The Last(?) Word on Russia's Mistral Purchase
France's sale of sophisticated warships to Russia has inspired reams of commentary speculating on what threat this might pose to NATO members or other Western allies, in particular Georgia. (Most recently, Vlad Socor wrote last week in the Eurasia Daily Monitor that the sale was motivated by "mercantilism... bypassing NATO and trumping basic notions of allied strategy and solidarity.")
Now, a U.S. Navy officer has published his master's thesis (pdf) on the purchase, which Dmitry Gorenburg says "may be the definitive work on the subject." The officer, Lieutenant Commander Patrick Thomas Baker, argues that Russia wants the ship not for any particular combat capability, but as the linchpin of a larger naval modernization strategy:
[T]he Mistral sale is driven by Russia‘s need to acquire modern command and control and shipbuilding technologies, rather than increase its amphibious assault capabilities per se.
Russia's naval chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy -- who is notorious for arguing that with the Mistral, Russia would have been able to defeat Georgia "in 40 minutes, not 26 hours" -- was interested in the ship since before the Georgia war, which Baker says "suggests that a desire to acquire a new system preceded identifying a required capability and developing a system to fulfill that capability.":
Admiral Vysotskiy probably saw the Mistral as a way to elevate the navy‘s profile within the country and Russia‘s defense establishment with a large capital warship, as well as proclaim the navy‘s dissatisfaction with the products it got from Russian shipyards. In July 2010, Admiral Vysotskiy participated in an interview on the Ekho Moskvy Military Council broadcast. In it he commented that as the Russian forces were moving away from a mobilization based system to one based on permanent units and forces, those new forces needed the ability to redeploy rapidly. The Mistral would definitely be able to aid in this manner. Vysotskiy made another comment, where he said that the French correctly call a Mistral a "force projection and command ship," and indicated that Russia would treat its Mistrals the same way.
Baker also analyzes in detail what Russia could have done in the Georgia war had it had the Mistral. In short, it probably couldn't have transported troops to Georgia much faster than it was able to with its current transport ships. It would have been able to deploy attack helicopters more quickly, as Russia's helicopters weren't able to cross the Caucacus Mountains because the altitude was too high. The Mistral, however, is a helicopter carrier so it would have solved that problem. After-action reviews also showed that Russia's command-and-control systems performed poorly during the Georgia war, and that is also something that the Mistral excels at. However, Baker argues that none of those points would really be gamechangers in the Black Sea, and wouldn't be reason in and of themselves to buy the Mistral.
Some analysts have postulated that the Mistral will be going to the Black Sea Fleet primarily to threaten Georgia again. Georgia is realistically the only country that Russia could threaten in the Black Sea. Turkey is far more of a naval power than Russia in that region, plus Turkey controls the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles for entry into the Black Sea. The Mistral does not fall under to the Montreux Convention, but Turkey could make it difficult for an aviation warship to pass in and out, so Russia may just well elect to keep a Mistral out of the Black Sea. The other countries in the Black Sea are also all NATO members. As Prime Minister Putin has bluntly said, Russia would not need the Mistral to invade Georgia again; Russia‘s army is perfectly capable of executing that task.
As there are already Russian bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, air support from the Mistral would likely not be needed. One comment was that the Mistral could rapidly reinforce Georgia in the winter months, when snow and ice would constrain supply movement through the Caucasus and Roki tunnel. Once again, other [transport ships] of the Black Sea Fleet could do this, or Russia could use its airlift capability. A point that Aleksandr Goltz brought up is that the Russians have left tanks and artillery pieces behind in occupied territories to diminish the reliance on moving equipment through the Roki Tunnel, which Georgia would surely try to close in a future conflict.
So it seems the importance of equipment movement may be minimized by planning ahead, however troop reinforcement could be done fastest by aircraft. The one significant benefit a Mistral would bring to the Black Sea fleet would be its command and control capability in a large-scale land operation in Georgia again. However, as Russia accomplished its goals in 2008, it seems unlikely that Russia would again resort to a large-scale invasion, one needing sophisticated command capabilities.
Anyway, the whole paper is well researched, authoritative and clearly written, and is really useful for those interested in this sale and Russia's naval planning generally.