Russia, the Mistral and the Sevastopol: Is There An Alternative?


2014-05-18 by Robbin Laird

Dateline: Paris, France

Declaring the “Cold War” over, then President Sarkozy announced that France was going to build two amphibious ships for the Russian navy.

Built on a commercial hull, the Mistral has become an important ship for the French navy, and provided significant support for French forces involved in the Libyan operation.  And indeed, the Mistral saw its first use of Tiger helicopters being inserted effectively into the Libyan operation as well.

Due to many changes, notably in military aviation, the amphibious ship is undergoing a renaissance. 

In the US, the old amphibious ships of the Gator navy, are becoming key elements for a sea base insertion force enabled by Ospreys and other aviation assets and with the coming of the F-35B, a formidable strike asset as well.

The Russians have not missed the point of the importance of the amphibious ship to 21st century operations, and opened a bidding war in Europe to find a best value deal for themselves to become equipped with modern amphibious  ships.

The Russian Mistral is getting ready to greet its Russian sailors soon in France. Credit Photo: AFP
The Russian Mistral is getting ready to greet its Russian sailors soon in France. Credit Photo: AFP

The French competed successful and won a contract to build two Mistrals for the Russians.

The Russian motivation in buying the ships was clear.

According to one source:

Control of littoral regions, which includes large stretches of Russia’s coasts, and zones like the Baltic Sea and much of the Black Sea, depends heavily on helicopters and UAVs.

Russian naval capabilities are limited in these areas, and during the recent war with Georgia, Russia failed to control the Georgian coast.

Mistral Class LHDs, designed for both a large helicopter aviation role as well as amphibious landing and support of troops, would go a long way toward improving Russia’s capabilities in these areas. 

Russia’s Ka-52 Alligator coaxial scout/attack helicopter, for instance, would also add considerable attack punch to any Russian LHD amphibious aviation ship, or LPH helicopter carrier. The key is to add the necessary training and equipment investments.

And shortly after signing the deal in 2011, one Russian military leader underscored his happiness with acquiring the new warship. Had Russia possessed such warships in 2008, boasted its naval chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, it would have won its war against Georgia in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours”.

The two French built ships are intended on the Russian side to be followed by additional Mistrals to be built in Russia.

The first contract is virtually complete with the Russians due to come to France soon to train on their first Mistral, and the second is under construction and to be called ironically the Sevastopol.

Although the “Cold War” is definitely over, the 21st century competition for influence and dominance is not. 

And for the Russians, military capabilities are certainly part of the influence equation.  And the grab of Crimea, the military pressure upon Ukraine, the seizure of part of Georgia and the threats to the Baltics, are part of an overall approach which sees good old hard power combined with soft in shaping an influence strategy.

Indeed, the Russians are working hard to re-establish a significant role in the Mediterranean, and the French as a major player in the Mediterranean might well find their Mistral provided to Russia to be part of the landscape affecting their own threat calculus.

There seems no way back on ship one, but there is little reason for France to persist on providing the second Mistral to Russia.  There needs to be an effective effort on the French part to find a taker for the second ship, and to deny the Russians the right to do what they wish against Europe militarily with no real punishment that they would respect.

Finding a taker for the second ship, even at a loss to France financially, would go a long way towards making an effective point to Putin, that the Crimea may be “his” but taking it has significant costs and will see a strong response from Europe.

Without such a strong response, the pressure from Russia will only go up in the period ahead, and Putin’s positioning to leverage the Euro crisis will only improve.

The US certainly could use a new amphibious ship in a period where it is hard to add ships fast enough to make up for the gaps in the global fleet.  Perhaps the US itself should consider buying the second ship. This would certainly make a greater impact than self-deluding sanctions.

Perhaps one might be able to wipe the smile from President Putin’s face when meeting with his Western colleagues to remember the Normandy invasion in an early June celebration.

One could certainly forgive Putin for missing the point that his actions have consequences, when apparently they don’t.