It’s possible the endgame for the Russian Mistrals is approaching.
But Moscow’s not sad. Officials have already said it’s not a tragedy.
Mikhail Nenashev — not an official, but a former Duma member and well-informed commentator — has called into question the need for the Mistrals. He’s a former Captain First Rank who chairs the All-Russian Movement for Support of the Navy.
According to RIA Novosti, he said the Mistrals have no utility but political. The news agency quotes Nenashev:
“These ships are no kind of necessity for the navy — we don’t intend to land troops in such a way. As I recall, the French themselves earlier and now are searching for how to deploy these ships — for a decade of fulfilling these missions by the French Navy there were few places where these ‘Mistrals’ were deployed in reality.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. The most cursory look shows that the French contributed the Mistrals to the NATO Response Force, and deployed them during unrest in Lebanon and Cote d’Ivoire, among other places.
Nenashev and others (including Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov) say Russia can build ships like to the Mistrals since it was already participating in their construction, and providing the internal command and control systems for the ships. It would take longer (3-4 years) but cost less (€150-200 million vs. €1.2 billion). The French, he says, can build it in a year because they have a smooth production process for these ships.
The former officer suggested that Sevmash or Baltic shipyard could construct such a ship if desired. But he fails to note that these builders are already absolutely chockablock with orders today, and every new ship type is taking substantially more than 3-4 years to build.
But Nenashev willingly admits there are “acute questions” about the shipbuilding industry. Specifically, issues of components, parts, technology, and skilled labor are a “little rough” and require coordination.
It’s exactly what Moscow will miss — a chance to see first-hand how fairly robust and modern French shipbuilders do their work. No doubt there are things the Russians could have learned and taken home.
For their part, the French carefully note that the delivery of the first Russian Mistral has not legally and finally stopped. But President Hollande signaled Moscow that, if the situation in Ukraine does not improve, he will not approve the ship’s transfer in November. That final decision will actually come at the end of October.
Improvement in Ukraine is defined by a relatively high bar of an effective ceasefire and agreement on a political resolution of the conflict.
The Elysee is quick to repeat that the Mistral sale remains unaffected by EU sanctions on Russia, and is a decision for Paris to make. Hollande adopted his current stance in the last couple weeks as unavoidable evidence of direct Russian participation in the fighting (i.e. POWs and KIAs) in eastern Ukraine surfaced.
As of 9 September, RIA Novosti reported that planned at-sea training for the first Russian Mistral and its 400-man crew-in-waiting in Saint-Nazaire was put off for “technical reasons” having nothing to do with the French President’s current stance on the sale (or no sale).