“Strange and risky” were the words Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used to describe the anticipated warship deal between France and the Russian Federation.
Indeed, the patently anti-Russian government of Georgia has reasonable cause for concern. Russia’s option to purchase the Mistral class assault ship from France is very likely to be deployed to the Black Sea region. For Russia, the Mistral class ships would make an excellent addition to the aging Black Sea Fleet (BSF). Such a ship would provide a dramatic increase in key operational capabilities, and would also be able to pass unimpeded through the Turkish Straits. It is doubtful however that Russia will purchase more than one or two of the vessels. Despite the Russian government’s high-flying rhetoric, Mistral’s mission, at least in the near future, will be limited to strengthening Russia’s hold over the Caucasus.
The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey stewardship of all sea traffic in the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits. Although Russia enjoys special access terms under a Soviet-era agreement, it is still explicitly prohibited from sending aircraft carriers through the straights. Despite the ability to carry up to 16 helicopters, Mistral is classified as an amphibious assault ship and therefore is not subject to the treaty’s prohibition. Non-Black Sea states are severely limited in the number, displacement, and armament of military vessels allowed to pass. In a recent incident during the 2008 South Ossetia War, U.S. naval ships were refused passage into the Black Sea by Turkish authorities, and hospital ships had to be dispatched instead.
Mistral’s ability to transport up to 900 troops for short cruises will provide the BSF with a roughly 50% increase in amphibious landing capacity (currently there are 6 amphibious landing craft in the BSF capable of carrying about 225 soldiers each). The presence of helicopters on board will ensure vital close air support and medical evacuation capabilities. Even one such ship would significantly improve Russia’s military hold on the Georgian secessionist regions of Abkhazia and, to a lesser degree, South Ossetia. A senior Russian admiral recently claimed that if [Mistral class ships] had been a part of the fleet in 2008, Russian forces would have overrun Georgia “within 40 minutes,” rather than 26 hours.
The addition of several Mistral class ships will allow Russia to potentially create an expeditionary landing force for use around the world. This new capability, underscored by a bill recently introduced in the Russian parliament, expands the legal reasons to deploy Russian troops abroad. In accordance with this legislation, the Russian Navy’s fleet has been successfully patrolling the coast of Somalia in an exercise to stem piracy in the region. Still, renewed Russian Naval assertiveness is unlikely to assume global ambitions in the near future.
For all their military allure, the Mistral ships are not cheap at nearly half a billion euro apiece. Despite its stated intentions to buy four ships, Russia, which suffered a severe recession from global economic downturn, is unlikely to buy more than one or two. There is already growing opposition to the purchase and pressure to produce a domestic version instead. But Russia should be in no rush. Without the urgent need, and with such a high price, it is difficult to rationalize Russia’s acquisition of these ships.