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 email@example.com