The French Navy ship Mistral tied up at a downtown Saint Petersburg pier November 23. With the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral shimmering in the background, the amphibious assault ship made a perfect sales promotion picture, which was precisely its mission. Some in Paris—led by the Elysée Palace—want to sell Mistral class ships to Russia, a venture with ominous geopolitical implications that would tear at the fabric of NATO.
A few days later, Mistral joined the barnacle-ridden Russian Navy for maneuvers in the already tense Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Paris. At the time of this writing, there is yet no deal; however, Paris sources say that talks to put this modern land attack capability in Russian hands are down to details.
“We plan to buy one Mistral class ship in France and with technical support from the French to build four helicopter carriers of this class under license,” Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, First Deputy Chief of the Russian Navy Staff, told a November 2 press conference.
The Mistral class of ships is designed to attack the shore from the sea, an ideal weapon for Russia to intimidate its neighbors. Mistrals can carry 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters, 4 landing craft, 900 naval infantry troops and up to 70 military vehicles, including as many as 40 tanks.
At about $800 million apiece, selling Russia Mistral class ships during hard economic times may appear a deft political move—the Saint Nazaire shipyards desperately need work. Foreign diplomats who have expressed concerns in Paris report that French officials respond sheepishly that they need the money. Besides, they say, many western countries publicly turn a cold shoulder to Russia’s crude demeanor while tripping over themselves to curry favor with Moscow through the back door. If France does not sell Russia the Mistrals, Dutch, Italian or Spanish shipyards may snatch the opportunity.
Diplomatically, Paris appears to believe that selling a few modern ships to Russia’s dilapidated navy will not threaten American dominance at sea; moreover, Washington is thoroughly distracted by Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Meanwhile, the notion of Georgia or Ukraine in NATO is on hold. And the west is seized with a general sense of malaise in which few countries want to squabble with France.
However, such short-sighted reasoning often backfires at home and abroad. Is Paris prepared not only to overlook but to reward Russian aggression, ignore the shredding of a ceasefire crafted and signed by its president, accept the help of Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan but enforce an unacknowledged arms embargo against Georgia and meanwhile sell advanced arms to Russia? Does France really want Russia to have this littoral combat capability? Is it prepared to face the opprobrium of many NATO allies?
Ignoring these questions may evoke pleasant noises from Moscow, but Russia will not reciprocate concretely. Indeed, it will demand ever more to be appeased.
Regrettably, the potential sale of Mistral class ships to Russia appears to spring from worse than unprincipled economics or misguided diplomacy. France’s partnership with Russia, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on October 9, “can take several forms in the defense sphere, from military cooperation to close industrial partnership.” Recall that Fillon, a day before the April 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, objected to the idea of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO “because we think that it is not the right response to the balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia.”
It is hard to imagine what power the prime minister imagines France is balancing with the sale of Mistrals to Russia. However, it is easy to discern Russia’s motivation for the purchase.
Despite the flourish of dispatching the battlecruiser Pyotr Veliky to the Caribbean Sea last autumn and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s more recent promise to “rebuild a strong Russian navy in 10 years,” the Russian Navy will remain a green water navy that operates close to home as a complement to Russian land forces. Beyond rhetoric, Moscow will not challenge US Navy dominance of the oceans.
Consequently, the impending addition of Mistrals to Russian fleets should not be considered on a global scale against the US Navy or combined western navies. Rather, it must be considered for its potential regional impact in the Baltic and Black Seas, erstwhile Soviet lakes.
“I can assure you,” Putin told a press conference during his recent visit to Paris, “that if we purchase the armament, we will use it wherever deemed necessary.”
A handful of Mistral class ships in the Baltic and Black Seas would make a big difference. “In the conflict in August last year 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,” Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy recently said, referring to Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Make no mistake—Russia intends to halt NATO’s eastward enlargement, particularly to Georgia and Ukraine; to retain its Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol beyond the 2017 expiration of its leasehold; to discourage NATO from planning and exercising the defense of Baltic and Black Sea allies; to challenge US forward operating bases in Bulgaria and Romania; to maintain a stranglehold on the East-West Corridor that leads from the Black Sea to the Caspian; and eventually to roll back what it characterizes as encroachment from the west.
Russian acquisition of Mistrals should be considered in the context of Moscow’s traditional gaze toward Romanian lowlands and its occupation of the Moldovan territory of Transnistria. In neighboring Ukraine, Moscow covets the arc of territory from Odesa to the Crimean Peninsula as the cradle of Russian sea power. And on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, Russian aggression against Georgia is not yet over.
In the Baltic Sea, it is bizarre that Mistral would engage in exercises with the Russian Baltic Fleet that in late summer and autumn combined with Russian and Belarusan land forces to surround NATO allies in the region in exercises Ladoga 2009 and Zapad 2009.
“In providing Putin with the tools for rapid invasion of Georgia, Crimea and the Baltic countries,” writes French philosopher André Glucksmann in Le Monde, “Our message is clear: go ahead!”
Such geopolitical autism—or cynicism—will tear at the fabric of NATO just as the alliance searches for common ground in Afghanistan and drafts a new Strategic Concept. With Russian Mistrals plying the waters of the Black and Baltic Seas, some NATO allies will call for enhanced NATO planning and presence in those regions. All NATO navies will be asked to contribute scarce resources—to counter a capability provided by another NATO ally.
The sale of Mistral would be the biggest ever NATO country military supply to Russia, providing it with a significant capability against which the Alliance would have to plan for years to come. Moreover, should Russia employ the Mistrals in the Baltic or Black Seas, France will be complicit, opening a fissure within NATO of historic proportions.
Meanwhile, a Russian flag fluttering astern a Mistral class ship will bring cross pressures on Turkey as arbiter of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates passage between the Mediterranean and Black Seas through the Turkish Straits. If Ankara permits Mistral’s passage, calls to revise or even scrap the Montreux Convention will surely follow.
Consequently, Franco-Russian negotiations over sale of Mistral class ships must capture the attention of every NATO nation. Allies should call for formal consultation under Article IV of the North Atlantic Treaty, which any NATO member is entitled to do if “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
The prospective French sale of Mistral class ships to Russia is just such a threat and it must be stopped.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This essay was originally published as Opriţi Franţa Să Înarmez Rusia in the January-February issue of Foreign Policy Romania.