The drawn-out saga over two warships ordered by Russia from France, which has been complicated by European sanctions over Russia's intervention in Ukraine, is coming to a head.
While the Russian government's international radio broadcasting service on Sunday appeared to confirm France's delivery of a Mistral-class helicopter carrier scheduled for November 14, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had already declared that the conditions had not been met for France to hand over the first of the two vessels. It was just the latest puzzling exchange in the past several months regarding the contested contract.
The $1.6 billion deal — first negotiated in 2008, and signed in 2011 by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy — includes the building and delivery of two amphibious assault ships, the training of Russian sailors, and a technology transfer program that grants Russian access to French expertise. France recently completed construction of the first warship, named the Vladivostok, and trained 400 Russian sailors over the summer.
The contract to sell the ships has been marred by controversy since July, when the European Union strengthened sanctions against Russia due to the escalating crisis in Ukraine. The sanctions included an embargo on weapons trading with Russia, though existing contracts were theoretically unaffected. French President François Hollande was forced to revisit the deal under increasing pressure from Western allies, however, making the delivery of the Mistrals conditional on a lasting ceasefire and political settlement in Ukraine.
Speculation over the fate of deal grew heated in late October after Russian Vice-President Dmitri Rogozine tweeted a picture of an invitation sent to him by Pierre Legros, a senior vice president at French naval contracting giant DCNS, to attend the delivery ceremony of the first of the two vessels.
"The second Mistral currently under construction will be called the Sebastopol, which is extremely controversial considering that the town was taken by force and annexed by Russia," Marie Mendras, a political scientist and research fellow at France's National Center for Scientific Research, told VICE News. Sebastopol is home to Russia's Black Sea naval fleet, and was a major focus of Russia's incursion into Crimea earlier this year.
Mendras noted that the initial warship negotiations took place shortly after the end of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, in which Russia interceded on behalf of secessionists in Georgia's South Ossetia region, foreshadowing its current role in Ukraine.
"The commitment to build this kind of warship was in any case a mistake," she said, adding that she regretted the French government's "lack of foresight" regarding Russia's behavior at the time of the deal. "The authorities should have been able to anticipate Russia's belligerent policy on Ukraine, which threatens the very foundations of European security. The French defense industry cannot come before the continent's security interests."
Other analysts, such as Isabelle Facon, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank, believe that France pursued the deal not because of a lack of foresight, but out of a strategic desire to include Russia in the coordination of security and defense.
"Like several other European countries, France believes that there can be no European security without a trusting relationship between Russia and Europe," Facon told VICE News.
France's decision to suspend the delivery of the warships rather than cancel them outright may ensure the least damaging outcome, she added — particularly for a country in which defense and arms trading represents nearly a quarter of national exports.
"It's the only solution that isn't radical, that allows us to look after our interests as a reliable arms provider," said Facon.
"Potential buyers are not always stellar democracies, and [the non-delivery of Mistrals] puts France's reliability on the line," she went on. "France's other clients are sensitive to what's going on, because they think that the same thing could happen to them one day."
If France reneges on the deal, it will need to reimburse the money already paid out by Russia, as well as penalties outlined in the contract.
"We will seek compensation," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in June, addressing the dispute over the ships and the chance that the deal could fall through. "But it will not bode well for the future development of our relationship in the domains of technical and military cooperation."
Added to this financial risk is the potential loss of hundreds of jobs created by the construction of the second vessel. It would also threaten the future of shipbuilding in Saint-Nazaire, the French port where the ships are being built, which employs 2,500 salaried workers and 4,000 subcontractors.
Of course, France will ultimately have the final word on whether or not the Mistrals are delivered to Russia. French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the French government would announce its decision in the coming days.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho
Photo via Wikimedia Commons