France’s unpalatable warship deal with Russia

Photo: AFP
4 min

While it has not sparked new calls for “freedom fries”, France’s sale of cutting-edge warships to Russia amid tensions over Ukraine is not going down well with its Western allies. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the unsavoury military contract.


The United States last week repeated it was “concerned” that Paris was going ahead with its planned delivery of two Mistral warships to Moscow, even as the EU imposed new sanction on Russian leaders for their alleged meddling in Ukraine.

“We have regularly and consistently expressed our concerns about this sale even before the latest Russian action and we will continue to do so," the US Assistant Secretary for Europe Victoria Nuland told US lawmakers on Thursday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will likely hear similar complaints as he wraps up his visit to the United States on Tuesday, but so far French leaders have resisted pressure to sink their warship agreement with Russia.

A warship, but not quite, says France

France’s naval industry consider the Mistral one of its engineering jewels, so the controversy surrounding the sale of the two vessels to Russia has not gone unnoticed at home or abroad.

Boasting of its versatility, the French Navy has dubbed the ship the “Swiss army knife.” It is designed to carry as many as a dozen assault helicopters, sixty armoured vehicles, and a dozen tanks. It can also host up to 700 troops and a full hospital.

However, the Mistrals built for Moscow will not be outfitted with weapons – a detail the French have been quick to point out.

“More than anything we are selling a big boat, especially designed to transport men and materiel,” Philippe Migault, a defence expert at France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told FRANCE 24. “It definitely projects power, but it is definitely not a battle ship.

A billion-euro contract

The original contract with Russia was signed by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011. It guarantees the construction and delivery of two ships, the “Vladivostok” and the “Sebastopol” for the sum of 1.2 billion euros.

The contract has injected new life into the once floundering STX shipyards in France’s western port of Saint-Nazaire, with the order safeguarding 1,000 full-time jobs over four years.

France would reportedly have to fully refund Russia if it unilaterally cancelled the contract, and pay additional compensation too.

Japan jostling

The US is not the only country worried by the warships. The Baltic states have also expressed alarm, especially since the Franco-Russian deal was initially brokered in the wake of Moscow’s military intervention in Georgia.

The de facto takeover of the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia was all the more alarming in relation to the Mistral deal, given the statements by Russian Navy chief Vladimir Vysotsky. At the time, Vysotsky said that with a boat like the Mistral, operations in Georgia would have taken “40 minutes, instead of 26 hours.”

More recently, in 2011, complaints came from Japan. Thee is now the possibility that Russia could deploy one of the French-built ships to the Pacific, where Moscow and Tokyo share rival claims over the Kuril Islands.

Disputed since the end of World War II, the islands continue to be the source of flare-ups between the two powers from time to time.

If the warship delivery is completed as expected, it will be the first time a NATO member provides sensitive military equipment to Russia.

'Don’t betray our trust’

However, the loudest outcry continues to come from Washington.

“Americans are opposed in principle to any military cooperation between Russia and NATO member states,” noted IRIS’s Migault “The United States has never hidden the fact that they oppose any cooperation that would challenge its ‘leadership’ on the European continent.”

Russia has reacted swiftly to the mounting international campaign against the warship deal. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin tweeted this warning: “France begins to betray the trust we have in her as a reliable supplier.”

It was a thinly veiled threat to one of France’s most lucrative business sectors, its defence industry. The country is the fourth largest exporter of weapons and military equipment in the world, behind the United States, Britain and Russia itself.

Russia plans to boost its military spending by 60% over the next three years, a fact that is not lost on French defence contractors and politicians.

“When France makes commitments as it has done with Russia , it needs to respect them. If not France will lose credibility on the international stage and expose itself to a financial backlash,” he said.

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