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France will not halt Russian warship sale despite Ukraine crisis

© AFP

Text by Mehdi CHEBIL

Latest update : 2014-03-06

One of the two French-built Mistral-class warships purchased by Russia got its first test run on Wednesday in western France. Despite the crisis in Crimea, Paris said it was not yet ready to scrap its €1.2 billion deal with Moscow.

Despite France’s vocal diplomatic efforts on behalf of Ukraine, Paris still plans to supply Russia with two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to strengthen Moscow’s navy.

The “Vladivistok” helicopter carrier set sail at sunset from the French Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire for a three-day sea trial. The 22,000-tonne warship is capable of deploying up to 450 soldiers, helicopters and tanks in amphibious assaults.

French deal attacked back in 2011

France agreed in 2011 to sell two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia, attracting criticism from several NATO allies afraid of Russia’s military resurgence in the wake of the 2008 Georgian war.

As the French shipbuilder floated out the "Vladivostok" on Wednesday, senior diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the US, and leading Western powers met in Paris to try to bring an end to the crisis.

Despite the deployment of thousands of Russian troops in Crimea, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday that the crisis had not reached the point where France would consider halting the sale of warships to Russia.

Asked on RTL radio whether France would scrap the deal, Fabius said: "We aren't there. For the moment we are trying to stop the Russian movement in Ukraine and maintain, or rather, establish dialogue."

Hurting its own interests

France’s reluctance to use the sale as a bargaining chip cast doubt in some circles on Paris’s determination to use tough economic sanctions to force Russia’s hand over the Ukrainian crisis.

However, Philippe Migault - an expert on Russia and the arms industry at the Paris-based IRIS think tank - told FRANCE 24 that, “a signed contract is a signed contract.”
“Any delay or cancellation in the Mistral deal means that the shipbuilder would have to pay fees. This deal also safeguards a lot of jobs in Saint-Nazaire”, said Migault.

The lucrative deal has been heavily criticised by several US lawsmakers, who feared that the Mistral-class warships delivered to the Russians would include the highly-prized NATO communication and weapons systems.

No transfer of sensitive technology

However, the French shipbuilder has since confirmed that the communication system would be fitted “only if the Russian navy receives NATO approval”.

“This deal doesn’t involve any transfer of sensitive technology. Also, France sells the helicopter carrier, but it doesn’t sell the helicopters that go with it”, said Migault.

The arms industry expert also believes that the delivery of these two helicopter carriers would not significantly further tip the balance of power in the Black Sea for the Russians.

The “Vladivostok”, whose delivery to the Russian navy is set for the last quarter of 2014, is to join Moscow’s Pacific fleet. Its sister ship “Sevastopol”, still under construction, is named after the Crimean strategic harbour at the centre of the current Ukrainian crisis.

Date created : 2014-03-06

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