France’s government said it will deliver Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia as planned, rejecting requests from its European and U.S. allies to cancel the sale to punish Russian interference in Ukraine.
France refuses to link the contract to the debate over tighter sanctions on Russia, an official from President Francois Hollande’s office told reporters traveling with the president in Baku late yesterday. The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the discussions, cited the size of the contract, the penalties that would be due in the event of cancellation and France’s refusal to be the only country taking a meaningful hit on sanctions.
“This contract was signed in 2011, it will be carried out,” Hollande said on May 10 during a visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electoral district. “For the moment it is not in question.” While the value of the contract has never been announced, Le Monde newspaper has said it is worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) to France.
The French rebuff is a setback to European Union efforts to show unity in the face of PresidentVladimir Putin’s refusal to pull back Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border. EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels today to consider widening the list of those sanctioned in protest at Russia’s involvement in Ukraine to include more individuals and possibly companies.
Russian sailors are scheduled to arrive in France next month for Mistral training. The first warship, built by France’s state-owned military contractor DCNS and the shipbuilder STX, is due in October with the next in 2016. There is an option for another two ships to be built in Russia by OAO United Shipbuilding Corp.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said at a congressional hearing on May 8 that “we have regularly and consistently expressed our concerns about this sale.”
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is among French officials who have said that no decision on the Mistral need be taken until October, and that any cancellation would have to be part of a broader package of sanctions.
The Mistral is a 200-meter (656-foot) ship, capable of carrying as many as 700 combat troops, 16 helicopters and 60 armored vehicles. Some of Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbors, including Georgia and the Baltic countries, expressed concern as long ago as 2011 that the ships could be used against them.