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More on the Mistrals

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Michael Cecire responds to my article about the sale of four Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Russia, but unfortunately misses most of the point:

Certainly, there is no question that the Russian navy has qualitatively declined since the demise of the Soviet Union. And to be sure, even the comparatively advanced Mistrals do little to address the imminent shortfall in Russian surface warfare assets, such as cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes. From this perspective, the Mistral does little to shift the balance of power.

But the question remains, Why would Russia seek to acquire amphibious vessels instead of filling the other glaring gaps in its naval forces? The answer is not just a function of rehabilitating the Russian shipbuilding industry or engaging in far-flung humanitarian operations, but rather lies in Russia’s great-power aspirations: Moscow cannot hope to reacquire its long-sought return to global power without first securing dominance throughout the Eurasian space, and particularly in its so-called “near abroad.”

Cecire gets two points wrong. First, he misinterprets the relevance of the Mistrals to Russia’s long term naval plan, and more generally of amphibs to the modern naval force construction. The Mistrals aren’t simply part of a Russian reconstruction of Soviet naval power; they are elements of a new configuration of naval power, a configuration that has become very common across the international system. Amphibs, as I have argued elsewhere, are the new dreadnought; they are the new currency by which naval power is measured. Russia, like New Zealand, South Korea, Turkey, Malaysia, and Italy, wants the ability to project power and influence in multilateral operations, and amphibious warships buy that capacity.

The second and more important point is that Russia does not need amphibs in order to intimidate Georgia. Let’s be as clear about this as possible: The single factor that prevented a Russian conquest of Georgia and a consequent deposition of Saakashvili’s regime was Russian forbearance. Georgian military capability proved utterly incapable of resisting the Russian Army. There is no indication whatsoever that the Georgian military will be able to resist Russia more capably in the future. Indeed, Russian ownership of South Ossetia means that Georgia is geographically vulnerable to any concerted Russian land assault. Cecire argues that a Black Sea based Mistral would enable Russia to conquer Georgia in the winter months as well as the summer, but this is unconvincing; any scenario in which Russia could intervene in Georgia would require substantial land forces, and the Russian Army has significant, longstanding winter and mountain warfare capabilities. The only thing that could possibly change this equation is a NATO political commitment to Georgia’s defense, the wisdom of which I’ll decline to discuss at the moment. Four things that do not change the power equation between Russia and Georgia are the four Mistrals that Russia will be buying from France.

Militarily, the Mistrals are irrelevant to Russia’s relationship with Georgia or with any other part of its near abroad. The Mistrals might briefly hasten Russian conquest of Georgia or one of the Baltics, but the outcome of such a conflict would depend entirely upon factors other than the presence of the warships. Politically, the Mistrals are significant to Russia’s relationship with its near abroad insofar as they suggest that at least one major Western power is interested in pursuing good military and political relations with Russia. This isn’t irrelevant, but it does suggest that the focus on the ships themselves is misplaced. Moreover, the fact that the Mistrals aren’t important to the military relationship between Russia and Georgia doesn’t mean that the Russians are good people interested only in sunshine, flowers, and puppies. It means merely that these specific concerns about Russian behavior are overblown.

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