If you've been losing sleep over the fate of France's two hapless, orphaned Mistral warships, then you needn't fret any longer: Egypt has been confirmed as the buyer of the ships originally constructed for Russia. President François Hollande and President Abdel Fattah el Sisi "have agreed on the principle and terms and conditions of Egypt's acquisition of the two Mistral-class vessels," the office of the French presidency said in a recent statement.
France had abandoned a deal to sell the two Mistral warships to Russia due to tensions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. Now a new deal for the ships, though preliminary, is finally more reality than rumor. France is at the brink of resolving what has indeed become a strange and dramatic arms sale saga.
The deal with Cairo was struck quite quickly, which is fortunate for France. Their agreement with Moscow over reimbursement was finalized a month and a half ago. Discussion about Egypt as a serious buyer for one or both warships seemed to begin in earnest last week.
"From the French perspective, whatever they can do to get out of the situation as quickly as possible is a good thing for them," remarked Yannick Quéau, director general of Open Source Intelligence on Politics, a French think tank.
Egypt and France already have a growing defense export relationship. Egypt acquired 24 Rafale fighter jets from France this year in a $5.2 billion deal that also included a multi-purpose frigate, two corvettes, and missiles. Now they could possibly add fully-outfitted French warships to that mix.
Countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are keen to not only grow their arsenals, but also to develop trade and foreign policy relationships beyond those they have with the United States. France is equally eager to present itself as the logical alternate supplier and boost its connections to Middle Eastern powers, especially for those who don't want to shift to far away from the West as a whole.
Though their public optimism never flagged, resale of the Mistrals was a huge concern for France. The ships, named Vladivostok and Sevastopol (after Russia's largest Pacific Ocean port and the contested Crimean home of its Black Sea fleet, respectively), are already outfitted with telecommunications equipment, missile systems, and a helicopter landing control module that have been calibrated to Russia's specifications. Dismantling and refurbishing the ships to comply with the technological requirements of another navy would be a costly and time-consuming process. Now, however, the Russian equipment on the ship could remain on board: Egypt's defense systems are similar to Russia's, limiting concerns over interoperability. (Whether or not the systems will actually be left in place remains open for debate however, given that TASS, a state-owned Russian news agency maintains that the systems must still be dismantled before the new sale goes through).
"It won't be a major problem for the Egyptian army to operate on Russian-based technology," said Quéau. This is all notwithstanding the fact that, as he points out, Egypt does not really need an amphibious assault ship, let alone two of them.
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Egypt is unable to finance the purchase on its own, and already the catch with the preliminary deal seems to be the cost. At one point it seemed as though Saudi Arabia might fund the purchase of both ships, keeping one for its own use and allowing Egypt to maintain the other in its naval fleet. Now, the question is whether or not Moscow will have any hand in helping Cairo with the purchase.
A package deal including Russian communications equipment would effectively position France as the middleman for sales for the equipment's manufacturer, a company called Sistemy Upravleniya, whose sole shareholder is the Russian government.
This would also put France in the unique position of helping to further the relationship between Russia and Egypt, potentially helping to facilitate a helicopter deal between the two nations.
Egypt is already likely to get Russian Ka-52 helicopters. A report from the company currently developing the helicopter's new under-the-nose turret system shows that Egypt is set to receive 50 of the turrets between 2016 and 2019. There is no further information about the delivery and number of the aircraft themselves, which are designed to attack ground-level and low-moving aerial targets.
The Russians developed naval versions of this helicopter, differentiated as the Ka-52K, just for the Vladivostok and Sevastopol. Now that Egypt has purchased the Mistrals (and maybe the accompanying Russian equipment and helicopter modules), will they receive those specially-designed aircraft along with that order? Signs point to yes.
Egypt's purchase suggests the role that Russia could have played in negotiations over the resale, one that was already rumored to exist.
"[W]e have emphasized that the Russian side's interests will be taken into account during the transfer of the Mistrals to a third party," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov told TASS at the beginning of the month.
Moscow's desire to build on its defense relationship with Egypt, and even to push along the sale of attack helicopters, may have played a role in France's decisions. Accommodating Russia's desires in this process would allow France to save both money and face with a quick resale as well as potentially limiting the cost of refurbishment.
The Mistral deal is, as Quéau puts it, "not a normal situation at all. It's quite exceptional."
Defense deals are often risky, as they can involve exporting to questionable governments in complicated regions of the world. France's 2009 decision to make a big sale to Russia was an unusual spectacle of risk and consequence in defense exporting. But while France may publicly have had "full ownership and free disposal" of the ships, the resale seems burdened by Moscow's interests.
Without over-extrapolating from one deal gone epically awry, France's economy and Russia's strategic interests have conspired to push the story of these two stateless warships towards an odd and politically tricky ending.
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