Bucking EU pressure, France commits to Russian warship delivery

President Hollande says France will deliver at least one of the two helicopter carriers promised to Moscow, to the consternation of EU allies calling for military sanctions against Russia.

David Vincent/AP/File
French-built warship BPC Vladivostock, designed to strengthen Russia's ability to deploy troops, tanks, and helicopter gunships, leaves the Saint Nazaire's harbor, western France, for its test run on the open sea off coast of France in early March. French President François Hollande says that the Vladivostock will be delivered to Russia, despite EU pressure to cancel the deal.

Undeterred by criticism from his European allies, French President François Hollande said today he would proceed with the controversial sale of a warship to Russia, but may reconsider the sale of a second ship.

European Union foreign ministers met today in Brussels to discuss greater sanctions on Russia over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. It’s the first gathering of the 28-member bloc since the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, allegedly by pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine. Almost 300 people, including more than 200 EU nationals, died.

EU leaders have been divided since day one over how to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to quell the ongoing instability in Ukraine. But the crash has hardened positions on Russia, especially in the Netherlands.

But not so in France. Mr. Hollande has stood behind France's billion-dollar military deal with the Russians. Some 400 Russian sailors have been dutifully training in the French port of Saint-Nazaire since last month on a new, 656-foot assault ship, which is capable of carrying hundreds of combat troops and over a dozen helicopters.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday night was "unthinkable" for Britain to honor such a deal. And Mr. Cameron was not the only EU leader to strike such a tone: Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters ahead of the meeting today that an European arms embargo, which Cameron also supports, should have been in place long ago. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly,” he said.

Francesco Giumelli, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and author of “The Success of Sanctions,” says France is effectively asking Russia not to send weapons to eastern Ukraine, while at the same time selling weapons to Russia. “These are not just rifles that they can make themselves. This is the kind of weaponry that they either buy or they don’t have."

France has traditionally led Europe's foreign-policy approach, but now finds itself at odds with its allies and neighbors. "Hollande is not backing down. He is delivering the first [ship] despite the fact he is being asked not to," Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, a Socialist party member, said on local French television Tuesday.

Europe's sanctions dilemma

France’s deal, which was signed by former President Nikolas Sarkozy in 2011, is by far the largest EU arms sale to Russia. But it’s not the only one, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany have also supplied military components like engines and light transport aircraft to Russia.

So far, EU leaders have balked at imposing sweeping economic sanctions on Russia because many countries are even more dependent than France on trade with Russia. Germany relies on Russian gas, while the City of London is awash in Russian money. As Mr. Cambadelis pressed on: "When you see how many [Russian] oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard."

British diplomats, in seeking an arms embargo, have argued that broad sanctions in the defense industry could include future, not current deals, as a way to bring France on board. And Hollande suggested for the first time last night that, while the first ship, on which the Russian sailors are training, will be delivered, the sale of the second ship under construction, called the Sevastopol, might be under question. “That will depend on Russia’s attitude,” he said. 

His hint at compromise may be part of an overall toughening against Russia in Europe. As Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary said: "The events of the last few days have changed public expectations of us, and we must signal at our meeting that we recognize that are we are going to go further as a consequence.”

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