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The Russia-France Warship Deal Is Turning Into a Total Mess

France has some difficult decisions to make over the sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia.

by Sharon Muthoni and Ryan Faith
Nov 22 2014, 12:17am

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez

Russian sailors were denied access to the Mistral amphibious assault ships in Saint-Nazaire shipyard on Monday, according to reports. French authorities prevented the 400 sailors, who were set to be the crew members, from training on board. This came as part of a wider refusal by the French government to handover these warships to their rightful "owners-by-purchase" — Russia.

Despite the fact that the sailors were eventually given access on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin remains outraged by the blatant breach of contract. He has warned that France will be liable to pay a heavy indemnity fee if it does not honor its end of the bargain.

Why is France building warships for Russia? Read more here.

Russia has now given France until the end of November to deliver the first of the two ships still stuck in the shipyard. This deadline came after they failed to deliver first of the two ships, the Vladivostok, on November 14.

With only a few days left till the end of month, the 1.2 billion euro ($1.5 billion) contract between France and Russia stands in jeopardy. France has refused to hand over the ship because of the intense pressure from the US and other nations, who have reservations about supplying the ships to Russia, not only because of Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine, but also because of the Russian military's more aggressive posture in recent months.

For Russia, the acquisition of these ships is significant. As a rule, Russia almost never imports major weapons systems, but the country is a major military exporter. As the first major arms import deal since 1991 for post-Soviet Russia, this purchase highlights two main sets of factors.

On the military front, this is a significant commitment to Russia's strategic shift, away from direct naval combat with the US and NATO in the North Atlantic to the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean on one side, and the Pacific on the other. Both are environments which will feature a lot more operation close to the coast. During its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia encountered significant problems during amphibious operations, despite the fact that the landing was unopposed. Thus, improving amphibious expeditionary capabilities will be critical to Russian naval power in these new areas of interest.

This purchase is also important to Russia for industrial reasons. Russian shipbuilding was hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The deal for the ships leaves room for significant cooperation between France and Russia on future shipbuilding projects, including subsequent production of Mistral-class ships in Russia. This technological boost could revitalize the Russian ability to build large surface combatants.

But the future of this deal is far from certain. France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls responded to Putin's threats by stating that France always honors its contracts, but it will not do so at the expense of destabilizing the Ukraine crisis any further. He reiterated that France is a sovereign country that is very capable of making its own decisions without being forced by external actors.

From the French perspective, the entire crisis pits several interests against one another. When the agreement was signed in 2010, concluding two years of negotiations, the security climate was dramatically different, and Russia wasn't widely seen as a potential foe. The agreement provided a major boost for France's shipbuilding industry and defense industrial base. The situation in Ukraine and other diplomatic developments in the last year have put France on the horns of a dilemma.

France may — or may not — begin delivering warships to Russia in the coming days. Read more here.

On one hand, selling an advanced defensive system to Russia in the current situation endangers French military-industrial relations with other countries, particularly its NATO allies. On the other, acceding to diplomatic pressure would signal to other potential customers that France is not a reliable partner.

European countries generally do not spend enough on defense to support a large defense industry without exports, and France has a reputation as a very dependable arms exporter. Caving to pressure here to block the sale would tell future customers that deals with France could be vetoed by a shifting diplomatic climate, while going ahead with the deal would signal to other customers that purchasing weapons from France doesn't come with a guarantee of French interest in preserving the customer's national security.

These competing influences have turned the debate over the Mistral in France into a debate about national sovereignty, which is generating increasing passion in some corners, such as the French shipbuilding union. Ideally, France would like to find a way out that gets its money, preserves its reputation as a reliable partner, and doesn't create problems with its existing allies and neighbors. And they'd like to do all this on their own terms, following their own solution.

Presidents Hollande and Putin were supposed to meet last weekend at the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, to discuss the situation. However, reports suggest the Mistral situation was not overtly discussed and, furthermore, Putin walked out of the conference hours earlier than it was scheduled to end.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr