Mistral Deal - 2009
In early August 2009 RIA Novosti reported that Russia was discussing the purchase of a French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship worth between 300 and 400 million euros ($430-580 mln). "Such talks are being held at the level of experts; the Russian side is represented by the Navy, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, and plants' representatives. In September we will provide a final conclusion for the Russian Defense Ministry," a high-ranking source close to the talks told RIA Novosti. Earlier a French business daily, La Tribune, said Russia is planning to purchase a Mistral class assault ship from France. The purchase, if successful, would be the first large-scale arms import deal concluded by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia first expressed an interest in bilateral cooperation with France in naval equipment and technology in 2008, when Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky visited the Euronaval 2008 arms show in France. The admiral said at the time that the Russian Navy was interested in "joint research and also direct purchases of French naval equipment." The possibility of buying a Mistral class amphibious assault ship was discussed at the naval show in St. Petersburg in June 2009.
A Mistral class ship is capable of transporting and deploying 16 helicopters, four landing barges, up to 70 vehicles including 13 main battle tanks, and 450 soldiers. The ship is equipped with a 69-bed hospital. The Russian Kommersant business daily confirmed the possibility of the deal, but said Russian military experts were skeptical about it. "The Russian Navy lacks the means to finance even the production of corvettes and missile boats, let alone the purchase of large combat ships," the paper quoted Mikhail Barabanov, science editor of the Eksport Vooruzheny (Arms Export) journal, as saying.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said "although the practice of arms imports will become more common in Russia in the future, the Mistral deal is rather questionable from a military standpoint, as well as Russia's hopes for the transfer of advanced technologies from France."
Russia's current weapons procurement program through 2015 did not envision construction or purchases of large combat ships, so the possible acquisition of a French Mistral class ship is most likely to happen under the new program for the years up to 2020, which is still in the development.
On 26 August 2009 it was reported that the chief of the Russian General Staff said Russia was planning on signing by the end of 2009 a contractual agreement with France on the purchase of a Mistral class amphibious assault ship. "We are planning to reach an agreement [with France] this year on the production and the purchase of a Mistral class vessel," Gen. Nikolai Makarov told a news conference in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. "We are negotiating the purchase of one ship at present, and later planning to acquire 3-4 ships [of the same class] to be jointly built in Russia," the general said.
On 01 October 2009 it was reported that France was considering the sale of a helicopter carrier ship to Russia that could provide Moscow with added offensive capabilities at sea. Speaking in Moscow, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin confirmed speculation that France is considering the sale of a helicopter carrier to Russia. Both sides, however, noted no deal has been signed. Kouchner said there are a number of French administrative and political principles governing arms sales, particularly a ship as expensive as a helicopter carrier. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov indicated the two countries are now just consulting about the matter. The defense chief says Russia has a whole set of questions it has put to the French, and is waiting for answers before it makes specific decisions. Serdyukov adds that Russia is not interested in one ship, but several.
The carrier under consideration was of the Mistral Class of amphibious assault, command and projection ships. The 199-meter vessel can carry 16 helicopters and 450 troops for up to six months or about 700 for shorter periods. Russian news media recently quoted naval commander Vladimir Vysotsky as saying the French warship would greatly increase the speed of Russian operations. He said a Mistral Class carrier would have accomplished certain tasks in 40 minutes that took Russia's Black Sea Fleet 26 hours during last year's conflict with Georgia.
Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told VOA that France would likely need to consult with allies to go ahead with the sale. Felgenhauer says that almost every country that produces modern weapons uses some patents or know-how from the United States. He says France will, therefore, consult with NATO and above all with Washington whether to sell or not to Russia and to what extent. Moscow had indicated it may purchase one helicopter carrier and acquire licenses to build several more in Russian shipyards. Each ship costs an estimated $1 billion.
On 04 November 2009 Oleg Burtsev, first deputy chief of the Navy Main Staff confirmed Moscow's plans to buy one Mistral-class warship worth 400-500 million euros (around $600-$750 mln) and build another three or four in Russia under French licensing. The first warship will be built at the STX shipyard in France in partnership with the French shipbuilder DCNS. Russian shipbuilders strongly opposed the deal and the government had yet to make a decision on whether Russia needed to build costly amphibious assault ships.
On 22 November 2009 RIA Novosti reported that Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Defence Forces Ants Laaneots said if Russia buys a French Mistral amphibious assault ship, measures should be taken to ensure Estonian national security. "If the French finally sell it [the warship], we should consider security measures to be taken in case the navy is deployed in the Baltic Sea," Laaneots told Estonian television. Estonian security analyst Eerik Niiles Kross said: "If Russia obtains such a modern and effective warship, which can carry a tank battalion, take aboard several hundreds of people and faultlessly control [its] operations... the possession of such an equipment will provide Russia with a considerable advantage, if it is deployed in the Baltic Sea."
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said in late November 2009 that Russia could build its own helicopter carrier on a par with the French Mistral-class warship, and that the Defense Ministry could contract the United Shipbuilding Corporation to build it.
France's Mistral helicopter carrier made a port call in St. Petersburg on 23 November 2009. The ship arrived in Russia's second city to be shown off to military personnel and the public. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited France on November 26-27, when a final decision on the purchase was expected to be made. But during the visit on November 27 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia had yet to make a final decision on whether to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France. "No decision has yet been made on the purchase of a Mistral," he said. Asked whether he could guarantee the warships in question would not be used against Georgia, Putin said it was up to Russia to decide where or how to use its own weapons. Responding to the same question, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Mistral ships "mainly perform logistic functions.... We are currently in the final stages of negotiations with the Russian government." On December 14 RIA Novosti reported that Russian and French delegations would meet later in the month to discuss the possible sale of the French warship.
The Russian Armed Forces must keep up with modern challenges to reliably ensure national security, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a televised phone-in on 03 December 2009. Putin also said Russia would continue to rely on its own defense industry to develop and produce new weaponry, adding, however, that domestic arms manufacturers should be aware of competition, including foreign competition. He said Moscow was yet to decide whether to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France but would keep its options open.
The Russian Navy planned to deploy the Mistral-class warships in the Northern and Pacific fleets to conduct troop transport, peacekeeping and rescue missions. In addition, the helicopter carriers could be used effectively in anti-piracy operations, including off the Somali coast.
The Georgian newspaper 24 Saati (24 Hours) published a front-page article 18 November 2009, written by a American analyst based in Tbilisi, that registered strong protest against the proposed sale. Calling the sale potentially the "biggest ever NATO country military supply to Russia," the article notes that quotes Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy as saying in September that "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."
In private conversations, Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze voiced serious concerns about the potentially destabilizing influence of France's possible sale of Mistral-class helicopter carrier ships to Russia (reftel) to DAS Tina Kaidanow and the Ambassador. As the broker of the August 2008 ceasefire agreement with which Russia has still not complied, France would not only provide Russia with arms that its own officers admit would have helped them in the war against Georgia, but would send a powerful signal that NATO and the west are no longer concerned about Russia's intentions. At a time when Georgia faces a "silent embargo" on arms shipments, other countries -- notably Spain and the Netherlands -- await such a signal to begin their own sales to Russia. Such an opening of the floodgates could render an already out-of-balance military confrontation even more lopsided, allowing the Russians to assert themselves with impunity -- and delivering the implicit message that the west will not interfere.
The fact that it was France considering the sale carries significant symbolic weight. President Sarkozy, representing the French presidency of the EU, brokered the August 12, 2008 ceasefire agreement between Georgia and Russia and effectively pledged the EU as the guarantor of that agreement. Point 5 of the agreement required Russia to withdraw its forces to those positions held previous to the war -- a provision that Russia has not complied with. In fact, Russia has done the opposite, increasing its military presence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and expanding its positions beyond their August 6, 2008 positions. Thus, if France were to approve the sale of any significant military equipment to Russia, it would implicitly intimate that the broker of the ceasefire agreement was satisfied either that Russia had complied with those commitments, or that the commitments were no longer binding.
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