A French Headache Called Mistral

Credits: Jean-Sébastien Evrard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Credits: Jean-Sébastien Evrard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Mistral warships are becoming one of the hottest issues for the French government in light of the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and now Eastern Ukraine. On November 25th, some media outlets (read here and here) announced that France was moving on with the delivery of its first Mistral ship on November 27th. Soon after these reports, the French President, François Hollande, announced in a communiqué published by the French Embassy in the US that:

The French President believes the current situation in eastern Ukraine still does not permit the delivery of the first [Mistral] amphibious landing ship. He has therefore considered it appropriate to postpone until further notice the examination of the authorization request necessary for the export of the first amphibious landing ship to the Russian Federation./.
 

Ultimately, the questions have been since the invasion of Ukraine: Will France deliver the Mistral-class warships to Russia? and when? Additionally, another one has emerged: how can France arm the principal aggressor on the European continent?

Origins of the Deal

The Franco-Russian deal was signed in 2011 and consisted in the construction of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers. The first one, the Vladivostok, is supposed to be delivered this month, and the second, the Sevastopol, later in 2016. The value of the contract for the construction of the two warships is of €1.12 billion, which has already been paid in full by Russia. The 2011 contract for the sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships was the first large sale from a NATO country to Russia in the post-Cold War era.

The deal was signed in January 2011 between two former Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Aside from the obvious economic gains and industrial prestige, Nicolas Sarkozy justified the deal in order to end once and for all the old Cold War enmities. He claimed that “One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don’t treat them as one.” Was it Sarkozy’s ‘reset button’ moment?

Following the signature of the deal, former french President told STX workers that this deal “represents 6 million hours of work and 1,500 jobs over four years” at the shipyard in the coastal town of Saint-Nazaire. Once elected in May 2012, François Hollande declared that the deal would remain. It was only in 2014, months prior the first delivery, that the tension increased considering the geopolitical context. In May, despite the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the French government declared that the deal was still on creating some concerns across the pond. Despite the economic sanctions implemented by the EU-28 during the summer against Russia (principally individuals), France was still willing to deliver the warship on time. It was only early September that France, under pressures by its allies, laid out two conditions for the delivery: a cease-fire and a political resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. And since October, a political game between Moscow and Paris has begun between the two partners, with Moscow claiming that France would deliver the ship on time, and Paris responding that the government has yet to make a decision. In recent time, Russia is telling his French counterpart that France has until the end of the month to deliver the first Mistral, otherwise, Moscow could eventually seek for claims for a breach of contract. However, on Tuesday, November 25th, Yuri Borisov, Russian Deputy Defense Minister, has announced that so far Russia would not seek for damages.

The Mistral – A Game Changer

The Mistral-class helicopter carriers produced by the French shipyards of Saint Nazaire are important and powerful logistical military instruments. These Mistral-class ships offer a variety of tactical and materials advantages as explained by Military-Today (for more technical information on the Mistral amphibious assault ship (LHD) class see here):

  • transport and rapid deployment of helicopters (from 16 to 35 helicopters with 6 landing spots);
  • mechanized landing craft;
  • carry a full tank battalion (from 40 tanks to 70 lighter vehicles);
  • carry from 450 marines up to 900 troops;
  • become modular field hospital;
  • be deployed as command and control vessel with up to 150 personnel;

The figure below illustrates the versatility of Mistral-class warship.

Mistral

Undeniably, the Mistral-class would offer a serious strategic advantage to the Russian navy. For instance, in the case of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russian admiral Vladimir Vyssotsky argued that “With a Mistral-type vessel during the South Ossetian conflict, the Russian military could have accomplished all its missions in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.”

The headaches of the French Government:

Aside from the obvious technological and military functions, the Mistral-class warships are causing complex problems, of different orders – political, economic, and strategic -,  for the French government.

First, when money tromps regional stability. The financial crisis and its domestic impacts on the French economy and society are affecting the strategic vision of French leaders. The deal signed in 2011 was seen as an important economic boost for France. It not only created hundreds of job in the shipyards of Saint Nazaire, but as well boosted the production of heavy military armaments by the French armament industry. The French industrials are now fearing that a breach of contract may affect their global credibility and reliability for future armament sales with foreign states. Currently, France stands as the fifth world largest arms supplier. In 2012, France totaled €6.87 billion of arms sales, which provide over 50,000 jobs in France. Ultimately, the economic impacts could be serious for the French economy and its military-technological industries. Such claim was validated by a conversation between President Obama and Hollande in Paris in June. As reported by Vincent Jauvert of Euromaidan Press, Obama said “I am deeply concerned. The annexation of Crimea is not a good signal. Why not cancel the deal?” To which, Hollande replied “Because I do not wish to discard the reputation of France.”

Last but not least, with the €1.12 billion already paid in full, the penalty for France for not delivering the warships is valued at €250 million. In case, the Socialist government decides to stop the sale of the warships, €250 million fine plus the two unsold warships could become a serious political headache for the current government.

Second, the delivery of the Vladivostok would send the wrong message to Moscow. By providing such military instrument in times wherein Russia is destabilizing the Eastern neighborhood of the Union, France cannot afford from a strategic point of view to deliver it. Since 2008, Russia has perturbed the European continent with the war in Georgia (2008), the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the incident of Malaysian airliner (weapons provided by Russia to Ukrainian separatists), and the sponsoring of Ukrainian separatists. Politically, France, despite its deep and historical ties with Russia, cannot provide such capability. The invasions of Crimea and now of Ukraine directly threaten the stability on the European continent. President Hollande argued that the delivery was on hold because of Russia’s behavior running “against the foundations of security in Europe.” Additionally, Vladimir Putin is advancing Russian interests until he will meet a serious challenge. Until then, Putin won’t alter his strategy.

Third, what about Europe? The EU has had trouble formulating a clear response and strategy in dealing with Russia for over a decade. For France to deliver the warships in this difficult time for the Union would demonstrate its absolute irrelevance in foreign affairs. Individually, EU Member States such as the United Kingdom, Germany and naturally Eastern EU Member States have expressed their concerns. London has for instance called on suspending the deal. Despite the criticisms emerging from 10 Downing Street, the UK is still receiving large amount of money and investments coming from Russia. From Eastern Europe, these warships represent a real threat to their national security. Radek Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister, advanced that “Russian generals have already said what these ships will be used for: to threaten Russia’s neighbors in the Black Sea and that means Europe’s partners.”

The deal is a bad one for European security. How can France provide military assets to a state in search of destabilizing the European balance of power and promoting its interests at any cost? France is unable to respond to such crucial question.

Fourth, what about the French political voices? The French political extremes, right and left combined, have expressed their opposition to the current status-quo on delivering the warship. For instance, Marine LePen of the Front National, extreme-right, argued that it was a clear demonstration of French submission to American hegemony.She said that it “reveals our subservience to American diplomacy.” A similar argument about American imperialism was formulated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the extreme left.

Marine Le Pen, whom has become an apparent force in shaping the French political debate, added that the decision to uphold the delivery is serious as “it runs contrary to the interests of the country.” From her point of view, the reasons are double: French jobs would be at risk and France would have to pay a fine if it failed to deliver the warships. Aside from the economic argument made by the Front National, one should underscore that the party recently accepted a €9 million loan from a Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank. Moscow has become a large financial sponsor for extreme-right parties throughout Europe.

Even, Nicolas Sarkozy holds the same message that the extreme right, which is not surprising, when arguing mid-November that “France needs to honor its words and deliver the Mistrals, France decides by itself, not from what the US wants.” Sarkozy, in search of re-gaining the leadership of the right wing party, UMP, and ultimately the French presidency is demonstrating once again his desire to fulfill his personal ambitions rather than demonstrating his understanding of geopolitics.

In sum, the future of these two Mistral-class warships is still unclear. On the one hand, as advanced by the New York Times, “a decision by France to suspend the deal would encourage other European countries to accept whatever sacrifices future sanctions might entail.” Such action would demonstrate the commitment by France to stand against Russia in its clear violations (read analyses on the issue here and here). On the other hand, some experts have argued that France could sell it to other buyers, preferably NATO members. In recent days, Canada, or even the European Union (in theory), have appeared as a possible buyers of the warships. Until then, the Mistral-gate is here to stay.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
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