In December 2010, Russia and France signed a contract for the construction of two Mistral class amphibious assault ships, also known as helicopter carriers, and their delivery to the Russian Navy. This was an unprecedented agreement, given the traditionally strong Russian domestic defense industry and long-standing military rivalry between Russia and the West during the Cold War. It happened after the participation of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation (RF) in the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. At the time, allegedly the more liberal Dmitry Medvedev was President of the RF, and the new administration of US President Barack Obama had just announced the “reset” of relations between Russia and the West. There were expectations that Russia would declare its democratic aspirations while Western countries were willing to forgive Russia’s “mistakes of the past.”
Authoritarianism in Russia, President Putin’s reelection in 2012 and Russian support for Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian regime, among other problems, quickly derailed the Obama’s Administration’s “Reset” policy. Finally, the events of spring 2014 severed goodwill between the West and Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea (the first open annexation in Europe after WWII) and poorly concealed support of terrorists in eastern Ukraine have resulted in Russia’s international isolation–The Russian Federation was ignominiously expelled from the G8 and Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russia’s political and business elite. It was only logical that the French government would terminate their contract for the delivery of the “Mistral” warships.
The reality, however, shows that Paris does not want to sacrifice the money or its relationship with Moscow, which have been traditionally cozy since the end of the Cold War. A breach of contract will inevitably result in job cuts, the bankruptcy or even closing of a number of enterprises, as well as penalty payments to Moscow. Since these two ships were built by special order and followed Russian military standards, their transfer to another state’s military remains very problematic.
Therefore, the current position of Elysee Palace is as follows: the “Mistral” ships will not arrive to Russian ports only if the third level of sanctions is introduced against Russia – which would entail a complete break in relations between Russia and the West. Paris seems to shift the responsibility to Brussels and Washington, willing to share potential losses if they are willing to shoulder part of the burden.
It’s no secret that Russia is adamant that the deal goes through, as it has no military ships of this class or caliber. One of the “Mistral” ships is likely to be transferred to the Black Sea Fleet, which now does not need the consent of Kyiv for the rearmament. It will be assigned to the occupied port of Sevastopol, from where it may one day participate in a combat mission against Ukraine.
Today, the French government has the choice of either transferring “Mistrals” to Russia and turning a blind eye to the consequences, or to show integrity and refuse to cooperate with an aggressor state. This is a definitive test of commitment to international law and the principles of democracy. In the end, it can have the “Mistrals” for itself, transfer the ships to the naval forces of NATO countries, or sell them to China, India or Brazil. Lastly, although highly unlikely, France can even give the ships to Ukraine, whose most capable naval vessels were stolen by Russia after the annexation of Crimea. If France breaches its contract with Russia it will be extremely inconvenient, costly, and unpopular. However, one should not forget Churchill’s remark in his letter to Lord Moyne: “Owing to the neglect of our defences and the mishandling of the German problem in the last five years, we seem to be very near the bleak choice between War and Shame. My feeling is that we shall choose Shame, and then have War thrown in a little later, on even more adverse terms than at present.”
The French should remember the lessons of the Munich Agreement, the policy of appeasement which led to the WWII and the consequences which followed afterward.
Olexiy Haran, Professor of Political Science, Kyiv Mohyla University