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.

10 thoughts on “How much of a threat to NATO is the Mistral sale?

  1. I think t he jury is still out, because I don’t think the Russians themselves know for certain what they will do with them. One day they will be deployed in the Far East, the next in Sevastapol.

    I agree with LCDR Baker insofar as his suggestion of the importance of getting access to modern technology. I just went through my files on weapons acquisition for the last five or 6 years. The one thing that stands out is their recognition that they are far behind in the area of modern technology. In fact, one Russian made the point that the problem with an air defense treaty is that they recognize they are about 10 years behind now, and that the US is modernizing is weapons to such a degree that in ten years Moscow may be even further behind.

    The Russians have spoken openly of their need to purchase weapons and equipment abroad. They have been bitter about their own backwardness. They are not happy about it, but they have no alternative whether it is Israeli UVs, French gun sights, UK weapons, and now the Mistral.

    The Mistral obviously provides a new and advanced platform. It can be used to ferry naval infantry, but to be effective, it will need escort ships, and the Russians have only launched three or four ships recently, and none of them fit the bill.

  2. Well, Socor has one thing to say about Russia and it never changes.
    “The issue here is a serious flaw in Moscow’s worldview. It still dreams of
    former SSRs, such as Georgia and Moldova (another unwilling host to Russian
    military bases), as subordinates. Given that fact, and a Russian military
    itching for a fight it can win to distract attention from its embarrassing
    and bloodstained record in Chechnya, it’s no wonder the Georgians are nervous.”
    WSJ 2002
    etc etc blah blah blah

  3. While I focused on the importance of technology, I have to admit that Patrick is right. Perception is in the eye of the beholder. After all if you are one of the small states who perhaps even exaggerates the Russian threat, the Mistral is just the kind of force projection ship that scares the HELL out of them.

    I spent enough of my life with Poles to know the exaggerated fear brought on by history. In some cases, there is no sense in going to reasoned arguments, for many of them history is too important.

    The world the Russians see (only 10% of its weapons are modern) and the world the small states see (the giant with force projection capability) are quite different, what Chairman Mao would call an “antagonistic contradiction.”

  4. Dear Mr. Herspring,

    May I suggest that you use the word “exaggerate” rather too liberally. It is an indisputable fact that Russia is far more powerful than any of its immediate neighbours and even than most possible combinations of these neighbours. When this is combined with an aggressive Russian foreign policy, it is easy to see why the nations of Eastern Europe are concerned.
    I would say that it is more accurate to speak of a Western complacency, perhaps even outright mendacity, with regard to assessment of the Russian military. Greed for Russia’s money leavened with condescension for her neighbours is hardly far-sighted.
    Do you think that this description of Western attitudes is incorrect?

  5. I would say that it is a gross simplification. The military process in Russia is not only confused, it is complex and contradictory. The resignations of key generals yesterday is an example.
    I served in Eastern Europe and I fully understand the historically founded fear of Russian military power. And Moscow could use it against its neighbors, but from a Russian military standpoint, Georgia was a disaster and only served to underline how far behind the West the Russian military is. Read the numerous criticisms by the military itself of that undertaking. I would argue that it will be many years, if ever, before the Russian military is able to field the kind of mobile, flexible, lethal military found in the West. The new ship provides minimal technological transfer — and if you read the Russian military and naval writers, that is exactly what they say.
    Moscow could easily raise Hell with its neighbors with the antiquated military it has, and four new amphibs are not going to change that . It needs other ships and it doesn’t have them. For example, the flag ship of the Far East is an out-of-date cruiser. It is the same ship that visited San Diego in 1999.
    Concern over the Russian military is always justified. But at this point, I would argue that your concerns are exaggerated.

    Dale Herspring

  6. Dear Mr. Herspring,

    I agree that confusion reigns throughout Russian government, yet that hardly decreases the threat it poses to neighbours which are often even more disorganised as well as weaker. To use your example, the resignation of these generals shows the inconsistency of Russian personnel policy, but it in no way decreases Russia’s hostility to Georgia or its overwhelming superiority.
    The Georgian war was indeed a close-run thing for the Russian military, but it is seen as a great political victory, since the political goals were achieved, with fears of Western action proving unfounded. Russia’s military is not modern, but, as you acknowledge, it is amply sufficient to intimidate its neighbours, especially in the contemporary context. This includes the decreasing military power of all NATO members, including even the US. One needs only to look at the deteriorating state of America’s aerial transport and tanker fleets to see how great the emerging weaknesses of the US military are. Russia does not need to have much by way of functioning military forces to benefit from the political advantages of perceived military power, especially when the West is ever more distracted and passive.
    The Mistral’s importance is of course not military, since Russia’s navy has collapsed. The mere fact that France is willing to sign large arms contracts with Russia has great political significance. Furthermore, technological transfer may well take place, for there are persistent rumours among Russian specialists that SENIT 9 will be transferred in full. The history of French cooperation with China suggests that the French will, if paid, be prepared to transfer a great deal. The danger emanating specifically from the Mistral is that Russia will obtain modern technologies and transfer them to other nations, perhaps China, which will be much more able to make use of them.
    Russia presents not an absolute, but a relative danger. This danger is growing as the West weakens and it is worsened by Russia’s transfers of technology to aggressive regimes, technology which is more modern than that they could obtain from any other source.

  7. Dear Mr. Green,

    We are much more on the same page at this point. Yes, Russia is the 800 pound gorilla sitting on Georgia’s border. However, I suspect that putting a fighting army on the field right now would extend the Russian Army beyond its capabilities. The last time in Georgia they had to use instructors for fighter pilots and look all over Russia for individuals qualified to command.
    Your comment on the West is right on. I have finished a manuscript that looks at civil-military relations in the US, Canada, Germany and Russia. The outlook for the military in any of the four.
    While Russians don’t admit it openly, my reading of their literature and contact with retired Russian officers in Moscow make it clear to me that the Kremlin sees China as its main threat, but won’t say so openly. NATO is sort of the only animal around that is politically correct.

    Thanks for your contribution.

  8. Dear Mr. Herspring,

    I am fairly sure modern Russia cannot field a a true fighting army on any scale, but the current reforms have been successful in effecting one basic change, that is removing the “dead souls” of cadre units and their officers. That alone has freed up significant resources and so the remaining units should be at least somewhat effective. Open sources put the Southern Military District’s strength at 8 motor rifle, 3 light and 3 special forces brigades, and 2 airborne regiments. That is too much for any Georgian military of the immediate future. If the Georgians possessed the ruthlessness and combat experience of the Chechens, Russia could not hope to win, but as things stand, it will.
    As we agree that the future of Western militaries looks poor, it seems to me that Russia will be able to cause significant trouble, although mostly political rather than military, in the near future. In such a situation, China may find itself in the same position as Hitler, that is facing a string of weak and disunited enemies who are distracted by conflicts between themselves. The current Russian thinks itself a ‘nuclear-hydrocarbon superpower,’ but in practice is allowing China to threaten its rear unopposed, constantly feuding with the West instead. Russia’s greatest problem is that even many of those who see China as a threat despise the West and do not wish to cooperate with it, inviting their own destruction.

    Thank you for your replies.

  9. Pingback: More than you ever wanted to know about the Mistral « Russian Military Reform

  10. Pingback: Estul – perspective pesimiste «

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