French warships in Russia’s navy

  • 2011-03-09
  • By Karl Haljasmets

TROOP CARRIER: No room for a hot tub on the Mistral.

TARTU - At the end of January, France and Russia finally signed a contract to build and for Russia to buy Mistral-class helicopter carrier military ships. In Estonia there has been a lot of discussion about this quite remarkable sale, and what it means for national security. This is the first time in history when a NATO member country sells high-tech weaponry to Russia. So far this kind of collaboration has been limited to space missions.

Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Defense Forces Ants Laaneots has even said that if Russia buys the Mistral amphibious assault ships, measures should be taken to ensure Estonian national security. “If the French finally sell the Mistrals, we should consider security measures to be taken in case the [Russian] navy is deployed in the Baltic Sea,” Laaneots told Estonian television. He added that if Russia purchases several such ships, an entire brigade of marines can be embarked from them, and for Estonia this means building up a coast guard.

Although the contract between Russia’s Vice-Prime Minister Igor Setsin, and France’s Alain Juppe, at that time Defense Secretary, has been signed, the negotiations are still in a deadlock, as the sides aren’t yet able to agree on deadlines and on the cost of the deal. In addition, there is disagreement about whether licenses should be necessary for producing the remaining ships in Russia be in the total price or considered separately.

Four ships are going to be sold under this contract. Russia will construct 20 percent of the first warship, 40 percent of the second and 80 percent of the last two, with these last 2 to be built on Russian territory.
Karmo Tuur, an Estonian political scientist who specializes in Russian affairs, believes that at the moment we should indeed take into consideration the possibility that the sale could still fall through. “Alleged differences about price and rumors about removals in Russia’s naval administration could indicate serious problems they have there, ” he says.
“Nevertheless, the price of the deal isn’t the decisive factor. Seemingly Russia is ready to pay even more, if needed. We should bear in mind that it isn’t a plain purchase and sale agreement, but political bargaining on a world-class level,” believes Tuur.

Mariann Sudakov, public relations officer of the Foreign Ministry, said that Estonia has discussed the sale of the Mistrals with France and other allies. “We don’t see that this transaction is a direct security danger to Estonia. For Estonia it is important that, when the deal between France and Russia is done, that it has to meet the requirements of all international rules, including European Union and NATO principles about selling strategic goods to third countries,” she says.
A member of Estonian Parliament, Mart Nutt, who also belongs to the Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association, thinks that it seems the European allies aren’t interested in the Mistral problem. “However, the U.S. has criticised the transaction relatively sharply. Regardless, it is not understandable that one member state of NATO sets its business interests higher than the security of other NATO allies, ” he points out.

He argues with Sudakov and explains that Estonia, and likewise Latvia and Lithuania, are geographically situated in a place wherein Russia can easily block them off by separating the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia. In addition, that Baltic States also have a long land border with Russia and Belarus. “It is easy to use Mistral type ships in organizing a sea landing and to attack Estonia from 3 directions all at once, counting on the posiibility of an air attack,” says Nutt.
Ahto Lobjakas, an Estonian columnist who at the moment works at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, feels that for Estonia and the other Baltic States, it has mainly a moral impact. “One large NATO ally sells high-tech equipment, that is mainly meant for amphibious assaults, to our eastern neighbor. It isn’t a direct danger. However, security isn’t based only on brutal force; psychological impact is significant as well,” says Lobjakas.

When examining the Mistrals’ capabilities, its suitability for amphibious landing activity is apparent. The multipurpose helicopter carrier Mistral has a displacement of 21,000 tons, an extreme hull length of 210 meters and maximum speed of 18 knots. It has an operating range of up to 20,000 miles with a crew of 160 plus, and when needed, a 450-man landing party. There can also be situated an air force of a maximum of 16 helicopters, with 6 of these simultaneously placed on the takeoff deck. Besides this, the cargo deck can contain over 40 tanks or 70 trucks.

The position of the Ministry of Defense is the same as the Foreign Ministry. The Ministry of Defense public relations officer, Martin Jasko, recently said to Estonian news agency Delfi that they believe France’s explanations that the Mistral landing ships’ potential sale doesn’t damage Estonian interests. “Recently, Pierre Lellouche, the Secretary of State for European affairs of France, visited Estonia and he shared appropriate explanations about the Mistral deal. That explanation convinced us that the interests of any allies will not be damaged through this deal,”says Jasko.

He thinks it would be speculation to conduct commentary on a deal that hasn’t been signed yet, noting that “Estonia is proceeding with observing the developments in the security field and [takes] necessary measures to insure security in this region, and widely within the alliance.”

“In case the sale would go through and Russia gets the Mistral class amphibious assault ships, then it changes quite a lot in the balance of power. Not, indeed, on a great scale, but in tactical operations it can give great advantages to the Russian Federation,” considers Tuur. “To sum up, if the sale would be succesful, then it means that Russia’s general military capability doesn’t increase so much as its deterrence capability. This can be considered for Moscow enough cause to make an effort.”

Nutt says he doesn’t know where they are going to use these ships, but at the moment it seems that Russia wants to place them in the Baltic Sea. “This being so, then it raises a serious question: against who and with what purpose? The same question arises when the Mistrals are going to be placed in the Black Sea. I interpret it as Russia’s attempt to strengthen its control over the territory of the former Soviet Union, which it still thinks to be in its own sphere of influence.”