The Russian Mistral: Can the Russian European Strategy be Countered?


2014-06-16 By Stephen Blank

Bismarck famously observed that Europe as such represented merely a geographical notion, certainly not a unified political entity. The Western reaction to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has again validated this acerbic insight.

And amid the absence of any Western or European unity the issue of the sale of the French Mistral to Russia looms large.

The French helicopter-carrier Mistral class ships are all-electric ships with a length overall of 199 meters and displacement of 21,300 tons. The Mistral’s concept combines a landing helicopter deck, a floating hospital, an amphibious assault ship can carry up to 16 heavy helicopters, more than a dozen tanks, and one third of a mechanized regiment, plus two hovercraft or four landing craft.

Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and president Vladimir Putin at the Tsugol military testing site. Credit: Novosti.
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and president Vladimir Putin at the Tsugol military testing site. Credit: Novosti.

It also could ideally serve as a command vessel. Furthermore, the Mistral class ship could serve as a very powerful anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter vessel to detect enemy submarines. Thus it can contribute to amphibious, ASW, and helicopter operations in any theater.[ref][/ref]

The Mistral’s capabilities help explain why Moscow wants to buy up to 4 Mistral ships to learn how to produce those kinds of ships indigenously.

The key to the deal for Moscow has been acquisition of the technology for the construction of the basic ship for otherwise, its officials say, the deal would be meaningless.[ref] Marina Lipakova, “Russia Wants All Technology on French-built Mistrals,”, June 11, 2010; Roger McDermott, “French “Tin Cans” or Technology Transfer, Vysotsky on the Mistral?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 27, 2010[/ref] The Russians are arming the ship themselves and utilizing their own helicopters for the ship.

Russia has been seeking a Western supplier for an amphibious class ship at least since 2008. The Russians have discussed this possibility with many vendors, including Spain and France.

In 2008, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy said that had Russia possessed the Mistral it would have won its war against Georgia in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours”. One need only follow Russian military literature and exercises to see how important amphibious capabilities are for Moscow given that literature and Russian exercises’ significant emphasis on amphibious landing and counter-landing operations.

For example, Mikhail Tsypkin’s analysis of the Russian navy observes that:

A Mistral Class ship is a potent asset for operations in the post-Soviet space, enabling Russia to carry out amphibious landings and serving as an instrument of psychological pressure: this ship is large, and with its ability to project power on land, any small country would feel threatened if such a Russian ship, carrying naval infantry, tanks and helicopters appears in its vicinity during a crisis in relations with Russia.

Moreover, it could do something the Russian politicians craved in vain during the Kosovo war: send a visible signal of Russia’s strong displeasure with NATO and of its ability and willingness to help its friends. [ref] Mikhail Tsypkin, “The Challenge of Understanding the Russian Navy in Stephen Blank and Richard Weitz, Eds. The Russian Military Today and Tomorrow, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2010, pp. 348-349[/ref]

Western observers have also underscored the increased attention, which the Russians are paying to amphibious capabilities. For example, the Swedish security analyst Bo Pelinas pointed out that in the Zapad 2009 exercises Russian forces conducted landings on an open coast, the value of Mistral for such operations being self-evident.[ref] Bo Pelinas, “Stockholm, SvD Online, in Swedish, December 1, 2009, Open Source Center, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, (Henceforth, FBIS SOV), December 1, 2009[/ref]

But beyond that the Mistral class ship could serve as a very powerful anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter vessel as part of an overall effort to detect enemy submarines in the Baltic.

Fogh Rasmussen: 'In the Russian military doctrine Nato is considered as an adversary, and I think we should take that seriously' (Photo:
Fogh Rasmussen: ‘In the Russian military doctrine Nato is considered as an adversary, and I think we should take that seriously’ (Photo:

It would not operate alone, as the Russians are looking at various ways to secure their energy resources, and to provide for a broad concept of security. For example, Russia intends to place sensors along the Nord Stream pipeline to detect submarines. So the pipeline is also part of a functioning ASW network.[ref] Stockholm, SR International, in English, January 5, 2010, FBIS SOV, January 5, 2010.[/ref]

Not surprisingly, then, since 2006 Russian military drills in the Baltic appear to be centered on the scenario of warding off threats to Nord Stream and its infrastructure and the Navy has announced that it will deploy if necessary to defend against terrorist attacks in the Baltic. [ref] “Military Drills Target Nord Stream,”, August 21, 2009; Ingmar Oldberg, “The Changing Military Importance of the Kaliningrad Region,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, XX, No. 3, 2009, p. 363.[/ref] Undoubtedly these exercises also involve ASW, not just defense against surface vessels.

The experience of these landing exercises, the renewed focus in Russian military literature on amphibious operations as well as the Nord Stream example, suggest that the Russianized Mistral would be an invaluable combat and C3I asset in amphibious landing operations in the Baltic against the Baltic States or in the Black Sea against Ukraine, Georgia, or in the Balkans.

Much depends upon how the Russians configure the ship and how they develop their concepts of operations once they obtain the ship and begin to shape a 21st century approach. It is not just about getting the ship; it is the ability to leverage the ship, with its automated capabilities, which allow the Russians to learn how to operate a much smaller crew for an amphibious ship as well.

The flexibility of an amphibious fleet integrated into the fleet provides a significant boost in Russian capabilities moving forward into the 21st century. Roles and missions in operations such as Noncombat Evacuation Operations in the Middle East (NEOs) or as manifestations of Russian gunboat diplomacy of which we have seen many examples in Syria and Cyprus are equally valuable. [ref] Stephen Blank, ”Russia Seeks Naval and Air Bases in Cyprus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 17, 2013; Jean Christou, ”Greece and Russia Rally Behind Cyprus,” Cyprus Mail, October 2, 2011,; “Turkey, Israel, Greece and Russia Mobilizing Over Cyprus,”, October 5, 2011; Moscow, Interfax, in Russian, in English, May 7, 2012, FBIS SOV, May 7, 2012.[/ref]

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

At the same time in any of these theaters from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, the ASW mission is no less important. In the Baltic Sea, for example, the Nord Stream pipeline too will have attached sensors that will contribute to such an ASW operation.

Russia is proceeding to develop capabilities to pressure the Baltics behind its air, air defense, naval, cyber, and nuclear defenses to make it more difficult for allies and partners of the Baltic States to provide for direct defense.

Even if the objective is not a direct military occupation of the Baltics states, it is clear that military intimidation of local states and deterrence of NATO are part of the overall political strategy to effect a revision of the European status quo and neutralize these states’ effective sovereignty.

Whatever the logic of negotiating a deal with Russia in 2011, the strategic situation has changed dramatically. The seizure of Crimea has returned European direct defense to the table, and the Nordic states in NATO have clearly expressed not only their concern but increased resources for their direct defense and are concerned with Baltic sovereignty.

In 2011, France agreed to produce two Mistrals for Moscow with the participation of the Russian shipyards. It is anticipated that two others are to be built in Russia itself after the transfer of the shipbuilding technology to Russia.

France is also building the landing craft for the Mistrals that will go to Russia. [ref] Moscow, Interfax in English, June 4, 2014, FBIS SOV, June 4, 2014[/ref] The first two, the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol, are supposed to be ready for delivery later in 2014.

France is also building the landing craft for the Mistral, producing helicopter engines for sale to Russia, and is scheduled to host 400 Russian seamen to train on the Mistral.

However, from the start of the Franco-Russian negotiations in 2009 Western officials have pressured France to break off the negotiations, not to sign the contract, and more recently, due to the Ukrainian crisis, not to deliver the ships at all.[ref] Angela Charlton, “Energy, Culture on Tap for Medvedev Trip to France,” Associated Press, March 1, 2010. As viewed at:; “Obama Warns France on Russia Mistral Deal.” BBC Online, June 5, 2014;; Moscow, RIA Novosti Online, in Russian, June 3, 2014, FBIS SOV, June 3, 2014; Isabelle Laserre, “No De-Escalation Over Mistrals,” Paris, Le Figaro, in French, June 5, 2014, FBIS SOV, June 5, 2014. [/ref]

But despite protests from the Baltic States, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, the US Congress, President Obama, and Canadian member of Parliament Hugh Segal’s proposal to buy the ships earmarked for Russia to enforce sanctions upon Moscow, France has held firm, claiming that it cannot break the contract lest it incur serious losses of money and jobs for its naval construction firm STX at St. Nazaire.

And despite everything that has transpired since, President Francois Hollande has yet to reverse that policy.[ref] “Mistral Blows,” The, May 17, 2014; Steve Daly, “French Amphibious Warfare Ships For Rusia? Economic Sanctions, Coincident Procurement Opportunities, and the Mistral Class LHDs,” Canadian-American Strategic Review,, June 8, 2014; Jeff Lightfoot, “Commentary: NATO Should Buy the Mistrals,” May 30, 2014; “Obama Warns France on Russia Mistral Deal,”; Billy House, “Senators Urge French to Scrap Warship Sales to Russia,” www.naitonaljournal.copJune 5, 2014.[/ref]

Neither will France abandon the project to sell Russia helicopter engines.[ref] Moscow, VPK: Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kuryer Online, in Russian, May 21, 2014, FBIS SOV, May 21, 2014.[/ref]

Meanwhile Moscow has expressed its belief that the project moves forward and is to send 400 seamen to France to train on using the Mistral. Indeed, If the contract goes through as planned based on the 2011 agreement, Putin has not ruled out placing more orders with France. [ref] Moscow, Interfax, in English, June 6, 2014, FBIS SOV, June 6, 2014.[/ref]

François Mitterrand’s famous 1983 speech before the Bundestag, Credit: French Government
François Mitterrand’s famous 1983 speech before the Bundestag, Credit: French Government

This is a transparent threat and inducement to divide France from its allies. This is not surprising, for Putin as a German expert, watched carefully and participated in Russian policy in the Euro Missile crisis. And this crisis had at its core, the division of Europeans and between Europe and the United States.

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 increased gaps which 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.

For now the Germans are supporting France, stating that since Ukraine’s elections went off without obstruction, Germany is not ready or willing to impose “tier-three” sanctions on Russia that might include the Mistral.[ref] Andrew Reitman, ”Germany Backs France on Russia Warship Contract,”, June 5, 2014. [/ref] This unwillingness to impose new sanctions manifests itself despite the fact that Russia has dispatched at least 3-400 men from its forces into Ukraine along with tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, seized border posts to force open the supply route to its clients in Eastern Ukraine and continued to threaten Ukraine by declaring Yanukovych to have been the lawful president of Ukraine, accusing Ukraine of border violations continues to intervene against Ukrainian territorial integrity, and in the process of breaking its energy contract with Ukraine.

Thus the Mistral issue is fast becoming a prime exhibit of the disarray and lack of cohesion that now characterizes NATO and of the utter absence of any European unity on defense issues.

Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).
Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).

The Mistral controversy also shows that despite Moscow’s acts of war too many important lobbies: French defense industry, German businessmen involved with Russia and who depend on Russian gas, the City of London financial establishment, etc. all fear the loss of investment, trade, and job from antagonizing Russia more than they worry about European security.

This fear that antagonizing Russia, which, after all, is infinitely weaker than Europe, strengthens Russia at the expense of Europe. And this is occurring at the same time, as the Russians have clearly changed their deployment plans for the ships from Asia to Europe and have prioritized their interests in the near-abroad and in the Arctic.

Originally they were to be based at Vladivostok for deployment with Russia’s Pacific Fleet.[ref] Yoshinaki Sakagushi, “Briefing Memo, “Russia’s Military Reform and the Navy,” National Institute for Defense Studies News, Tokyo, January 2013, p. 2[/ref]

There were good reasons for placing the Mistrals in Asia. In 2011 Dmitry Gorenburg of the Center for Naval Analysis observed that Russian naval construction plan at that time did not aim at the U.S. but rather China. As of then the Pacific Fleet was to be the main fleet whose main mission is to defend against Chinese aggression although this may be billed for political purposes (as were Russian exercises then) as being against Japan. But a Japanese attack on Russia or the Kurile islands is almost inconceivable.[ref] Dmitry Gorenburg, “What Will the Navy Do with Its Ships,”, January 31, 2011 [/ref]

While subsequent developments suggest a somewhat more anti-American orientation, e.g. upgrading Akula-Class nuclear attack submarines, those vessels are also usable against the Chinese Navy as well.[ref] “Mighty China Offers to Help,”, March 28, 2013.[/ref] At that time Admiral Viktor Chirkov, Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, also announced that Moscow is considering forming permanent squadrons in both the Pacific and Indian Ocean, the two areas where China has demonstrated its naval power.[ref] Moscow, Ekho Moskvy Radio, in Russian, March 17, 2013, FBIS SOV, March 17, 2013.[/ref]

A Japanese assessment then also tied Russian naval exercises in the Pacific, including those with Japan in 2012 and 2013, to Russia’s heightened sense of concern over the Chinese naval threat. Therefore Russia was projected to deploy the first two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to the Pacific Fleet as well as Borei class SSBNs with nuclear weapons. These Russian exercises since 2011 also displayed greater ambition to conduct joint air, land, and sea operations. While this desire to conduct joint operations pervades the defense establishment and is recognized as an essential future capability, its prominence in the Pacific is worthy of note. [ref]Your footnote here[/ref]

But the context has changed since 2011.

We now see Russo-Chinese joint naval exercises, clearly targeted against the U.S. and Pacific Allies and partners lies and a deepening coalition or partnership between Moscow and Beijing.

By 2014, the focus for the deployments has shifted. The Russian Navy evidently wants to deploy the Mistrals, at least the first ones, in the Black Sea where they could threaten every littoral state in the Balkans, Ukraine, Turkey, and the Caucasus or then enter into the Mediterranean to join Moscow’s new Mediterranean Squadron.[ref] John C.K. Daly, “After Crimea: The Future of the Black Sea Fleet,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 22, 2014. [/ref]

In the Mediterranean they could conduct amphibious, ASW, and other operations throughout the Levant. This would be building upon previous examples of Russian gunboat diplomacy in Cyprus and Syria to deter Turkish or other Western efforts to counter Russia’s expansive Middle Eastern interests.[ref] John C.K. Daly, “After Crimea: The Future of the Black Sea Fleet,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 22, 2014. [/ref]

Not surprisingly this potential deployment of the first two ships and the potential for their subsequent deployment, or the deployment of the latter two ships in the Baltic Sea has aroused even more protests from Poland and the Baltic States and been met with significant concern from Northern Europe as well.

In short, the Mistral issue is not simply about a ship, but part of the shift in Russian strategy, which might have been anticipated in 2011, but is clearly evident now.

The question is what the successors to Mitterrand will do and will Western governments work with France to shape options to rebuff the Russians, and curtail their military modernization strategy at a time when the direct defense of Europe has returned to the front burner of European history.

Editor’s Note: This Is an Expanded and Revised Version of the Author’s Earlier Article, “Mistral Ship Sale to Russia Will Shipwreck EU,” Published in the Moscow Times, June 11, 2014

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the Washington based American Foreign Policy Council

For a paper on the Russian acquisition published in 2011 see the following:

Mistral Export