On Christmas Eve 2010, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called his French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy with some big news: Russia was prepared to purchase two Mistral class helicopter carriers from France for a total of €1.2 billion ($US1.5 billion).
Almost four years later, the first of these ships, the Vladivostok, sits idle in the port of Saint-Nazaire, its future clouded by the stand-off between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
Last week, the ongoing stalemate resulted in the French project director responsible for delivering the ships being fired.
So what’s going on? There’s conflicting information from both sides. What we do know is that back in March of this year, Russia completed its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. This occurred in the aftermath of protests that had seen the collapse of the Kiev government with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing the West of stoking unrest and Russophobia in the country.
The response of France was swift. Laurent Fabius, then French Foreign Minister, told the press:”If Putin continues doing what he is doing we could envisage cancelling the sales [of the warships]”.
And the threats were apparently backed up. By July, the US and the European Union had announced a tough package of economic sanctions against Russia targeting the country’s financial, energy, and defence sectors, along with a number of prominent individuals. It seemed to most observers outside the negotiations that the Mistral contracts would end up as yet another casualty of the chaos in Ukraine.
Even if a cancellation of the order was considered at the time, it was swiftly dismissed. Despite lobbying efforts from other European partners, French President François Hollande remained resolute in his determination to meet his country’s commitment to deliver the ships and ultimately won the concession from his European partners to exempt existing contracts.
He told reporters in July: “The Russians have paid. We would have to repay €1.1 billion [if they were not delivered]…at this stage, there are no sanctions imposed that would oblige us to renounce [the contract].”
Although it may have seemed bizarre to outsiders that a country would sell military hardware to a country that it was simultaneously imposing defence sanctions on, the ships were back on track, with the Vladivostok due for delivery in October. To round off the perverseness of the whole situation, the second ship, the Sevastopol, was scheduled to join up with the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea when finished in 2015.
However, with the deadline for the handover looming and international pressure to hold off or cancel the sale growing, Hollande did decide to set 11th-hour conditions. These were a) there had to be a genuine ceasefire in Ukraine that seems to be holding and b) there has to be agreement on a political settlement that paves the way for a resolution of the crisis in Ukraine.
The Minsk agreement signed on 20 September by both sides in the Ukraine conflict offered some hope that these conditions might be met in time for the exchange. The nine-point deal set up a 30-kilometre buffer zone between pro-Russian rebels and government forces, a ban on military aircraft flying over certain areas in the east of the country, and a commitment to withdraw “foreign mercenaries”.
Few on the ground bought into the optimism. Within days of the treaty signing, fresh violence erupted in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. Elections in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been condemned as illegitimate and unlawful by the government in Kiev, the US, and the EU the situation have also complicated the situation.
So all of this brings us to the present. Last week, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of the defence industry and prominent nationalist, released a letter on Twitter purportedly from French arms industry company DCNS regarding the sale of the Mistral class ships. The letter states that the handover ceremony of the Vladivostok would take place on 14 November in Saint-Nazaire and includes:
- Signing of the transfer of ownership and delivery act.
- Hoisting of the Russian Federation colours.
- A military ceremony on the flight deck.
You might have thought that this would be the end of the saga. The invitation to the ceremony had gone out, and been made public. Yves Destefanis, a project director responsible for delivering the Mistral helicopter carrier to Russia, may even have had similar thoughts.
Instead, Destefanis lost his job after Michel Sapin, the current French Foreign Minister, reasserted that the “c
onditions today have not been met to deliver the Mistral“.
So where are we now? Frankly, we have no idea. The EU and the US are going to continue to pressure France to hold onto the ships. France is going to continue to claim that it’s allowed to sell them but do nothing about it. Russia is going to get increasingly angry that they have paid for them, are technically allowed to receive them and yet are having to view their ship from afar. And the Vladivostok is going to extend its quiet stay in Saint-Nazaire.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.