An Update on Russian Training for the Russian Mistral in France: Teaching the Bear to Be a Better Gator


2014-06-19 With the first Russian Mistral completed and with the second ship on its way, the key moment has arrived to train the Russians to operate the ship.

Training is crucial because the ship is so different from any ship the Russians have operated in the past.

The Mistral is highly automated compared to Russian ships and will operate with a significantly smaller crew size.

According to a piece by Pierre Tran of Defense News published in 2012:

The smaller crew is possible due to a high level of automation on the French ships, designed by prime contractor DCNS. The crews require intense training, with a year needed to certify senior officers, the French Navy officer said.

Russian Navy planners and deck officers will probably need two or three years to learn how to operate the new ships to their full capabilities. That was how long it took the French Navy to adapt to the Mistral, which serves as an amphibious assault ship housing about 450 troops, deploying helicopters, landing craft, and carrying onboard a field hospital and headquarters command center.

The moment has now come upon the French to train Russian sailors on French soil.

BPC Valdivostok at St. Lazare. Credit: Kevin Izorce
BPC Valdivostok at Saint-Nazaire. Credit: Kevin Izorce

The only small problem is that Russia has seized Crimea, broadly threatens Ukraine and its President asserts the right to protect Russians living in other European states, and has dramatically increased the concerns of Baltic and Nordic states.

One example is clearly Poland.

According to a piece in the Polish press published June 13, 2014, the Poles see a direct threat to their Baltic coast from the Russian military and clearly the Russian Mistral could be part of enhanced capabilities to execute such a threat.

The Russians are capable of landing a battalion-sized force from Baltiysk on the Polish coast within an hour and a half.

The modernization of the Polish Navy will cost 17 billion zlotys. This is a small sum compared to, for example, the costs of the air and missile defense program. The procurement plans do not provide for new submarines to be equipped with cruise missiles.

Meanwhile, the Russians are developing the most cutting-edge offensive methods and maintaining the highest concentration of military forces in the entire Russian Federation in the Kaliningrad enclave. The Russians began another round of warship exercises in the Baltic on 10 June.

Meanwhile, the Russians are to show up in France for training on a ship, which the Poles fear directly, threatens them. This is hardly the kind of European solidarity, which France wants to demonstrate.

Comments from the US are invoked in the French press suggesting this is a US-French issue; whatever the French position, the French sale of Mistral is of central significance to the European Union and European defense – forget the US and focus on its impact on Europe itself. This is part of Russian strategy towards Europe and only secondarily towards the United States. Putin has calculated that he has little to be concerned with regard to President Obama, and is unleashing his European strategy.

It is simply not realized that Putin does not accept the post-Soviet order imposed on Russia. From this standpoint, his position is not dissimilar from those Germans who felt the same way about the imposition of the Versailles treaty on Germany after World War I

400 Russian sailors are due this month to come to Saint-Nazaire for training. They were due to arrive originally on the 22nd and 23rd of June at the port and to live off of a Russian warship. This would be a great photo opportunity!

According to the French naval website, Mer et Marine, “there is a communication blackout from French authorities and industry concerning the subject of the arrival date… But to deliver the two ships will require crew training.”

The sailors will receive several months of training to operate the Russian Mistral.

Indeed, the Russians have been involved from the beginning in building their Mistral.

The St Petersburg-based Baltiysky Zavod (Baltic Shipyard) is responsible for construction of stern section blocks for the two Russian Mistral ships.

The completed stern sections were then towed to the STX yard in Saint-Nazaire for mating with the French-built forward sections.

The agreed plan is that the third and fourth planned Mistrals are to be constructed entirely in Russia by Baltic Yards.

But Putin assured the French and others in 2010 that they had nothing to worry about when the Mistral enters the Russian fleet.

“For us, this deal is interesting only if it is accomplished with a parallel transfer of technology, so that our shipbuilders – both civilian and military – receive a new technological boost for development,” Putin said in an interview with Agence France Presse and France 2 TV.

The prime minister, who will visit France on Thursday and Friday, also said that “cooperation in a field as sensitive as military-industrial manufacturing, of course, leads to higher trust between countries.”

Putin reiterated that Georgia and other Russian neighbors should not fear the Mistral purchase because Moscow has no plans to attack other countries and hopes there will never again be a conflict similar to five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

“You know, it is not the case when it is necessary to deploy weaponry as the Mistral ship. I hope that, God willing, we will never see a military conflict between Russia and Georgia. Never,” he said, before pointing out that Russia was able “to carry out military strikes from the Russian territory at any target in Georgia.”

“We do not need a Mistral ship for that,” he said.

But this need not happen.

It is important to remember that France has played a crucial role before in dealing with Russian pressures on Europe. It is important for the current Administration to remember French history.

Then French President Mitterrand firmly committed France to resist the Russian divide and conquer strategy. Indeed his speech in the Bundestag in 1983 was a major public statement rejecting Russian pressures.

And Mitterrand worked secretly with President Reagan in the Farewell Affair to shape a key effort to undercut the fruits of Russian efforts to steal technology from both the United States and Europe. Indeed, the Farwell Affairs is an often forgotten key nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union itself.

The Farewell dossier was the collection of documents that Colonel Vladimir Vetrov, a KGB defector (code-named “Farewell”), gathered and gave to the French DST in 1981–82, during the Cold War.

Vetrov was an engineer who had been assigned to evaluate information on Western hardware and software gathered by the “Line X” technical intelligence operation for Directorate T, the Soviet directorate for scientific and technical intelligence collection from the West. He became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist (Bolshevist) system and decided to work with the French at the end of 1980. Between the spring of 1981 and early 1982, Vetrov gave almost 4,000 secret documents to the DST, including the complete list of 250 Line X officers stationed under legal cover in embassies around the world.

As a consequence, Western nations undertook a mass expulsion of Soviet technology spies. The CIA also mounted a counter-intelligence operation that transferred modified hardware and software designs to the Soviets. Thomas Reed alleged this was the cause of a spectacular trans-Siberian pipeline disaster in 1982.

President Hollande, a leader of the same Party as President Mitterrand, might look back at these moments and reconsider. And when Mitterrand was President, France was not part of the integrated military command of NATO; now it is. And indeed holds the post for the NATO transformation commands.

It is not just about France, but the impact from continuing this technology transfer to a resurgent Russia can do to Europe itself.

Northern Europe is a key part of the New Europe, and clearly focused on both Baltic security and Arctic development, safety, security and defense. The Mistral ships will be used for both Baltic and Arctic missions by the Russians, as the Russians are focused on ice hardening the hulls of the Mistral.

The Russian Mistral is being optimized for Northern missions. Given the tensions within the Euro zone, setting in motion another set of tensions between those European states in the Euro zone and those who are not, is hardly a prescription for strengthening Europe’s role in the world, saying nothing of its impact on NATO.

One of the more amazing arguments being proffered by some against France doing anything about the Mistral deal is to argue that if one does not honor a deal France would lose credibility in the arms market.

Although interesting, this really misses the point.

Arms sales are not iron bound contracts which go to a state regardless of their behavior over the time receiving new arms.

If the state to which you are selling arms directly threatens you and your allies with what they are purchasing from you, one can clearly say no!

This is right up there with those who opposed Roosevelt from breaking the oil deals with the Empire of Japan, and the argument was made then that these were contracts which needed to be honored.

Only one small problem: the Empire of Japan was in the processing of swallowing Asia!

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