Franco-Rus­sian deal on dis­puted Mis­tral ships


As the high-speed TGV train from Paris slowed down com­ing into St. Nazaire pass­ing the sprawl­ing ship­yard along­side, a lit­tle boy in the seat in front of us be­came an­i­mated and ex­claimed, “Look, Mama, there are the big war­ships!” The child was point­ing to the two mas­sive gray-hulled Mis­tral he­li­copter car­ri­ers which had been built in France for the Rus­sian Navy, but be­cause of the on­go­ing Ukraine cri­sis, were still ma­rooned in po­lit­i­cal limbo and at dock­side.

But back in Paris, amidst the sum­mer heat and sus­pended po­lit­i­cal the­atrics dur­ing the Au­gust hol­i­days, French and Rus­sian ne­go­tia­tors had reached a deal on the ships’ fate. They would not be join­ing Vladimir Putin’s fleet as planned be­cause of the con­tin­u­ing po­lit­i­cal sanc­tions over Ukraine. Rather the French gov­ern­ment an­nounced com­pen­sa­tion for can­cel­ing the de­liv­ery of the ves­sels which were paid for and spe­cially fit­ted for the Rus­sians. Moscow would be “fully re­im­bursed” the pres­i­den­tial of­fice stated in Paris; Rus­sia, added “Moscow con­sid­ers the Mis­tral is­sue com­pletely re­solved.”

The two Mis­tral-type he­li­copter car­ri­ers would stay in France, at least for now.

Many months of quiet but of­ten ac­ri­mo­nious ne­go­ti­a­tions, be­tween Fran­cois Hol­lande’s so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment and the Krem­lin have come to an ac­cord whereby the French gov­ern­ment will re­im­burse the Rus­sians US$1.3 bil­lion for the ships. The French will then sub­se­quently keep or re­sell the Mis­tral car­ri­ers. Cri­sis solved ... sort of.

The Vladi­vos­tok, which was fin­ished and sup­posed to sail to Rus­sia last fall, and the Sev­astopol, were built at the huge STX ship­yards in St. Nazaire. The deal go­ing back to 2010, brought ex­tra busi­ness to the ship­yards and needed jobs in a re­gion still de­pen­dent on the mar­itime in­dus­try.

Just last sum­mer this col­umn re­ported the port was host­ing over 400 Rus­sian sailors who were train­ing on the ves­sels and pre­par­ing to sail them back to their dis­puted Black Sea bases in Crimea.

In the past, these very same St. Nazaire ship­yards con­structed the most fa­mous of French ocean lin­ers such as the Nor­mandie in the 1930s and the France in 1962. In re­cent years Cu­nard’s Queen Mary 2 was built here as well as at least a dozen ma­jor Amer­i­can cruise ships.

St. Nazaire has a darker side too; dur­ing WWII the port just along­side the ship­yard housed a Nazi sub­ma­rine base from where U-boats sailed from the Bay of Bis­cay deep into the At­lantic. The gray con­crete bunker sub­ma­rine pens which re­main to this day stand as an eerie re­minder of the port’s past and its con­nec­tions to history.

So where do the ships go now? Short term most likely to the north­ern naval base at Brest.

Nat­u­rally while such mod­ern and mil­i­tar­ily ver­sa­tile naval ves­sels are in de­mand there are a few se­ri­ous ques­tions that must be asked. Will France sell them only to NATO coun­tries? Or other al­lies? Most navies, de­spite a wish list, could not even op­er­ate such ves­sels nor in­te­grate them into com­bined naval oper­a­tions. Thus re­al­is­ti­cally po­ten­tial buy­ers are very few.

Hints that China would be al­lowed buy such a ves­sel were quickly squashed.

Let’s look at the short list. France can and should bring one of these ships into its fleet. While the French navy has an air­craft car­rier, another such smaller and more ver­sa­tile naval plat­form would be per­fect for oper­a­tions and con­tin­gen­cies in the Mediter­ranean. The French Navy has the ex­per­tise and the ca­pac­ity to op­er­ate such ves­sels but with the de­clin­ing de­fense bud­gets, would the cur­rent so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment be so wise as to make this in­vest­ment?

For the sec­ond ves­sel, the Sev­astopol, which will be fin­ished later this year, one could think of only a few coun­tries which have the cre­den­tials and the ca­pac­ity to op­er­ate such a car­rier. The USA would profit from a Mis­tral with­out ques­tion, and given the U.S. Navy’s ex­pand­ing role but over­stretched num­ber of ships, such a ves­sel would be per­fect for Marine am­phibi­ous oper­a­tions. I don’t know if the De­fense Depart­ment would buy (or be po­lit­i­cally al­lowed to pur­chase), a for­eign-built ves­sel. Same goes for the Bri­tish.

Few other NATO navies be­yond Canada and Italy are re­ally up to the tech­ni­cal chal­lenge to de­ploy such a ship. Be­yond the At­lantic Al­liance sphere what about Aus­tralia?

The Mis­tral boasts the ca­pac­ity to hold twelve at­tack he­li­copters, sixty ar­mored ve­hi­cles, and 700 Marines, an ideal plat­form for ver­sa­tile and rapid force pro­jec­tion.

Un­til then, France will be look­ing for buy­ers lest the Mis­trals be­come Fly­ing Dutch­men. John J. Met­zler is a United Na­tions cor­re­spon­dent cov­er­ing diplo­matic and de­fense is­sues. He’s the au­thor of “Di­vided Dy­namism: The Diplo­macy of Sep­a­rated Na­tions: Ger­many, Korea, China” (2014). Con­tact jjm­col­umn@earth­

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