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In an historic arms deal, France has agreed to sell Russia an advanced Mistral-class amphibious assault ship and to provide three more of the vessels upon their construction. Negotiations have been ongoing for months, but Radio France Internationale reported Feb. 8 that terms finally had been reached.
The deal marks the first time since World War II that Russia has bought a warship from a foreign power, made more significant by the fact that the supplier is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The ship can serve as a hospital in a humanitarian role, but is also capable of carrying combinations of 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters, 40 tanks, 70 military vehicles, four landing craft and more than 900 soldiers – giving Russia a degree of naval power projection that it has lacked since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Analysts have been weighing the implications of the sale since negotiations began in 2009. Some observers cautiously welcome the deal as a sign of improving East-West relations; others have criticized France for helping to rearm a severely depleted Russian fleet.
"This is a tough one with many layers," said retired U. S. Navy Vice Adm. John Morgan, a key author of the U. S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard's 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power. "Foreign military sales are intended to strengthen alliances and add to regional stability. But the world is not perfect and the Iranian F-14's are a good example that relationships change. On balance, the reward of closer ties between Russia and France could warrant the risk of an unintended consequence. I doubt anyone can accurately predict this outcome."
Strong opposition to the sale has been voiced by officials from several of Russia's geographic neighbors who fear that the Mistral-class vessel will pose a serious threat to their national security. Government ministers from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all expressed concerns that the ship will allow Russia to intimidate their region.
Because of its 2008 skirmish with Russia, the Republic of Georgia may have the most cause to feel uneasy about Russia's acquisition of an amphibious assault ship. Difficulties in transporting troops and equipment over the Black Sea during that conflict are believed to be what prompted Russia to enter the international warship market.
Georgia's anxiety will not be allayed by Russian Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky's widely quoted September 2009 declaration that the Mistral is the type of ship Russia could have used in 2008 to land troops on Georgia's shore in a fraction of the time than it actually took.
Agence France Press also reported in November that, when questioned over potential terms of the deal that might restrict deployment of the vessel, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin bluntly stated that "if we buy the ship, we will use it wherever it would be needed."
Some resistance to the deal has come from within Russia. The former chief of Russia's Main Naval Staff, Adm. Valentin Selivanov, for instance, has been quoted as viewing the purchase of a foreign warship as an insult to Russian naval tradition. Other officials have suggested that the money being spent on the French warship should instead be put into modernizing Russia's dilapidated shipyards.
However, the purchase of the Mistral-class vessel can be viewed as an acknowledgement by Russia to circumstances that many Western analysts have posited for some time: Russia's once proud ship building industry has been rapidly declining since the break-up of the Soviet Union and is now to the point that the country is no longer capable of supplying its own aging navy.
"This is a case of military need versus economic reality," says Eric Wertheim, author of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. "Russia believes having a ship like the Mistral is vital to its military interests, but recognizes that it lacks the resources and technology to build one domestically and must look abroad for short term naval solutions."
"A warship that might take three to four years to build in countries like the United States, the Netherlands or South Korea could take in excess of ten years to build in Russia,"Wertheim said. "Work on Russia's second Neustrashimy-class frigate was started in 1988, the ship was launched in 1991 and not commissioned until mid-2009. That's more than 20 years for a ship that should generally take three years to build."
Beyond Russia taking control of the vessel itself, there are worries about the level of technology that will be included in the deal. Once a global leader in technological innovation, Russia has fallen far behind many other nations but potentially stands to acquire major advancements in weapons system through the purchase of the French warship.
"If it's a metal box, it is one thing, but if it's a state-of-the-art technology, things will be different," said Estonian senior defense minister official Harri Tiido last November.
Tom Fedyszyn, professor of national security affairs at the U. S. Naval War College, is intrigued by the Mistral deal and encouraged by Russia's new willingness to ask the West for help, but notes there is a danger in giving Russia too much too soon.
"The ship itself is nothing but a platform capable of launching helicopters and landing craft," Fedyszyn said. "My line in the sand would be the sale of any high-tech systems aboard the ship."
If equipped with advanced technology from France, the vessel would give Russia much more than just a means to launch amphibious assaults; it would provide a sophisticated command platform for battle management from which it could engage in network-centric warfare.
Details of the technology being packaged with the Mistral deal have not been made public, but Russian officials have indicated that they expect the deal to include cutting edge electronic systems. The final sale price of the ship would provide some indication as to whether Russia is getting a fully loaded ship or a stripped down version. Price estimates range from $400-$800 million, depending on included system components.
A few analysts have theorized that Russia is not actually interested in the Mistral platform, but rather buying the ship principally to obtain the new "built-in" military technologies.
The Obama Administration had remained relatively quiet throughout France's negations with Russia. On Feb. 8, however, U. S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates raised questions about the deal during a visit in Paris. Gates' concerns were politely rebuffed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy who maintained that the ship will present no military threat to the United States.
Prior to Gates' inquiry, several members of Congress had been following the Mistral negotiations with great concern.
Citing Russian violations of international obligations, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., submitted a resolution in December 2009 "expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that France and other member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union should decline to sell major weapons systems or offensive military equipment to the Russian Federation."
Also in December, six senators including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., signed a letter to the French ambassador to the United States that put forth their apprehensions about the Mistral deal due to Russia's failure to abide by several international agreements and conventions. Pierre Vimont, France's ambassador to the U. S., responded that although the senators raised legitimate questions, France was eager to use the Mistral negotiations as means to engage Russia constructively and strengthen relations.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich believes the sale of the Mistral to Russia "is a very sobering development with potentially destabilizing affects to both the region and within the NATO alliance itself."
"Russian ownership of a Mistral class warship would place our allies and friends, including Georgia, under increased threat; a fact seemingly of little significance to the French despite Russia's continued failure to comply with the Russian-Georgian cease fire agreement, an accord the French helped negotiate," Gingrich told the U. S. Naval Institute.
Former U. S. Ambassador David Smith, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies – with lengthy experience in arms control and European security issues – warned that the amphibious warship sale poses a "major adverse geopolitical development and a potential alliance buster." Smith believes that members of NATO should "call for formal consultation under Title IV of the North Atlantic Treaty, which any NATO member is entitled to do if 'the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any the Parties is threatened.'"
Fredrik Westerlund of the Swedish Defense Research Agency also sees a threat to NATO and EU cohesion. "Even if the Mistral deal would lead to Russia becoming more integrated with the West through defense industry mergers in the long run, a French sale of such a potent weapon system to a country seen as a regional bully by several EU and NATO may negatively affect these two organizations' capability of reaching a common position on security issues related to Russia," Westerlund said. "This will most likely have an adverse effect on European security."
Lieutenant Commander Rafal A. Nowak, Assistant Defense, Military, Naval and Air Attaché for the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, conceded that "the decision on sale of the French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to Russia is subject to sole decision of France."
"However, looking at the transaction from the perspective of international community, one cannot remain oblivious to the interests of our regional allies and partners who are very much concerned with acquisition of such a capability by their immediate neighbor," Nowak said. "Under such circumstances surrounding the sale, we must be very cautious and sensitive to probable concerns of other states even if the said transaction has no direct impact on our national interests."
As for how the sale of a Mistral-class vessel will immediately impact the United States, Ambassador Smith believes that "the navy has to consider that the allies will ask the U. S. to counter the presence of the ship, which means having to reallocate assets and commit more personnel to the region"
Retired U. S. Navy Rear Adm. Ben Wachendorf, a former defense attaché to the Soviet Union, disagreed that immediate burden would fall to the U. S. Navy.
"It is not in the best interest of taxpayers and our sailors to reallocate assets to the Black or Baltic Seas to counter a Russian ship when there are alternatives to the U. S. Navy in those regions," Wachendorf said. "The German navy has a strong presence in the Baltic Sea, and an international agreement gives Turkey the right to right to limit the reach of Russian ships in the Black Sea."
The Montreux Convention of 1936, he noted, allows Turkey to regulate passage of warships through the Bosporus Straights and the Dardanelles, severely restricting movement between the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
"Our assets are already strained enough and we don't have the ships and personnel to waste on what is an insignificant threat to the U. S.," Wachendorf said.
Smith, however, believes that the threat is not being appreciated.
"The navy probably doesn't recognize the full scope of the threat because they don't see the Russians challenging for control of the seas with this ship," Smith said. "But this is not about sea power – it's about land power. This ship is not for confronting other ships on the ocean, it's for traveling short distances to quickly put forces on another country's shores."