How much of a threat to NATO is the Mistral sale?

I’ve written a lot of posts now trying to explain why Russia sought to purchase the Mistral from France and why I do not believe that the purchase presents a threat to a) Georgia, b) the Baltic states, c) European security, or d) NATO cohesion. Yet various folks keep writing the same old thing regardless of the evidence arrayed against their arguments. The newest entry is Vlad Socor’s latest piece, entitled “France’s Sale of the Mistral to Russia: The Challenge to NATO’s Transatlantic Partners,” which arrived by email today from the Jamestown Foundation. I haven’t found a version online as of yet, but if I find one in the next day or two, I’ll provide a link. (See the update at the bottom of the article for links to most of the content)

Socor argues that despite Russian leaders repeated statements that the ships will be based in the Pacific Fleet, they will actually be placed in the Black Sea and Baltic Fleets, where they will be used to threaten the Baltic states and Georgia as part of a potential simultaneous attack from land and sea.

Furthermore, he argues that these ships are primarily power projection platforms. He believes Admiral Vysotsky’s rhetorical statement that ““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].” He goes on to argue that Mistral ships would have allowed the Russian military to open a second front in Georgia in 2008, moving in from the west while the main army attacked from the east.

In the final section, Socor discusses the challenge this deal poses to NATO cohesion. He argues that mercantilist considerations have driven France (as well as other European countries that have recently sold arms to Russia) to trample allied solidarity. In other words, France, Germany and Italy have put the security of their eastern allies at risk for the sake of the profits of their arms manufacturers.

Given that I have already addressed these issues here, and don’t have any new arguments to offer, I thought I would give the floor to someone who has spent the last year studying the Mistral deal and has written what may be the definitive work on the subject.

LCDR Patrick Baker recently completed a Master’s Thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School entitled, “A Study of the Russian Acquisition of the French Mistral Amphibious Assault Warships.” He graciously agreed to respond with his thoughts on Vlad Socor’s article. Please note that his views represent his own personal opinions and not those of the U.S. Navy or the Naval Postgraduate School.

On why Russia sought to buy the Mistral:

As I said in my thesis, I think that the real reason behind the Mistrals is the technologies that Russia can get from France.  Specifically the command and control systems, and also, I think as important, are the shipbuilding technologies.  As I argued in my thesis, no shipyard in Russia today can build modular warships.  And all their shipyards are full of orders now anyway (besides Baltiysky Zavod, which is bankrupt).  To modify a shipyard for the Mistral would mean fewer other ships for the Russian navy.  As STX Europe is going to build Russia a new shipyard on Kotlin Island, this gives the Admiralty Shipyards a brand new facility to build not only warships but also commercial ships.

A helicopter carrier also allows the Russian Navy to ask for new helicopters to equip its new ships with, providing business for Kamov.  Besides the attack helicopters, there has been little in the news about any significant upgrades to the Russian Naval infantry.  As of the 2011 Military Balance, Russia has maximum 16 landing craft that could even fit in a Mistral, and only 8 new ones.  Moreover, no modern hovercrafts are in development that I have seen.

The Mistral I think is the perfect example of getting a system first, then figuring out the missions for the ships.  I think the Russians see the Mistrals as a means to the end (naval modernization), not the end themselves.  True the Mistrals can fulfill many roles, including some of the ones Socor talks about, but that was not the driving force behind the sale.  If Russia really wanted just the capability, I do not think the contract negotiations would have taken so long (and continue to drag on), specifically on the issues of technology transfer.

On the potential threat posed by these ships to Georgia and the Baltic states:

I do not accept that the Russian failure to open a second front in Georgia was the driving force.  As you have pointed out, the Mistralis no faster than Russia’s existing Alligators and Ropuchas, so the ships would not have gotten to Georgia any faster.  A better argument would have been a Mistral would have allowed for better close air support from attack helicopters from the coast.  Still while a nice benefit from having the ship, but not the main reason for acquiring the ships.

The other part behind the Mistral is about image and prestige.  But not against Georgia and the Baltics.  People seem to forget that Russia today has 4 Ropuchas sitting in Kaliningrad, which could transport 760 troops and 40 MBT themselves.  In the Black Sea, Russia has 3 Alligators and 4 Ropuchas. The Mistral adds to the capability of the Russian Navy, but in terms of troop lift, it is not a game changer.  The only new capability, and it is a significant one, is the aviation aspect of the Mistral.  But Russia is not without airfields in both Georgia and around the Baltics.

Who I think Russia is worried about is China.  That is why the ships have been announced to go to the Pacific first.  Not against the Japanese – and yes Socor makes this point, but the Japanese are not the threat – it is just convenient and risk free to blame the Japanese, because Russia knows Japan is not going to invade the Kuril Islands.  Rather Russia, in my opinion does not want to appear weak, or abandoning the Pacific to the Chinese.  Russia cannot say that it is bulking up its Pacific Fleet against the Chinese publicly though.  Putting two large warships is a very visible statement of Russian interest in the Far East.  Granted there is little significant naval combat power, but that is not the point.  The Mistrals also work well as a forward command post in the Far East, where ground command stations are few and far between.  This Russian interest in the Far East is evident in other actions, such as the movement of the Marshal Ustinov from the Northern Fleet to Pacific Fleet after her refit, the Yuri Dolgorukiy to Petropavlosk and if the Admiral Nakimov ever is refurbished, the Russian have announced plans to put her in the Far East.

I think the Russians are more interested in having a LHD style ship that can cruise the globe (without tugs following her) implying that they are still a great power.  I also think they want the PR benefit of being able to have a ship to participate in humanitarian operations.  I know they have sent rescue teams and assistance in the past, but the image of a Russian ship helping is a powerful one, as the US has seen.  Or for evacuation of Russian citizens – being able to evacuated civilians quickly on one ship is important.  Look at Libya, the French used the Mistral herself, while the Russia had to hire a ferry and flew jets in to evacuate citizens.  What if the airport had been closed?

On how the Mistral’s capabilities might be used:

I think that Socor does make some valid points about how the capabilities of the Mistral could be used.  And he is correct, it is something that the US and NATO will have to account for.  I just don’t think it was the Russians primary reason, more of a side benefit.  If they were so eager for an amphibious capability, why did they not honestly evaluate the other LHDs on the market, ensuring they would get the best package, vice choosing the Mistral from day one?  Again, it was because they get the shipbuilding and command and control technologies.  In addition, there still remain some serious obstacles.  Now that they get the command and control technologies, how do they integrate NATO style systems with Russian ones?  How easy will it be to integrate Russian weapon systems with French radar systems?  Besides the significant modifications for arctic operations, there are still some sizeable design changes, such as the raising of the hanger deck.  It will be interesting to see what the final design is.

My final take is that there was a myriad of reasons the Russians wanted the Mistral.  There is no one smoking gun. Technology, command and control and image I think were the top ones, not a desire to kick in the door somewhere.  Can they do that…maybe.  Nevertheless, a LHD also gives them a ship that is multi-mission, something they will actually use.   If they built an anti-carrier destroyer again, it may be a great platform, but realistically, it is not as likely to be employed as much as a LHD is these days.  Therefore, there may not be a sinister reason behind the purchase, just a realization of with limited resources, what will actually have the most benefit.  In addition, with the Admiral Kuznetsov going into an announced refit until 2017 (if it happens on time) the Russians have really only one capital ship (Peter the Great) to signify nation interest.  The Mistrals could give them something to build a task force around.  Again this is where image comes into play.

On the impact of the sale on NATO cohesion:

Therefore, will NATO and the US have to pay attention to these ships – yes…can Russia use these ships to intimidate weak smaller nations – yes….was that the Russian primary intention – no.  I think the valid point that Socor makes is the issues this type of sale causes within NATO.  The lack of trust between countries is something that has to be improved.  Perhaps more significant behind the scenes consultations would help (basically so countries aren’t finding out about these things via the newspapers).  But the Baltics have to be realistic as well, but the image of France not respecting other allies’ inputs is what has to be overcome.

I’m very much in agreement with LCDR Baker’s analysis. I would just expand briefly on the final point. It seems to me that the key task for countries such as France, Germany and Italy is to work to convince NATO’s eastern members that Russia does not present a military threat to them. Russian leaders could do a great deal to help this effort by changing some of their policies toward the region, and especially their rhetoric — which is frequently much more belligerent than their policies. The best way to improve European security is to increase integration with Russia, not to maintain old dividing lines that do nothing but promote insecurity on both sides.

UPDATE: Still no sight of an electronic version of Vlad Socor’s article, but LCDR Baker pointed out that most of the content was posted in three recent shorter articles that cover the sale, power projection against Georgia, and NATO reactions.

FURTHER UPDATE (July 12): Thanks to the folks at the Jamestown Foundation for providing the link.

USS Monterey and the US presence in the Black Sea

Josh Kucera from The Bug Pit asked me for my views on recent Russian criticisms of the USS Monterey Aegis-equipped cruiser participating in the Sea Breeze 2011 naval exercises in the Black Sea.

The purpose of the exercise is to conduct training in counter-piracy operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, boarding, and search and seizure. As Josh points out, none of this has anything to do with missile defense. Yet Russian objections focus on this issue. Josh quotes two Russian statements on the ship visit, the first from a Georgian newspaper and the second as reported by RIA-Novosti.

  1. “The Russian side has repeatedly stressed that we will not let pass unnoticed the appearance of elements of US strategic infrastructure in the immediate proximity to our borders and will see such steps as a threat to our security.”
  2. “The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous ‘reconnaissance’ operations near the borders of our country.”

In addition to these objections related to missile defense, the foreign ministry also objected to the Monterey’s visit to Batumi, Georgia after the exercise:

And now this American warship has demonstratively entered the Georgian port of Batumi… Whatever the explanations are, it is clear that the Georgian authorities will see the incident as encouragement for their ambitions for revenge against the Russian allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is unlikely to help stability in the region.

As I see it, the reason for the controversy is because the Russian side believes that they were promised that the U.S. would not send Aegis cruisers to the Black Sea unless there was some kind of imminent threat. Obviously that wasn’t the case here, so they think this is another case of promises broken, something they’re very sensitive about because of their perceptions of how NATO enlargement went down.

The Monterey has been officially designated as part of phase one of the European missile defense shield. It is normally stationed in the Mediterranean as a missile defense ship. So it wasn’t irrational for Russia to connect its arrival in the Black Sea with missile defense issues.

On the one hand, the purpose of the visit has nothing to do with missile defense. On the other hand, it’s obvious to everyone that by sending an Aegis cruiser to Batumi the US is making a statement. Not so much about missile defense, but about the US feeling that it has the right to send its warships anywhere it wants to without regard for the sensitivities of countries such as Russia. And Russian officials never miss the opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain when it comes to that kind of symbolism.

At the same time, it seems to me that as far as the US is concerned, its navy is just following a long-stated policy that its ships will go anywhere they’re invited, without regard for what other states in the area think. So from that point of view they’re just following through. And they’re right that the ship’s purpose in the Black Sea has nothing to do with missile defense.

I think the US policy is consistent — after all, Moscow has objected to the presence of US warships in the Black Sea on several previous occasions. It’s just that sending an AEGIS cruiser has allowed Moscow to give its criticisms another form. Rather than just focusing on US ships visiting Georgia, it can now use the missile defense angle…

While Josh thinks this may have a negative effect on efforts to reset US-Russian relations, I’m not so sure. One should always be careful to distinguish Russian rhetoric from practical cooperation. While I think cooperation on missile defense is a dead end, there is every possibility of continuing cooperation on other issues that affect the security of both states. I would be surprised if any number of negative statements such as the ones put out by Moscow on the Monterey visit would affect that.

UPDATE: Regarding the last paragraph, Josh wrote me with the following clarification:

I don’t think this episode is causing problems between the US and Russia, but more that a symptom that something is wrong. Because otherwise Russia wouldn’t be making such a mountain out of this molehill, and possibly the US would have been a little more cautious about sending a provocative signal. But then, when we get
into Russian politics I’m definitely out of my element…

On this, I pretty much agree. There are still many people (on both sides) who are inherently suspicious of the other side’s intentions, and their statements just feed on each other to reproduce the cycle of suspicion and latent (or more) hostility. And that is going to keep causing problems for US-Russian relations for years to come.

Russian Politics and Law, May 2011 Table of Contents

Andrei Ryabov

The Future of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction

In this issue of Russian Politics and Law, we continue the analysis of the current state of Russia’s political system that we began in the previous issue. Whereas the previous issue analyzed the development of the system and its character, the authors in this issue focus on the system’s stability, particularly in the context of the 2008–9 global economic crisis. The crisis briefly shook the confidence of Russian political elites, and this is reflected in several of the articles printed here. The period of severe economic crisis proved to be relatively brief in Russia, however, and by early 2010 leading politicians had regained their confidence and largely ended various experiments in liberalization that had been undertaken when the economic situation was at its worst. Continue reading

Valdai Club 7: Military reform and international cooperation

This is the final post in my series on the Valdai Club military section meeting. The last discussion panel of the conference was entitled “New Challenges – New Alliances: From Ideological Alliances to Interest-based Coalitions.” The three presenters were Yves Boyer, the deputy director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique in Paris, myself, and Alexander Sharavin, the director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.

Panel on international cooperation

Boyer’s presentation covered recent developments and future prospects for a common European Defense Policy. He said little about Russia per se, except to note at the end that Russia feels isolated in a globalized world and therefore the EU should develop close cooperation with Russia in order to reduce its sense of isolation.

My presentation focused on the possibilities for US-Russian cooperation in the Caspian region. The core of the argument can be found in my recent PONARS memo on the subject, so I won’t repeat it here.

Alexander Sharavin’s presentation covered how the military reform affects Russia’s international connections. He argued that one major impact has been the enormous change in tone at the MOD on willingness to engage in cooperation with foreign states. Eleven years ago, the head of the international cooperation department at the MOD was Leonid Ivashov, now it’s Sergei Koshelev, who is a professional diplomat. It’s a very different attitude. The difference in tone is notable because for the first time, civilians control the MOD. In the Soviet period, there were defense ministers who were civilians (even though they wore uniforms and were called marshals when they took the position), but they were controlled by the generals. This is the first time that civilians work in the MOD on an equal footing with members of the military. In the old days, they never would have taken foreign visitors to a location such as the Don radar station. Continue reading

Valdai Club 6: Missile Defense

The conference took place at the same time as the G8 summit in Deauxville, which included a statement on possibilities for missile defense cooperation between Russia and the US/Europe. The discussions on this topic at Valdai, however, left me very much pessimistic about the likelihood for such cooperation. There were two events directly related to missile defense. The first was a panel discussion on May 26th, with presentations by Oksana Antonenko of IISS, Mesut Hakki Casin of Yeditepe University in Istanbul, and Aleksandr Stukalin of Kommersant-Daily, followed by a discussion. The second was a meeting that same evening with a senior MOD official who has some responsibility for missile defense. As you will see from the report, the tone of these two meetings could not have been more different. (Note: I don’t have detailed notes on the presentation by Casin — it focused on how important missile defense cooperation would be for international security)

Panel on building a European missile defense system

Oksana Antonenko — Prospects for NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation

Antonenko provided a very optimistic assessment of the possibilities for including meaningful Russian participation in a European missile defense system. She began by reviewing the history of international cooperation on missile defense, noting several promising initiatives dating back to the Clinton presidency have been signed but never fully implemented, including the RAMOS program and the JDEC program to exchange early warning data on launches. Theater missile defense cooperation within the NATO-Russia Council was thus the 3rd stage of cooperation. This allowed for significant progress, including joint exercises. A live fire exercise that was to be held in 2008 in Germany would have brought cooperation to a new level, but it was canceled because of the Georgia war and the entire program was suspended. As a result, many of the experienced people involved in that cooperation left. Continue reading

Valdai Club 5: Meeting with a senior defense industry official

On May 25, the Valdai group met with a senior representative of one of the major Russian defense industry corporations. The meeting was conducted entirely under the Chatham House rule, so I can discuss the content of the meeting but cannot name the speaker or the other participants.

For various reasons, I was not able to take detailed notes at the meeting, so in order to provide a complete set of reports on all of the events at the conference, I will quote (with permission) from Richard Weitz, a colleague who also participated in the meeting. His full article discussing this meeting in the context of the overall state of the Russian arms export industry is well worth reading and can be found at the Second Line of Defense blog. Continue reading