The news that France was selling the Mistrals to Egypt was quite positively received in Moscow. Such a deal promises many benefits to Russia, but how good is it for Cairo?
Russian Navy officers visit the Mistral French amphibious assault ship docked on the Neva River in downtown St. Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009. Photo: AP
Speculation that France’s Mistral helicopter carriers could be sold to a third-party country appeared in late 2014, when Francois Hollande officially suspended their transfer to Moscow. In May of this year, after the Elysee Palace and the Kremlin rather calmly agreed on the compensation amount that France would pay the Russian side, it became clear that Paris would be seeking a new buyer for the ships.
However, time was working against the French, as each month that the almost finished ships were laid up at the docks was costing France a significant amount of money. In addition, the agreement with Russia included a large number of obligatory constraints (in particular, the need to get Moscow’s approval of any new buyer), which greatly complicated the sale of the helicopter carriers. However, in August, the media began circulating rumors that Egypt would be buying the Mistrals.
Then on Sept. 23, the Elysee Palace officially confirmed that an agreement with Cairo was reached on this question. This piece of news was quite positively received in Moscow. Indeed, such a deal promises many benefits to Russia, but how good is it for Cairo?
One important point to keep in mind is that the Mistrals, which could begin serving in the Egyptian Navy as early as March 2016, have nothing unique about them. In many respects, they are inferior to their Spanish counterpart, a similar amphibious assault ship – the Juan Carlos I.
Moreover, the French helicopter carriers were made taking into account the special needs of the Russian military service. Their bodies were adapted to difficult ice conditions found in the Russian seas, while internal docks and elevators were widened specifically for Russian Ka-52K and K29 helicopters, and are not convenient for other models.
Also read: "What's next for Russia and the Mistrals?"
Moreover, the naval vessels built in Saint-Nazaire were designed for Russian communications and firing control systems. In addition, also present was an important legal aspect – France could not sell the Mistrals to anyone without consent from the Russian side, as Dmitry Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the defense industry, mentioned on many occasions.
Thus, the number of potential buyers for Paris to choose from was very narrow. Moscow would hardly agree to sell them to the Baltic States or the European Union, which some European populist politicians wanted to see done. Incidentally, these politicians did not take into account that neither Brussels nor the Baltic republics had the funds to purchase and maintain such helicopter carriers, not to mention the fact that the European Union does not even have its own fleet.
For a while, Egypt, India, and China were considered among the main possible buyers. All three countries have warm relations with Russia, and what is also important, are among the main buyers of Russian-made weapons. However, neither New Delhi nor Beijing showed much interest in this possible transaction. And this despite the fact that in China, as they say in Russia, “the product was shown in person.” In May 2015 a French squadron, which included a similar helicopter carrier, visited the port of Shanghai.
However, neither India nor Beijing showed interest in buying these ships. One reason for this, according to military experts, is that these regional superpowers wish to have ships built “for their specific needs.” Moreover, in recent years, China has been focusing on the independent building of large ships. Thus, in August, the Celestial Empire announced that the Chinese shipbuilding company CSIC had begun construction of a new nuclear aircraft carrier, which should be commissioned in 2020.
What are the benefits for Egypt and Russia from the deal?
At the same time, Egypt’s purchase of two Mistrals has great political significance. This country’s navy, which, incidentally, is the seventh largest in the worldhas never had ships of this size. The largest ship in the Egyptian fleet today is the multi-purpose frigate Fremm Aquitaine, with a displacement of 6,000 tons.
These two helicopter carriers, according to the Egyptian authorities, will strengthen the Egyptian fleet’s groupings in the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, where, with the help of helicopters, they will be able to effectively meet today’s challenges – including fighting against piracy and maybe even intercepting illegal migration.
Cairo is a longtime partner of Moscow in the military sphere. Therefore, it is logical that, at the same time as they purchased the Mistrals, Egyptian authorities have agreed with the Kremlin to buy 50 new K-52 helicopters, which these carriers were designed to carry. Thus, even though the amount of the transaction was not disclosed, experts believe that it may exceed 1.3 billion euros, or $1.46 billion, which is significantly more than Russia spent on the construction of the Mistrals and even more money than Russia had refunded.
On Sept. 23, the First Deputy Head of the Duma Committee on Industry Vladimir Gutenev said that he was confident that the Egyptians “in the future would purchase from Russia new helicopters and components for retrofitting.” The Russian politician also noted that no agency fees needed to be paid to Paris for such transactions, and in fact, at no expense, Russian shipbuilders got to learn about new technologies and gained important experience in the construction of Mistrals.
Moreover, on Sept. 18, the Head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov said that, in fact, because of the devaluation of the Russian ruble, in terms of national currency, Russia received double the amount in compensation for the Mistrals than it originally paid, which has also proven to be beneficial for the Kremlin.
Thus, the sale of Mistrals to Egypt was the best option for Moscow. At the same time, the purchase of these helicopter carriers sparked controversy in Cairo. Back in August, a senior Egyptian military leader – General Mahmoud Khalaf - sharply refuted the statement made by the newspaper Le Monde concerning Egypt’s interest in purchasing Mistrals. Moreover, General Khalaf said that his country had no need of such vessels.
Nonetheless, the conclusion of the deal was announced on Sept. 23. At the same time, information kept surfacing that Saudi Arabia was providing financial assistance to Cairo. This happened right after the French ships were purchased for specifically those goals that were announced by the leadership of Egypt. After all, this country, for several years after the “Arab Spring,” which led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, has been in a state of political crisis and is experiencing financial problems.
Here we should pay particular attention as to the speed of this transaction. According to French sources, the Mistrals will be joining the Egyptian fleet by March of next year. This implies the need for the urgent creation by Cairo of infrastructure that the new ships need. The assumption that Egypt will eventually resell the ships to Russia, and especially with the support of the Saudis, is extremely unlikely. This country is in no position to aggravate its relations with the EU and NATO. At the same time, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia feel equally threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which the Western coalition cannot effectively counteract, or does not wish to do so.
Thus, two Mistrals, with Russian helicopters on board, would be a great help in dealing with mobile groups of radical Islamists, who have been steadily expanding territories under their control. The Mistrals would also come in handy for Arab allied forces in their “peacekeeping operations” in Yemen – another region of tension where the allies of Saudi Arabia, from the UAE and Bahrain, have started to suffer casualties.
In this context, the purchase of the helicopter carriers takes on a more logical aspect – Egypt and its allies are apparently beginning to understand that, in protecting their borders, they will have to do it on their own, and the sooner they are ready for this, the better. However, keep in mind, the difficult economic situation and internal instability in Egypt will play a role in whether Cairo can equip the Mistrals for active military service, and most importantly, use them effectively.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.