The Mistral Warship Deal: What’s in for France and Russia?


After two years of negotiations, Russia and France signed a treaty of military cooperation on June 17, 2011 under which two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, together with their full technological complement, will be sold to Russia. This deal marked the largest transfer of sensitive military equipment from one country to another in history. The agreement is designed to stimulate each country’s stagnating economy – slowed down by the world crisis –, revive Sarkozy’s domestic support, appease the French electorate’s discontent and satisfy the French military lobby’s demands. Russia is seeking to renew its outdated military and technological base in order to restore the effectiveness of its military deterrence at the regional level. Meanwhile, France will take advantage of this commercial windfall to expand into new arms markets and further boost its foreign policy initiatives [1]

warshipIn March 2009, less than one year after the August 2008 Russian-Georgian War over South Ossetia and just a few months after the stock market crash in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a major economic recovery plan, which included a targeted infrastructure program designed to reinvigorate the Russian economy and to bring economic growth indicators back to 2000-2007 levels. In addition to supporting the usual energy and raw material export activities, the plan, most importantly, also stipulated that significant sums would be spent on streamlining and modernizing the Russian military [2].

The details of these expenditures were disclosed on February 24, 2011, when Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin announced a long-flagged rearmament plan, set to run through 2020. This ambitious $650 billion weapons procurement program is designed to counter what is perceived as U.S. military encroachment in what the Kremlin regards as its “sphere of privileged interests.” Russia intends to simultaneously acquire and develop new technologies with both military and civilian applications, which will allow it to reduce the size of the armed forces and turn them into professional organizations [3].

The program also includes a downsizing process within the Russian armed forces. Some 200,000 officers will be sent on compulsory retirement and 200 General Officer positions will be abolished (the Russian Armed Forces have some 1,100 General Officers and 350,000 other officer positions). Meanwhile, the number of lieutenants will be increased from 50,000 to 60,000 in order to decentralize the decision-making process and more effectively delegate authority. The lion’s share of the new spending will be funneled towards Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet (eight new ones are planned) and the next generation of anti-missile defense (S-500) that will replace the already popular S-300 antimissile system. In addition, by 2020 the Russian Navy will have at its disposal 35 corvettes, 15 frigates and 400 new ships. Air Force procurement will total 600 warplanes and 1,000 helicopters. However, Russian Army insiders already play down these numbers and allude to the fact that the Ministry of Defense is already behind schedule with this program [4]. They claim that insufficient funds have been allocated from the budget to carry out the proposed changes. With the global economic crisis potentially gaining momentum, such problems and recriminations are not likely to disappear any time soon.

The Russian armed forces will benefit from the adoption of the new multi-role Mig-35 fighter jet and superior equipment, such as the new the Sukhoi Su-35, while a fifth-generation prototype stealth fighter, the Twin-engine jet fighter Sukhoi PAK FA (“Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation”), is being developed through tests. The production and updating of the Mil Mi-28 Havoc attack helicopters, Mil Mi-24 gunship and attack helicopters, the two-seat Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” and the Ka-60\60U\60R “Orca” series of medium transport multi-role helicopters are also accelerating. The army will also be equipped with the Italian light armored vehicle Iveco LMV M65, which was particularly appreciated in Afghanistan when it was used against Improvised Explosive Devices (IDEs), also known as roadside bombs.

The nuclear strategic forces, which will be cut by one third (33%) under the New START agreements (this agreement supersedes the 2002 Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT)) signed with the United States in April 2010, will be radically modernized – especially missile launchers – to ensure the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. The Russian Ministry of Defense is also trying to quickly bring into operation the RSM-56 Bulava missile, a three-stage, solid-fuelled, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead launched from submarines. However, the Bulava has a troubled history. After years of failed tests, it was finally successfully test-launched in October 2010. There are, however, still doubts about its operationalization, as a test launch from the Yurii Dolgorukii SSBN submarine scheduled for December 2010 has been postponed until mid-2011 [5].

While RSM-54 Sineva SBLM intercontinental ballistic missiles are already installed and operational on the Delta IV class submarines, the Russian submarine fleet will be further supplemented by six new Yasen/Severodvinsk class nuclear submarines, considered the jewels of the Russian Navy, with its 120 meters in length and capable of carrying 24 ballistic missiles with a range of 5,000 kilometers. This submarine’s propulsion system is considered by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence as the quietest – or the least detectable – submarine manufactured anywhere in the world.

  • The Importance o f the Mistral Warship for Russia

The most important aspect of Russia’s naval modernization plan is, however, the purchase of the two French Mistral-class warships which will be delivered to Russia in 2014 and 2015 from the Saint-Nazaire-based STX shipyard located in the northwest of France. The two countries are continuing their negotiations for two more Mistral class warships that would be build in Russia, this time under French licenses.

The Russian navy consists of outdated but still popular vessels, such as the Sovremenny class missile destroyer, built in the mid-1980s by the Soviet Navy. Russian leaders, however, complain about grave weaknesses of these vessels, citing the slow pace of naval movements during the war against Georgia in August 2008 [6]. Each 21,300 ton Mistral-class ship is a BPC (Bâtiments de projection et de commandement) capable of carrying 16 to 20 heavy combat helicopters, four air-cushioned crafts for landing troops ashore, several dozen vehicles (13 battle tanks and 60 armored vehicles) and from 450 to 900 combat ground troops carrying their weapons for both long and short term deployment. It also can carry on board a floating hospital and an operational command and control centre.


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* Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 3

** Dr. Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan and a contributor to Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century ( and The Jamestown Foundation. 
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