If Russia attacks a neighbor, it might do with new warships supplied by France.
It’s been about 18 months since Russia invaded the small Caucasus nation of Georgia, a move which shocked the world and sparked fears that Ukraine, another pro-Western ally in Moscow’s backyard, could be next.
Those fears have subsided since, but should the Kremlin decide to attack one of its neighbors again, it may be able to do so with state-of-the-art warships it wants to buy from France. And while relations between Moscow and Kyiv look brighter since the more Eastern-looking President Victor Yanukovych took power on Feb. 25, other post-Soviet states bullied by Russia for their Western integration efforts have already sounded the alarm bell.
Although the deal for Russia’s purchase of four Mistral-class helicopter and tank carriers has yet to be finalized, analysts say the Kremlin desperately needs to modernize its navy, and the Black Sea is a good place to project its new power. The sale is reportedly valued at $2 billion.
Following talks with Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Paris on March 1, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France had entered into “exclusive talks” to sell Russia the ships.
Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, chief of the Russian naval staff, had noted ominously in September that the military's 2008 campaign in Georgia’s Abkhazia region could have been completed in record time with the help of a Mistral.
Yet Sarkozy played down fears of revived Russian imperialism. “How can we tell our Russian partners: We need you for peace, we need you to resolve a number of crises in the world, particularly the Iranian crisis ... but we don’t trust you, we can’t work with you on Mistral?” Sarkozy said on March 1.
Medvedev called the potential defense deal, which is expected to entail a technology transfer to Russia, “a symbol of trust between our two countries.”
Some of France’s fellow NATO members are not as sanguine about such a sale, with U.S. officials raising eyebrows, and Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Ants Laaneots, warning that Estonia would respond by increasing its security.
Mamuka Kudava, Georgia’s ambassador in Paris, told the Associated Press on March 2 that his nation will protest the planned deal.
Tim Fish, maritime reporter for Jane’s Navy International, described the Mistral as a powerful new tool for the Russian naval arsenal.
“Russia’s existing amphibious ships are just one-fifth of the size, are not helicopter-capable, and are built to a roll-on roll-off design, which means they need a port facility to land their tanks. This is very limiting. The Russian landings that took place on Georgia’s coast in August 2008 were completed at Georgian ports because they could not land them elsewhere,” he said.
The Mistral, built by France’s DCNS, can operate up to 16 helicopters, carry 450 troops (900 in emergency situations), 60 armored vehicles (or 13 main battle tanks) and 1,200-tons of cargo. Using the helicopters and landing craft, the ship can deploy troops at a wider variety of locations on a coastline, increasing the navy’s tactical options, according to Jane’s.
“They could buy another type of amphibious ship from elsewhere, but whatever model of ship they eventually choose they will be able to operate it wherever they like, and the Black Sea is one obvious choice,” Fish said.
If the transaction goes through, it would be the first such large-scale arms sale by a NATO military alliance country to Russia. It would net DCNS around 400 million euro for each fully-armed vessel.
Not everyone, however, is convinced that Ukraine has reason to worry about Russia re-arming close to home.
Anatoly Hrytsenko, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said a purchase deal wouldn’t change the balance of powers in the Black Sea or threaten Ukraine’s interests.
“Any augmentation of Russia’s military presence at its base in Ukraine would have to be agreed between the two sides,” he said.
But Mykhailo Samus, a Ukrainian military analyst, described the Mistral as “a floating military base.”
Russia’s primary motivation in acquiring a Mistral is likely rooted in the country’s need for the high technology transfer that it would receive for its own lagging defense industry as part of the package, he said.
The Mistral could nevertheless also serve as a new statement of Russian military might, including its possible use in punitive expeditions against its immediate neighbors such as Ukraine.
Under former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, who openly advocated NATO membership for his country, the threat of a conflict with Russia looked more imminent. However, Kremlin muscle-flexing has been a consistent feature of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has made no secret of its desire to pull former Soviet republics not yet in NATO back under its control.
One possible scenario involving a Kremlin show of force against Ukraine might be an expedition to protect ethnic Russians in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which more than one politician in Moscow has claimed for Russia.
“If such conditions were present, that ship is intended for precisely such purposes,” Samus said.
Kyiv Post staff writer John Marone can be reached at email@example.com.