Those favoring the purchase of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship from France had placed high hopes on events in late November moving the sale forward. Mistral arrived in St. Petersburg on November 23 to much fanfare. The French sailors proved excellent guests and Russian experts took a close-up look at the ship. Maneuvers with other Russian warships occurred and Russian helicopters landed on the French warship (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 26). One week later Prime Minister Vladimir Putin led a large government and business delegation to Paris to talk energy and investment. Commentators expected the Mistral purchase to be a subtext of that visit and were optimistic that such high-level negotiations would expedite the decision. But no contract emerged in Paris. Instead, there were comments from unidentified sources among the delegation that the Mistral issue was the topic of unofficial conversations (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 27).
At the end of the visit in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Putin responded to a question about the procurement of the ship and its possible threat to Georgia by invoking a much more complex competitive process and declaring Russian sovereignty: “We have not decided anything about the acquisition of the Mistral. You are the sellers, and we are the buyers; there are other competitive proposals. And anyway, we still have not decided for ourselves if we will buy anything in this sense, of imports, although that is not excluded. Regarding the use of our arms, I can tell you that if we acquire something, we will use the weapon where we choose” (Rossiya, December 3). So the port call and the high-level visit to Rambouillet have come and gone, and no contract has been forthcoming. Instead, there have been more intense discussions about the wisdom of buying foreign warships and military technology in general.
Among the critics of such purchases are some of the most senior and respected figures among retired Russian officers. Army-General Makhmut Gareev, the President of the Academy of Military Sciences and a highly respected commentator on defense matters, categorically opposed the policy of foreign purchases in the defense sector and warned that before deciding on such an acquisition, Russian officials should “think carefully.” Gareev stated that in arms production Russia: “should be a self-sufficient country. We have always followed this policy. Of course, in the case of procurement of amphibious ships, we will find ourselves in a certain dependence on NATO and, in particular, France. We will have to buy spare parts, to create a system of logistics, based on Western standards . . . And this, gently said, is not very good for national security” (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, November 27).
If Gareev, as a commander experienced in ground warfare might be accused of underrating the importance of the navy to Russia, the second opponent cannot. If Gareev called for caution, Admiral Valentin Selivanov, the former commander of Russia's Mediterranean Squadron and former Chief of the Main Naval Staff, expressed his complete opposition to the purchase. Selivanov pointed to Russian experience in building large amphibious warships of the Ivan Rogov class and stated that the shipyards could complete such tasks now. He called the purchase of the foreign warship “complete nonsense.” Selivanov repeated the argument that such amphibious warfare ships are only needed by colonial powers like the United States and France. He proposed that the Russian navy acquire ships with oceanic capabilities: “missile cruisers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, but talks on their construction so far are ongoing” (Sovetskaya Rossiya, December 1). Selivanov, however, has in the past been a sharp critic of the Russian shipbuilding industry and took it to task in 2007 for the scandal associated with the breakdown of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov during her Mediterranean deployment in 1996. Then he spoke of the problems of quality control and long delays associated with Russian shipyards.
Retired military specialists received support from another voice. During his annual question and answer session with the Russian people, Putin spoke on the issue of defense transformation and the condition of the Russian military industrial complex in terms that confirmed the need for the former and his concern over the capacity of the latter. Speaking about the proposed purchase of the Mistral, Putin placed the sale in the context of Russia’s own position in the global arms market, noting its status as the number two provider. However, he also noted that in the current market place Russian producers have had to adapt weapons systems to NATO standards to sustain sales. In this context, the defense ministry is now exploring the purchase of foreign technology. On the Mistral, he echoed Gareev’s statement: “The decision has not yet been made, and I believe that before we take such a decision we should, of course, think very carefully and review the current capabilities of our own defense industry, including warship construction.” Putin, however, also warned the military industrial complex about the need to be competitive in all aspects, including price, if they expect to get contracts. He particularly drew attention to the need for a capital revitalization the defense industry’s infrastructure, which still uses machinery and tools produced in the 1950’s. Putin stated: “Our arms makers must understand that in the setting of a final price on a product they face competitors. Still, in betting on how to resolve questions relating to defense sufficiency and the defense capability of the Russian State we, of course, will put our money on the domestic defense industry” (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 4). The bottom line here is that Putin has come out in favor of his hometown’s shipbuilders, who have been told to be competitive and to continue to sell, even if it means building to NATO standards.
Therefore, it would appear that those who were most concerned about the threat to Georgia represented by the purchase of Mistral by Russia have found some very interesting allies among Russia’s senior retired officers and its current political leadership. No deal has been agreed and the prospects do not look very bright.