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Russia Boosts its Naval Capabilities with French Mistral-class Vessels

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While France recently celebrated the keel-laying for its third Mistral-class amphibious assault ship (Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement, BPC) at the DCNS shipyard in Saint Nazaire, the vessel may see an even greater success.

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Earlier this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy approved Russia’s request for the sale of one of these technologically advanced and versatile naval vessels and is considering Moscow’s request to purchase three more. While this would be a significant up wind for the French naval industry and would provide thousands of jobs in the upcoming years, the deal is being hotly discussed, particularly on the political level.

All Baltic states as well as Georgia have expressed deep concerns about Russia’s bid to purchase the French ship since it will provide the Russian Navy, long since suffering from its ageing fleet, with a significant offensive capability. For the Mistral-class ships can rapidly deploy a large number of troops, vehicles and helicopters to any coastal area in the world. Thereby, it is a powerful asset for operations abroad. In numbers, it can transport 16 helicopters, four landing barges, up to 70 vehicles including 13 main battle tanks, and 450 soldiers. Consequently, neighbouring countries fear an increased imbalance of military power in the region.

At the same time, it is a strong signal in European-Russian and NATO-Russian relations, as the sale would be a true first in the defence industry, and in particular in the naval industry as, so far, Russia has never relied on a third party to increase the striking force of its Navy.

As Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty cited Russia's naval chief, the Mistral would have allowed the Russian Navy to mount a much more efficient action in the Black Sea during the Caucasus conflict in 2008. He said the French ship would take just 40 minutes to do the job that Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels did in 26 hours. This puts the current state of the Russian Navy and its requirement for a modern projection asset quite well into perspective.

Promising Prospects for French Naval Industry

Following long negotiations between the two countries, beginning in August 2009 when Russia first showed interest in purchasing a Mistral-class ship, Sarkozy cleared the way for the sale of at least one ship of this class. Following this decision, Russian officials submitted the request to buy an additional three ships, which will be examined by the French Armament Procurement Agency (Direction générale de l'armement, DGA). In 2009 French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner clarified that a deal with Russia would only be concluded if the two countries reach a political agreement.

Now that the construction of the third and final ship for the French Navy has begun (The ‘Mistral’ and the ‘Tonnerre’ were commissioned in 2006/2007), the news of the Russian interest in the ship is a true sunburst for the French naval industry. Although, according to the DGA, additional countries such as South Africa, Canada and Germany have shown interest, no promising negotiations with any of these countries have begun. The Russian order for four ships would provide the DCNS shipyard, as well as numerous subcontractors, with work for quite a while. The Mistral-class vessels are believed to cost between €300 and €400 million ($430 to $580 million).

However, it still is not clear in which configuration and by which conditions the ships will be sold to Russia. Experts recently explained that the deal might come with conditions that would limit the ships’ offensive capabilities or Russia’s scope of actions. As quoted by AFP, Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institute of Strategic and International Relations in Paris said "Everything will depend on the details. There is nothing to stop France from imposing restrictions, from saying 'I agree to export this vessel but on condition that it is not used in a conflict with Georgia'."

Moreover, Russian analysts are skeptical about the entire Russian initiative to buy such ships. Mikhail Barabanov, science editor of the Eksport Vooruzheny (Arms Export) journal, recently told a Russian daily newspaper: "The Russian Navy lacks the means to finance even the production of corvettes and missile boats, let alone the purchase of large combat ships" He added, "From this standpoint, the order of a large aircraft carrier with a deadweight of over 20,000 tons, which is inferior to the sole Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, seems rather strange, to say the least."

The Baltic Concerns

Any contractual limitations would certainly receive strong support from the Baltic States as well as Georgia, who have repeatedly aired strong concerns and even protests with NATO regarding the sale of such offensive assets to Russia by a NATO member. This is due to the three countries’ perspective of Russia, agreeing that "the picture has not changed much since the Cold War as Russia doesn't see NATO as a partner, but a threat," as Estonia's parliamentary foreign affairs chief, Marko Mihkelson, recently said. Lithuanian Minister of National Defence, Ms Rasa Jukneviciene, supports this view and encourages Russia “to show her confidence to NATO as well and do not take the North Atlantic Alliance as a security threat as has been specified by Russia in her new military doctrine.”

In late 2009, Latvia also expressed repeated concerns about the possible France-Russian deal. Suggesting that the matter be discussed at the meeting of the Baltic States defence ministers, officials indicated that if Russia purchased such a ship and placed it in the Baltic Sea, Latvia would have to revise its state defence plan from a military threat and state security point of view.

French Defence Minister Hervé Morin has attempted to dissipate the expressed fears and defends the plan, saying: "We cannot, on the one hand, enlist Russia in building (European) security and at the same time consider that Russia has not profoundly changed since 1991."

The tenor of all statements from Baltic officials since 2009 suggests that the Baltic States feel that their protests and concerns are being ignored within NATO. Jukneviciene displayed this concern quite clearly by saying in an official statement: “Perhaps this case will encourage the EU and the UN to apply the strategic goods export related provisions in a more constant and transparent way and reach out for a unified interpretation thereof. I also hope that in the future our allies will first consult within the Alliance before they make any decisions that may affect security interests of NATO and its separate member states or partner states".

A Key Development for NATO’s Future

Nevertheless, the Franco-Russian deal is not only a political signal for the relationship between the two countries, but also may extend its effects onto NATO-Russian ties. The relationship of the two former opponents has experienced a strong upswing since Obama’s and Medvedev’s efforts to create more mutual trust and increase cooperation in various fields of common interest. During the past few months, NATO-Russian relations have also improved following strong discord during the Caucasus conflict.

According to AFP, the spokesman for NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed on Wednesday that he does not object to France’s decision to sell ships to Russia. "The secretary general does not consider Russia a threat and he hopes that Russia does not consider NATO a threat," said spokesman James Appathurai. The spokesman further stated that Rasmussen "takes it for granted that any arms sale would fully respect international rules and conventions. But the anxieties of some allies are, of course, real and they are understandable for historical reasons, geographic reasons."

However, NATO currently places much emphasis on improving political and military ties with Russia and, therefore, it is not expected that it will prevent France from selling the Mistral-class vessels to Russia. In order to tackle the challenges, such as the future of Afghanistan, a common approach concerning Iran and North Korea, as well as common security concerns of the western world in the face on international terrorism, it requires Russian support and a stable political environment between the two major power structures.

Also, industrial cooperation as well as a political accord on arms procurement, such as in the case of France and Russia, may significantly help to further improve bilateral and multilateral ties and, as a result, to create a more open pan-European security environment.

By Nicolas von Kospoth, Managing Editor

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