I suppose I should not be surprised that the professional fearmongers would not be fazed by the announcement that the Russian navy will deploy the first two Mistrals to the Pacific Fleet. Since a good chunk of the commentariat had spent well over a year arguing that placing these ships in Russian hands would destabilize Russia’s entire western periphery and present a grave threat to Georgia and the Baltic states, I thought that this announcement would trim their sails a bit.
Instead, we have the following two quotes from an otherwise informative piece by Pavel Felgenhauer in today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor on changes in Russian force structure in the Far East:
It seems the deployment of the Mistrals in the Pacific Fleet is not against Japan, but that the US in preparation for conflict could “leap-frog” the fortified South Kuriles into the undefended and uninhabited central Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk.
Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning. The strategic build up in the Kuriles and of the Pacific Fleet capabilities may not be aimed at Japan or China per se, but the US – Russia’s true present number one strategic concern.
It turns out that placing the Mistrals in the Pacific may perhaps be an even greater threat to US security than having them in Russia’s western fleets. After all, the US remains Russia’s top strategic concern, so all of its military planning must clearly be aimed at stopping the inevitable US invasion.
There are so many things wrong with this analysis, I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, if the US for some reason wanted to invade the Sea of Okhotsk, presumably in order to take out Russia’s nuclear submarines based there, I can’t imagine that the Mistrals would pose any kind of impediment. These ships are essentially troop and helicopter transports with some nice C2 capabilities. The main criticism of the French version of these ships is that they cannot enter hostile waters without an escort, because they are under-equipped for self-defense. They would be no match for even a single US destroyer, much less a carrier strike group. In other words, they add little or nothing to Russia’s ability to protect the Kuriles from a potential US invasion.
Next, let’s address the question of whether the US is Russia’s number one strategic concern. While one can’t read the minds of President Medvedev and his advisors, this statement seems to go against the entire thrust of the recent military reform. The reform was designed to increase the Russian military’s ability to deal with small local conflicts, while reducing its classic Cold War anti-US posture. This would not have been done if military planners still believed that they would be likely to fight a war against the United States. There’s just no evidence out there to support this statement.
This is not to say that Russia can ignore the possibility of conflict with the US completely. It has to be prepared for such a conflict given the sheer power of the US military and its positioning near Russian borders. It would be foolish of Russian military planners to ignore the possibility of such as conflict. What I challenge is the statement that “The US is Russia’s number one strategic concern.” It’s more like Russia’s #4 or #5 strategic concern. And I very much doubt that the unlikely possibility of facing the US at some point is the reason for the decision to place the Mistrals in the Pacific. Especially given my argument above that they would be useless in that fight.
Finally, there’s the question of whether Russia is truly concerned about the possibility of a Japanese threat to the Kuriles. Felgenhauer argues that “Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning.” While I doubt that Russian planners believe that Japan is going to invade Russia any time soon, the reality is that strategic planners are paid to prepare for unlikely but possible contingencies, and Japan and Russia do have an unresolved border dispute. It would be irresponsible for them to not prepare for the remote possibility of a military conflict over the southern Kuriles at some point down the road, perhaps in the unlikely event of a turn toward militant nationalism in Japan. The chances of such a turn are remote at best, and if I were a planner, I’d spend my money on something else, but it’s certainly more likely than a US naval invasion of the Sea of Okhotsk.
And the potential for a conflict with China is somewhat more likely than that (though again not very likely at all). Though the Mistrals aren’t particularly well equipped for a fight with China. Which brings us back to the question of why put the Mistrals in the Pacific. It seems to me, and I’ve made this argument before, that the Russian navy bought these ships primarily in order to rebuild its domestic shipbuilding capability. But having bought them, it needs to put them somewhere — and the Pacific is a more logical place than any of the other fleets given the local political and strategic environment. So having made that decision, they needed to be given a mission — and protecting the Kuriles made more sense, given the ships’ actual capabilities, than anything else.
UPDATE: Added a paragraph above to address a commenter’s point that Russia has to be prepared to fight the US.