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Russia\'s power ambitions in the Pacific

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COMMENTS

3 March 2011 13:36

Dr. Alexey Muraviev is a senior lecturer and Director of the Strategic Flashlight forum on National Security and Strategy at Curtin University of Technology, Perth. 

On 9 February 2011, Russia's Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced plans to deploy a pair of French built Mistral-class Amphibious Assault, Command and Force Projection ships to the Pacific maritime theatre. 

For the first time in its history, Russia is acquiring a sub-strategic capability from a NATO member-state; this is a milestone in its bilateral relations with other European powers. The deal also allows Russia's political and military elite to pursue several other strategic agendas, such as aiding its political maneuvering with Japan.

The announcement about future basing of the Mistrals was made two days prior to a Moscow visit by the Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, during which the problem of the so-called Northern Territories (four islands of the Kuril chain) was discussed. Russia made it clear that it has every intention of retaining control over the disputed islands. Moreover, in the past two weeks Moscow has announced plans to upgrade its defensive posture in the Kurils by re-equipping its forces there, deploying an air defence missile brigade, new generation surface-to-surface missile units and sending the Mistrals to the Pacific. 

The lead unit of the Mistral class is expected to join the Russian Pacific Fleet in late 2013, while the second would be transferred sometime in 2014-2015. Altogether, the Mistral deal envisages construction of four units for the Russian Federation Navy, the first two by the French shipbuilder DCN and another pair by a Russian shipyard.This is not the first time France has assisted Russia in the development of naval power. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Russian Navy was one of the main clients of French shipbuilders.  

Russia's Pacific Fleet is acquiring a limited strategic power projection capability built around two helicopter carriers, which could also act as flagships of multi-role task groups. The Mistral class is capable of transporting a reinforced battalion-size expeditionary force supported by 16 helicopters. Russian variants will be more expensive (720 million euros for the first and 650 million euros for the second hull) compared with those acquired by the French Navy (pictured; approximately 500 million euros per unit). The higher cost is driven by modifications requested by the Russian Navy, among them a reinforced flight deck to accommodate heavier helicopters, and a strengthened hull to allow operations in the Arctic and north-eastern Pacific. 

After years of decline, Moscow is getting serious about rebuilding its shrunken capacity to project power and defend the strategically vital Far East and Eastern Siberia. As in the past, the emphasis will be on restoring a potent naval capability. Besides the Mistrals, by 2020 the Pacific Fleet is expected to receive new-generation Borey class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (the first unit will be transferred in 2012), corvettes and frigates, followed by new-generation destroyers and aircraft carriers.

If this ambition is realised, together with its expanding energy export capacity and a strong foothold in regional defence markets, by 2030 Russia will once again manifest its status as a significant Pacific player with the muscle to foster its regional and global interests. 

Photo, of the BPC Mistral and BPC Tonnerre, courtesy of the French Ministere De La Defence.

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