The French Connection

How to Sink France's Warship Deal With Russia

Vladimir Putin and François Hollande in St. Petersburg, September 2013.
Vladimir Putin and François Hollande in St. Petersburg, September 2013. (Alexei Filippov / Courtesy Reuters)

Almost 70 years after landing on the beaches of Normandy, the United States has another opportunity to save France -- this time from itself. Unlike D-Day, the rescue won’t require combat. Nor will it divert many U.S. military resources. Instead, Washington need only commit a modest $1.6 billion -- a small fraction of its $640 billion defense budget -- to outbid Russia for two French helicopter carriers.

France’s determination to sell the ships has already led to a good deal of hand-wringing. U.S. leaders have been urging their French counterparts to cancel the sale since its announcement in 2010, and they’ve only ramped up the pressure since Russia annexed Crimea. Nevertheless, the first ship is still due to be delivered this October.

Despite what Russian propaganda might have one believe, the ships would hardly represent a major shift in the global balance of power. But they would give the Russian navy something it currently lacks: the ability to project power ashore from a relatively safe distance at sea. With this new hardware, in other words, Russia could carry out a swift seaborne invasion -- without needing to storm any beaches.

The two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that France is selling to Russia are essentially capable of launching a small invasion on a sovereign state: each will be able to carry up to 450 troops, 40 tanks, and 16 helicopters. Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, who heads Russia’s naval forces, recently explained what such a capability could mean in practice: had Russia deployed Mistrals against Georgia in 2008, he said, the conflict would have ended “in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.”

To be sure, such boasting should be taken for what it is. And as the Crimea annexation has demonstrated, Moscow need not mount a frontal assault to expand its territory. Still, the prospect of a new Russian seaborne force has long been a source of anxiety for the countries it would most likely target. Back in 2010, shortly after the sale was announced, Andrius Kubilius, then Lithuania’s prime minister, publicly expressed his frustration after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. “We would like to know the enemy of Russia, against whom it must buy the Mistral,” Kubilius told reporters. “Is Sweden, Finland, Lithuania an enemy?” 

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