the French government was to preserve domestic manufacturing jobs ahead of the presidential elections. Indeed, the acquisition of these advanced Mistrals by the Russian Navy is likely to contribute to regional instability wherever they will be deployed, and further undermine the security of France’s eastern NATO allies and partners. Neither US President Barack Obama nor his top administration officials, however, have spoken out resolutely against the sale.

Upon signing the deal, the Russian side announced it would deploy its two future Mistrals to the Far East fleet. By their technical nature and specifications, however, the Mistrals will be much more likely to be used by Russia in the Baltic and Black Seas, where they can operate close to the coast and in joint, supportive coordination with land forces. The Mistral is, by definition, a power-projection platform, which is most effective against small countries with weakly-defended, long coastlines and no significant air power. As such, the Baltic States and Georgia would be particularly threatened if Russia deployed Mistrals with the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, giving Moscow the capability to attack simultaneously from a land border and the sea. Thus, by allowing this Franco-Russian sale to go through, NATO will now have to restructure and bolster the credibility of its defense of the Baltic States and possibly Georgia. The implications of such Western advanced arms transfers to Russia are a matter that NATO should but fails to address directly. By avoiding tackling the issue in Brussels and allowing Allies to make individual arms deals with no regard for NATO strategy, political solidarity, or overall security, the North Atlantic Alliance risks making itself irrelevant to European defense calculations.

Finalizing the Deal

As a highlight of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (see EDM, June 20), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev witnessed the signing of the contract for two French Mistral-class warships to be delivered to Russia. Negotiations continue for two more ships of the same class, to be built in Russia under French licenses. This is a class of amphibious-assault, helicopter-carrier ships, mainly designed for landing troops and equipment in offensive operations.

Medvedev finalized the contract’s terms with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on May 26 in Deauville during the G8 summit. There they agreed on the price, the timetable for construction and delivery, and the technology transfers with the warships (Agence France Presse, Interfax, May 26, 27).

US President Barack Obama, attending the Deauville summit, ignored the Mistral deal and its far-reaching implications for NATO. Furthermore, in March 2011, when US National Security Adviser General James Jones was asked whether the sale of Mistral warships to Russia could become a destabilizing factor, he replied: “We ourselves are engaged in an active warming of relations with Russia. Therefore, I do not think that this deal should be of any particular concern to us. I have never raised this issue with my French counterpart, and the president [Barack Obama] has not done so either” (EDM, March 31, 2010; Le Figaro, March 26, 2010). The US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials cautiously objected to the French Mistral sale to Russia several times during 2010, in discussions with French counterparts (including President Sarkozy on one occasion). Such attempts, however, were sporadic, lacking continuity and policy focus, and yielding to higher priorities on the agenda (EDM, June 29).

Sarkozy welcomed the contract-signing on June 17 in a statement from Elysee Palace. With an eye to his uphill re-election effort, Sarkozy declared that the agreement with Russia creates 1,000 full-time jobs in France over four years, (mainly at Saint-Nazaire, the crisis-hit shipyard). With an eye to French business interests, Sarkozy’s statement hailed the new “strategic dimension of cooperation between France and Russia” (Agence France Presse, June 17). French Secretary of State for Foreign Trade, Pierre Lellouche, on hand for the signing in St. Petersburg, similarly hailed the agreement as a “historical event…the first time Russia imports a weapon-system from a Western country and the first time a Western country exports a weapon-system to Russia after the Second World War” (RIA Novosti, June 17). Formerly a rare Atlanticist in France, more recently a lapsed Atlanticist, Lellouche supports the postulate that French arms sales to Russia should enhance NATO-Russia confidence.

Terms of the Agreement

Rosoboroneksport Director-General Anatoly Isaykin and Patrick Boissier, executive president of the Direction des Constructions Navales (DCNS, majority state-owned), signed the June 17 contract. Under its terms, France will sell two Mistral-class ships to Russia for $1.7 billion (1.2 billion Euros). Servicing the ships for an initial period, training of the Russian crews, and the “transfer of technologies” including the electronics, are included in this price. According to French management, their side demands a substantial down payment before it would start the construction work.

DCNS is acting as prime contractor, subcontracting most of the construction work to the Saint-Nazaire-based STX shipyard (the historic Chantiers de L’Atlantique, now majority South Korean-owned). STX has in turn signed a subcontract with Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK), outsourcing to it a minor share of the work on the two ships’ hulls. Rosoboroneksport acts as Russia’s procurement agent.

The two ships are due for delivery to Russia in 2014 and 2015, respectively. This is conditional on the contract entering into force during this year’s third quarter. According to the Russian side, it needs a few months to complete some procedures. The French side states the contract enters into force when Russia makes the down payment.

Under the same contract, Russia secures the option to order two more warships of the Mistral-class through another contract. These would be built mostly in Russia under French licenses. The OSK shipyards’ share of the construction work is slated to grow substantially from the first ship to the second, and from the first contract to the next (;, June 17, 19; Interfax, RIA Novosti, Agence France Presse, June 17, 18; Kommersant, June 20; Le Figaro, June 22).

According to Russian defense ministry and OSK officials, France has agreed to deliver the highly sophisticated Senit-9 command-and-control and battle-management system with these ships to Russia (Agence France Presse, Interfax, June 17, 20). This remains to be corroborated, however; not least from NATO sources. The Senit-9 is a NATO standard and is France’s most sophisticated combat management system, which would give Russia a real operational advantage in coastal warfare. Although Russia regards a full transfer of the electronics as a matter of prestige, it is the offensive platforms that matter most to Russia and (from an opposite perspective) to Russia’s neighbors.

This contract took two years to negotiate. For most of this time Russian officials were saying on record that four Mistral-class ships could variously be deployed with Russia’s four Fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Far Eastern Fleet). When actually signing the contract, however, Russian officials hinted at priority deployment with the Far Eastern Fleet, ostensibly to defend the Kurile Islands from Japan. Even Russian experts question or dismiss this claim, however (Radio Free Europe, June 17; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 21). Purely offensive platforms, these ships require naval escort and air cover, or superiority, for their protection while on mission. Russia’s Far Eastern Fleet, however, is not considered capable of ensuring such protection.

Specialized in amphibious and helicopter-borne troop landing, Mistral-class ships are considered the most modern and effective for such missions in any European navy. Thus, Russia is buying a state-of-the art capability to replace its own rudimentary and worn-out landing ships.

Power Projection Capabilities

A power projection tool, Mistral-class ships will give Russia an unprecedented offensive capability, with intimidating effect threatening small and poorly armed maritime neighbors, especially those not under or trying to break from Russian control. Equipped for coastal assault, ships of this class can support Russian ground forces in various conflict theaters. Russian deployment of such ships in the Baltic or Black Sea in peacetime will significantly complicate the defense planning of NATO and US-allied countries there.

A Mistral-class ship carries on board four air-cushioned craft, or two hovercraft, to land troops ashore; 16 to 20 helicopters (combat and/or troop-carrying, the mix depending on the mission) for ship to shore attack, with up to 220 air wing personnel; 13 battle tanks and/or 60 armored vehicles; up to 900 ground troops with full armament, and a floating hospital. The ship has a crew of 160, displacement of 22,000 tons, hull length of 210 meters, top speed of 19 knots, and fuel endurance of up to 11,000 miles at a cruising speed of 15 knots, according to its main builders, Direction des Constructions Navales (DCNS) and the STX shipyard (;, June 17, 19).

The numbers of vehicles and personnel aboard the Mistral are flexible, with lower loads for long-term or distant missions, and conversely packing more power for short-term, short-distance missions. The latter would be the case in the Baltic and the Black Sea. There, these ships would be operating for Russia within short distance of the home ports, whether in peacetime or in crises.

The Russian military intends to put its own Ka-52 attack helicopters and Russian landing craft aboard these ships. Specially adapted versions of these helicopters and landing craft are expected to be ready by the time France delivers the two ships in 2014 and 2015 (Interfax, June 17; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 21). There are no public indications from Moscow (or elsewhere) about the type of armored vehicles to be carried on board.  

The challenge to NATO

For Moscow, the acquisition of Mistral-class ships would be primarily relevant in the “near abroad.” Russia’s Baltic and Black Sea Fleets are integrated with the respective ground-force commands, and assigned to support land operations in hypothetical crises involving neighboring countries. Mistral-class ships would undoubtedly be tasked for the same possible role, if Russia deploys them in the Baltic and Black Sea.

Mistral-class ships would give Russia a capability to land troops on thinly defended coasts, particularly of small nations with weak militaries, no air power, and long coastlines, in conflict or crisis situations. The three Baltic States and Georgia, for example, all face Russia both on land and at sea. They would face additional risks, if Russia deploys these new ships, equipped for coastal assault, in proximity.  

Lacking a modern capability of this type, Russia decided to acquire Mistral ships after invading Georgia in 2008 and seizing Abkhazia with ground forces. Moscow concluded that its ground operation could have been more effective if supplemented with a rapidly executed landing on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Russia attempted such a landing, but its obsolete ships failed to execute it in time to make a difference in the five-day war. According to the Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, “In the conflict in August [2008], a ship like that would have allowed the 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]” (EDM, September 18, 2009). Had that landing succeeded, Russia would have opened a second front, moving into Georgia from the west while the main Russian force was attacking in the east.  

With Mistral-class ships, Russia’s Baltic or Black Sea Fleet would gain the ability to land troops onshore quickly and seize coastal footholds during war. This threat (whether carried out or not) could pressure a target country from the direction of the sea, adding to the pressure along the land border. Thus, Russia could compel small, thinly defended countries to divide meager resources between land and coastal defense. Moscow can also position to use these tactics in peacetime, short of any crisis, by adding Mistral-class ships to its Baltic or Black Sea Fleet. In that case, NATO and the US would be called upon to strengthen the defense capacities of their exposed allies.  

The transfer of modern military technology to Russia has become a serious challenge to the North Atlantic Alliance. Mercantilism and special political relations with Russia by the French, Italian and German governments are driving this process, bypassing NATO and trampling basic notions of allied strategy and solidarity – modernizing Russian forces, even as Western Europe cuts back on its own.

These arms deals challenge NATO on three levels: political alliance management, control over transfers of advanced military technology and security along NATO’s eastern borders. Nevertheless, NATO (as well as Washington) seems to be recusing itself from this matter on all three counts. In this vacuum of authority, arms producers in France, Italy and Germany are each dealing with Russia on their own accounts.

The implications of this process are inherently a matter for NATO to confront. However, the Alliance seems unable to form policy on this issue and is unwilling to hold a potentially divisive debate about it. NATO (or a critical mass of its membership) looks away from this problem;  bureaucratic fiat from the top in Brussels rules out discussion of this issue in the Alliance. Self-recusal on such major issues can ultimately result in loss of relevance for NATO.