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.

The Mistral sale: No reason to panic

The recent news that the French government has agreed to sell one or more of its Mistral amphibious assault ships to Russia has led to virtual panic in some quarters. The cold warriors who have never quite gotten over the view that the Soviet Union Russia is hell-bent on threatening the rest of the world seem to believe that Russia will use these ships to attack (or at least threaten to attack) any neighboring states that dare to oppose it.  Here’s a typical statement (from Vlad Socor):

NATO is being tested, with “its future at stake,” not so much in Afghanistan as the line recently went, but rather in Brussels itself and in the Alliance’s most influential capitals. The latest among these tests –one that the Alliance seems only determined to side-step– is over the proposed French naval modernization program for Russia. The program envisages selling one French Mistral-class warship –a state-of-the art, offensive power-projection capability– to Russia and licensing the construction of three or four ships of the same class in Russia, potentially usable in the Baltic and Black Sea.

And a little later in the same article:

Georgia remains a prime target of opportunity for Russia in the Black Sea basin at present. A Mistral-class ship would enable Russia to threaten amphibious and helicopter landings on Georgia’s sea coast, with far greater speed and effectiveness than those of Russia’s existing capabilities. Russia’s naval command publicly alluded to the Mistral’s potential use against Georgia when starting the talks with France for the sale. Paris has ignored Georgian officials’ appeals (EDM, September 18, November 2, December 2, 2009). Meanwhile, Georgia is an all-but disarmed country and (as a thwarted NATO aspirant) is not covered by any external security guarantees.

There is a widespread assumption that these ships would be used in either the Black or Baltic Seas. This allows the writer to claim that the ships will increase the threat Russia poses to Georgia or the Baltic States. Most of this speculation is based on a single comment by Admiral Vysotsky, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, about Russia being able to win the 2008 war with Georgia more quickly if it had the Mistral. He most likely said this in order to increase the navy’s chances of getting more procurement funding. The Russian navy would play a minor role in any conflict in the region (except with Turkey, god forbid). A future conflict with Georgia, just like the previous one, would primarily involve ground forces, with air force cover to the extent it’s still capable of that. The Navy would have a small role, with or without the Mistral — just enough to justify continued funding.

Furthermore, I very much doubt that the Mistral ship(s) will be based in the Black Sea or the Baltic. All of the Russian reports I’ve seen on this assume that these ships will go to the two big fleets (Northern and Pacific). I share this belief, in part because of prestige factors — the Black Sea Fleet is a bit of a backwater, despite all the politics that swirl around it. The Baltic Fleet even more so. The Russian navy is not going to put its most modern (and one of its largest) ships in a backwater. Second, basing in the Black Sea will be tricky. The agreement with Ukraine prevents Russia from placing new ships in Sevastopol. It’s possible, of course, that Yanukovich will agree to allow this to happen, but I think he will seek to avoid needlessly antagonizing the anti-Russian part of the Ukrainian population and will not do this. This means that a Mistral-class ship would have to be based at Novorossiisk. This presents various logistical challenges — there isn’t very much space there now and the base expansion is not ready yet and won’t be for several more years. So even if Russia wanted to place a new Mistral-class ship in the Black Sea, it would be difficult for it to do so in the short term. And more than one is simply out of the question.

A second concern for the cold warriors is that the Mistral would significantly increase the Russian Navy’s force projection capability. This is also based on the Vysotsky comment — the part about how with this ship, Russian troops could have gotten to Georgia more quickly. But Russia has plenty of domestically built amphibs — some of which were used in August 2008. The main constraint then (as Vysotsky noted) was the speed of the ships vs the distance from their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiisk to the conflict area. By the time they got to Georgia, all that was left to do was to mop up. Is the Mistral that much faster than their existing ships? Its top speed is 18.8 knots. Ropuchas and Alligators can go 16-18 knots. So the talk about Russian troops being able to get to Georgia faster on the Mistral is just talk. They just don’t need the Mistral for the purpose of troop transport.

There are three potential reasons for the purchase: 1) As a helo platform, 2) as a command ship (if they get some advanced electronics as part of the deal), 3) as means of rebuilding the domestic shipbuilding industry (if they get to build the other 3 under license). These are obviously not mutually exclusive. I have discussed reasons 2 and 3 before (here and here). Galrahn has an excellent discussion of reason 1. Basically, he argues, helicopters are a key part of Russian naval doctrine. They need new helicopter carriers and may be concerned that their domestic shipbuilding industry is not currently capable of building such a ship on its own. So they buy one from the French to improve this core capability and hope to also get a license to build more domestically so they can revive their shipbuilding industry.

The last thing they want is to be dependent on foreign purchases for the long term. The Russian military’s culture is based on self-sufficiency. The admission that they have to buy a major ship from abroad, and from a NATO member no less, is deeply traumatic for top commanders and therefore something they hope to avoid having to do in the future. To say that this deal will open the floodgates to future NATO arms sales to Russia fundamentally misunderstands this point. Though from my point of view, the more NATO sells arms to Russia the better. Ideally, NATO would also buy certain kinds of arms from Russia. They still make really good machine guns, for example. If NATO states and Russia develop a relationship where they sell equipment to each other, they are much less likely to view each other with hostility and distrust. And this can only help increase stability in Europe.

So, to summarize, the Mistral is likely to be based in the Pacific and/or Northern Fleets, where it is very unlikely to be a threat to Georgia or the Baltic States. Its purpose will not be to transport troops for amphibious landings, but to carry helicopters and/or to serve as a command center for naval task forces. And Russian leaders hope to use the newly established relationship with the French to revive their domestic shipbuilding, so they don’t have to buy ships from abroad in the future.

Russia in the Black Sea

In his recent article in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vladimir Socor makes the case that Russia poses a significant threat in the Black Sea region. In the aftermath of last year’s war with Georgia and given continued hostile rhetoric against Ukraine, there is certainly a case to be made for Russia posing a threat to at least some of its neighbors. But Socor argues that Russia poses a naval threat to the region, and this is certainly not the case in any way.

Most disturbingly, his discussion of the conduct and outcome of Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008 is inaccurate or misleading on at least five major points.

1) First of all, he is wrong in stating that:

According to Russian media accounts from naval sources in the war’s aftermath, the Russian naval group moved slowly from Sevastopol in the direction of Georgia, four or five days before the August 8 assault.

Both the Russian media and independent observers in Sevastopol were quite clear that the Russian naval group left Sevastopol within 24 hours of the start of hostilities, not before they began. This was reported at the time in Vremia Novostei (August 11, 2008) and in a subsequent analysis (Flag Rodiny, October 3, 2008). Also, some of the ships headed to Novorossiisk, rather than directly toward Georgia.

2) As part of his argument for Russia’s naval threat in the region, Socor discusses the Russian attack on Georgian ships during the war, but fails to mention that the Georgian ships were heading directly for the Russian ships at the time of the confrontation, that they furthermore refused to respond to hails and warnings to turn back from the Russian ships, and only then were attacked by the Russian ships.

(My analysis of the naval deployment, the battle with Georgian ships, and the conflict’s impact on Black Sea naval security can be found here.)

On a side note, Socor neglects the fundamental fact that the war was started by Georgia. It is true that they were responding to provocations by Ossetian militias, but a frontal assault on a city is a major escalation from occasional firefights across a disputed border. Furthermore, Georgian troops attacked Russian peacekeepers stationed in the area. It doesn’t matter if the peacekeepers were there to serve as a trigger for Russian intervention. The fact that Georgian troops attacked them justified the subsequent Russian military response, although I believe that crossing the Ossetia-Georgia border was unjustified and likely in violation of international law.  Those who disagree might want to think about how the US would react if (for example) in 1999 or 2000 the Serbian army staged a deliberate military attack on Kosovo that targeted American peacekeepers in the area.

3) Socor argues that the naval operation was in violation of the 1997 basing treaty that gave Russia the right to occupy the Sevastopol naval base for 20 years. My understanding was that Russia had gone to some lengths to stay within the letter, if not the spirit, of the treaty (by sending ships to Novorossiisk before they went to Georgia). But I lack the legal expertise to follow all the intricacies of that treaty, so I will not argue that point. At the same time, analysts who are familiar with the terms of the treaty argued at the time that Ukrainian President Yushchenko’s decree “requiring the Russian Black Sea Fleet command to provide advanced notification to Ukrainian authorities in each case when its ships and personnel exit and re-enter Ukrainian territory” was not in accord with the 1997 treaty, which cannot be modified unilaterally. If this is the case, then Russia is perfectly within its rights to ignore the decree.

4) Socor condemns Russia for seeking that it “will try to prolong the stationing of its fleet beyond the 2017 deadline.” I’m not sure why this is a problem. Everyone knows that Russia would prefer to keep its fleet in Sevastopol. Furthermore, the 1997 treaty has a provision for a five-year extension. So why wouldn’t the Russian leadership press for a renewal. Given the political instability that has plagued Ukraine since the Orange revolution there is a decent chance that at some point in the next 5-6 years, there will be a Ukrainian government in place that will be on more friendly terms with Moscow and will sign such a renewal. Russia is hoping for such an outcome while also making contingency plans to remove the fleet to Novorossiisk (and perhaps other bases as well) if the renewal does not come through.

5) Finally, I should address the core of Socor’s argument that Russia’s recent activities have created a situation of maritime security weakness in the Black Sea. He complains that “the current situation in the Black Sea amounts to a Russian-Turkish naval condominium.” It seems to me that the Black Sea has been a Russian-Turkish condominium for decades, so I’m not sure what the difference is now.

Furthermore, I would argue that Russian behavior in the Black Sea is generally quite restrained, because its general goal is to work with the West, but only under conditions of respect and equality. This was shown by its resumption of cooperation with NATO in the aftermath of the Georgian war as soon as NATO was willing to do so.

In general, Russian foreign policy has two main drivers: the desire for respect in the international community and the desire for economic advantage. Everything it does can be derived from one or both of these overarching goals. In other words, Russia is fundamentally a status quo power in the international community and will not act to destabilize that community.

One final note for those who might disagree with my threat assessment above. Even if Socor is right that Russia seeks to destabilize the security situation in the region, the Black Sea Fleet is in no condition to threaten Turkey or NATO. This was clearly evident in the aftermath of the Georgia war, when the motley collection of whatever ships NATO countries happened to have nearby was clearly militarily superior to the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Since Romania and Bulgaria are NATO members, the only countries that could potentially feel threatened by Russia are Ukraine and Georgia. Georgia has already been defeated. If Russia wanted to, it could conquer the entire country in a manner of weeks, though it would undoubtedly face a guerrilla campaign for years to come. That’s not in its interests and is not going to happen. Ukraine is currently being treated in Russia as enemy #1, but much depends on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. In any case, the placement of a Russian navy base on Ukrainian territory actually makes a Russian attack on Ukraine much more difficult logistically and may well serve to stabilize the security situation in the region.