There were some additional details on Russia’s decision to purchase French amphibious assault ships published in yesterday’s Vedomosti. It seems that the ship to be purchased is the third one of its class, which was originally intended for the French Navy and is currently already under construction. An additional 3-4 ships will be built under license, most likely by the St. Petersburg “Severnaia Verf” shipyard. This shipyard belongs to Sergei Pugachev, a billionaire who has long been considered to be a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The total cost of the project (for a total of 5 ships) could be as much as 1.5 billion Euros.
The author of the Vedomosti article questions the extent to which the Russian Navy can afford such a purchase, which is significantly larger than the annual appropriations for shipbuilding to date. He also expresses doubts about the utility of such a craft, since its main purpose is expeditionary warfare and it is unclear where Russia is planning to conduct such operations.
The unstated supposition is that political favoritism, rather than the actual needs of the military, is driving this purchase. I find this to be the most likely scenario as well, with the added ingredient of the Defense Minister wanting to make a dramatic statement that foreign procurement is here to stay.
That said, the Mistral will significantly increase the Russian Navy’s expeditionary capability, especially if it is equipped with a full complement of hovercraft and helicopters, allowing for amphibious landings reagrdless of terrain or onshore facilities. The Mistral is also highly automated, and therefore needs only 160 crew to operate — a potential boon to a military that may find itself with an insufficient supply of professional soldiers and sailors.
Of course, the question of what the purpose of this additional capability would be still remains. Perhaps Russia seeks to be able to chase down pirates on shore? The other alternative — to prepare for an invasion of Crimea — still seems politically unlikely. But the job of the military is to be prepared for possible conflicts entered into by political leaders. Perhaps the military is making sure that, if a decision to invade a neighboring state from the sea is made at some point in the future, it will be ready to carry it out.