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Mistral sails into the Sea of Policy
The information about France's consent to sell Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Russia aroused panic in Georgia, Ukraine and Baltic states, although according to Secretary of Russia's Security Council Nikolai Patrushev "now it is not a time to speak of non-made decisions". Experts say this issue should be considered in general context of relationship between France, Russia, the U.S. and NATO.
Russia's intentions to buy large warship from France leaked out as early as in June 2009 at IV International Maritime Defense Show held in St. Petersburg when Russian Navy's officials showed interest to French heli-carrier capable to accommodate a marine brigade. Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Vysotsky then "admitted" probable procurement of such ship.
In August 2009 the Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov confirmed that talks on the issue were in progress. Finally, in November Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, First Deputy Chief of Navy HQ declared the intention "to purchase one French Mistral-type ship and to build four helicopter carriers of this class under technical support and license of French party".
We remind that French multipurpose helicopter carrier Mistral has displacement over 21,000 tons, extreme length of 210 meters, full speed over 18 knots, and operating range up to 20,000 nm; her crew is 160 men. The carrier is capable to accommodate up to 450 marines (and up to 900 for short period). Air group consists of 16 helicopters; six of them can be simultaneously placed on the deck. The ship has several landing cutters. Her underdeck capacity is enough to place 40 tanks or 70 wheeled vehicles.
Note that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union has had ships of this class before. According to experts, a similar project had been developed but was not implemented due to breakup of the USSR; that project is too irrelevant to be reanimated at present.
If the bargain is done, France would sell to Russia one heli-carrier, probably not equipped with radars and weapons. The purchase sum would make about 400-500 mln euro. Besides, Russia would obtain a license to build four ships and that factsurely increases the transaction cost up to 1-1.2 bln euro. According to French media, the ship will be built at STX France shipyards [former Chantiers de l'Atlantique] located in Saint-Nazaire. Naval concern DCNS appears to be a partner.
Meanwhile, Igor Leonov, person in charge for delivery of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya [former Admiral Gorshkov] being upgraded at Severodvinsk shipyard Sevmash assured our interviewer that Sevmash was more than capable to build a carrier of that class. "We could have built such carrier hands down. Visiting Mistral we didn't see anything special. We've studied all materials applied at Mistral; just the same things are used in construction of Vikramaditya carrier", affirms I. Leonov.
As for communist MP Oleg Kulikov, "speaking of maintenance, in Russian Navy such lonesome, foreign and fundamentally different ship will need additional expenses comparable with cost of the ship itself; that fact will definitely subordinate Russia to supplying country".
By the way, Georgia, Ukraine and Baltic countries have already expressed their anxiety about forthcoming bargain. In December Baltic defense ministers showed their concern of Russia's plans to purchase Mistral since presence of such in the Baltic would allegedly change security situation in the region.
As for experts of Ukrainian Research Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament, the basing site of the carrier would presumably be the Black Sea. There, in their opinion, combat use of Mistral-class ships without screening is only possible against those countries which fleets can't resist Russian Navy. In the Black Sea it is any country except may be Turkey. "Group of Mistral-class ships within Russian Navy would significantly affect geopolitical power balance at the Baltic and Black Sea regions and shift center-of-power towards Russia", warn Ukrainian experts.
Georgian foreign minister Grigol Vashadze also warrants the Black Sea would be the only basing site for Mistral ships. "If Russia had such ship in August 2008, it would have completed its mission in 40 minutes but not in 26 hours", said Admiral V. Vysotsky in the context of potential procurement. Thereafter, Russian premier Vladimir Putin added fuel to the fire. Answering the question of French reporter whether Mistral would be used against Georgia, Mr. Putin stated, "I can only assure you that if we buy something, we will use it wherever we want".
In this connection official Tbilisi hopes Georgian-friendly nations [including France] would disallow Russia to obtain one more weapon posing a threat to entire region.
However, Russian military officials underline that neither the Black Sea nor the Baltic will be home base for Mistral. Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, First Deputy Chief of Main Navy HQ stated new warships would be dispatched to Northern and Pacific fleets – obviously, to secure oil and gas production at Arctic continental shelf.
Nevertheless, US Congress has instantly reacted on rumor about Mistral sell. Prejudiced senators addressed a letter to French Ambassador in Washington; members of the House of Representatives also "expressed concern" of Paris' decision to sell arms to Russia.
France responded immediately. As recently as last Monday French President Nikolas Sarkozy meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared "such partnership with Russia which conditions have not been specified yet is natural". American defense minister in his turn noted that potential delivery of helicopter carriers is "rather message than a real threat". Later on, French foreign ministry confirmed once again that Paris had politically approved possible sell of Mistral to Russia and stated inalterability of this decision.
In this connection Yury Rubinsky, director of France Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences said in interview to Rosbalt that procurement of helicopter carriers should be considered not in the economical aspect of Russian-French relations but in the context of political "bargaining" between Paris and Washington.
"At present, Paris builds relations with Obama's administration. An array of problems is being discussed – from Iran issue to France's part in Afghanistan operation. Having joined NATO again, France desires to achieve maximum preferences. Sarkozy clearly realizes that selling Mistral-type ships to Russia is a great combination to put through", outlines the expert.
Besides, in his opinion, significance of the issue grows up because of "Baltic states and Georgia gave mouth insisting on the fact their security is under the threat; consequently, NATO's ability to defend its allies and satellites is placed in doubt".
Moscow also seems to realize this is not the matter of bilateral relations but a bargaining between so-called superpowers. So, Russia does not want to rush things either. "We can build such ship here in Russia but that would need time. Or we can buy it overseas and that would need money. The latter looks more rational", said last Tuesday Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia's Security Council having underlined that "now it is premature to say what decision would be made on this matter".
Most likely, Russia, France and the U.S. will make the conclusive decision early next month during the visit of the President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev to Paris.