ENS Anwar El Sadat, a French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ship
© Stephane Mahe / Reuters
ENS Anwar El Sadat, a French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, in Saint-Nazaire, France, 2016.
Paris refused to sell helicopter carriers to Russia after its reunification with Crimea. Now Moscow will reportedly build its own ships of this class, using the technology, training and cash from the aborted deal with France.

The first of the two Russian-made helicopter carriers will be laid down next May, with one of them set to be completed by 2027, sources in the ship-building industry told TASS on Thursday. The vessels will reportedly carry up to 10 helicopters each and have large hangar-like well decks to deploy landing craft. The contract for the ships will be signed "in the coming months," the source said.

Filling the gap

The new vessels will significantly up Russia's naval game, since Moscow is in dire need of modern amphibious assault ships, according to RT's defense expert Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok. The existing amphibious APCs are "very bad swimmers," which are only able to "land troops in secure coves with calm waters."

Moreover, Khodarenok believes that modern warfare challenges would make it "impossible" to deploy the Soviet-era tech during actual combat. A new type of vessel is required to fill this gap, and this is something Russia has been working on.

Enter the Mistral

Russia initially wanted to solve the problem by purchasing the helicopter carriers overseas. Its 2010 international tender was won by France, which promised to build two of its newest Mistral-class vessels, tailoring them for Russian needs in the process.
port of Montoir-de-Bretagne Saint Nazaire France
© REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
An aerial view shows the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok constructed for Russia at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in the port of Montoir-de-Bretagne near Saint Nazaire, western France, September 22, 2014.
Moscow enjoyed fairly good relations with Paris at the time, so the deal seemed poised for success. The contract was supposed to be the biggest arms sale by any NATO country to Russia ever. The shipyard in Saint-Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast worked non-stop to have the first carrier delivered to Moscow in the fall of 2014. The second one was due to be handed over a year later.

That all came crashing down in the wake of the 2014 coup in Ukraine, after Crimea voted to rejoin Russia and civil war broke out in the Donbass. The EU decided to slap Moscow with sanctions. France jumped on the bandwagon, with then-president Francois Hollande halting the delivery of the Mistrals indefinitely.

Moscow opted not to wait and demanded its money back. France not only lost a lucrative contract but was forced to compensate Russia for adapting its Ka-52 helicopters for the Mistrals' decks and upgrading the facilities in the port of Vladivostok intended for the carriers.

In the end, Paris refunded Moscow nearly €950 million ($1.05 billion). Then-deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia was more than happy with this outcome, since the sum in rubles ended up three times higher than the money initially paid to France.

Free tech & training

Russian sailors STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard
© Russian sailors leave the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, western France, after having trained for months on a French-built Mistral helicopter carrier, December 18, 2014. Reuters / Stephane Mahe
Russian sailors leave the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, western France, after having trained for months on a French-built Mistral helicopter carrier, December 18, 2014.
Moreover, Russia gained valuable knowledge on how to build and operate its own helicopter carriers in the future, as Paris agreed to technology transfers when signing the deal. Around 400 Russian sailors were sent to Saint-Nazaire for training. The money spent on their trip was also later reimbursed by the French.

Khodarenok said Russia will now "surely utilize the experience it acquired during the building of the Mistrals while cooperating with the French."

Biggest irony

Zaliv shipyard Kerch Crimea Russia
© RIA Novosti / Sergey Mamontov
Aerial view of the Zaliv shipyard in Kerch, Crimea, Russia
With Crimea serving as the pretext for France derailing the sale of the ships, one can't miss the irony of the peninsula being the place where Russia reportedly plans to build its own carriers. The vessels are expected to be laid down at the Zaliv shipyard in the city of Kerch, on the peninsula's eastern coast. Rather than being picked to spite Paris, however, the shipyard is a good choice because it has a large enough dock to build such a ship type, Khodarenok says.

Vital to the construction of the helicopter carriers will be the long new bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, and making possible the delivery of heavy components by road or rail.

"I think that laying the keel in May 2020 wasn't chosen randomly," Khodarenok explains. "By that time, the Crimean Railway Bridge will start to function at full capacity."