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Mistral Blows Cold On Russia

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So, the Russians will not be getting the Vladivostok, the Mistral-class landing helicopter dock ordered from France, until some indefinite time in the future when peace has returned to the Ukraine. French President François Hollande said in a statement on 25 November that "the current situation in eastern Ukraine still does not allow for the delivery of the first warship."

Although frequently caricatured in the French media as being a ditherer, the French president is really stuck between a rock and a hard place with this particular contract. If he delivers the ships, thereby honoring the contract, he shows other potential customers of France's defense industry that a contract signed is a contract honored but angers his European Union (EU) and NATO partners. And if he doesn't deliver the ships, he pleases these partners but puts the French shipyards that built them, DCNS and STX, in real difficulties, finds himself with two 21,500-ton ships on his hands and a reputation that a contract signed might not be honored on political grounds. This is probably why he has not gone the whole hog and just cancelled the €1.2bn contract that was concluded in December 2010 under his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy and then Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev.

According to that agreement, French military shipyard DCNS and its partner STX were to build the first two ships in France with the next two being built jointly in Russia with Russian state-held shipyard OSK. The first of the two ships, the Vladivostok, was to be handed over to the Russians in September 2014, with the second, the Sebastopol, due for delivery late in 2015. But in September, given the unrest in the Ukraine and the annexation by Russia of Crimea, Hollande postponed delivery to mid-November in the hopes that the situation would have stabilized by then. Instead it has got worse.

So, Sebastopol will stay dock-side in the French Atlantic port of Saint Nazaire and the 400 Russian sailors who were familiarising themselves with the 199m long (653ft), 32m wide, 21,500 ton ship are likely to go home, something they might have done in any case given that their training was complete. However, the ship will have to be maintained while it stays in the dock and that will be DCNS' responsibility and will have a cost. DCNS has made no comments apart from saying that they will respect whatever decisions are taken by the French government. Back-stage, however, there is clearly concern at the turn this contract has taken and the financial implications for the company, even if the state is the main shareholder (63.58% of shares are held by the French State, 35% by Thales, 1.02% by DCNS personnel and former personnel through the DCNS Employees' mutual fund and 0.40% by DCNS Actionnariat).

Other potential costs would arise from legal action the Russians may take. However, Russia's vice-minister for defense, Yuri Borissov, says that Moscow will not take France to court "for the moment". He was quoted by the Ria Novosti news agency as saying that: "We will wait patiently for the delivery."

Hollande's decision has not met with unanimous approval amongst French politicians. Although most of his fellow Socialist party members and Green party members said it was a wise decision , those in the conservative UMP party were split between those who denounced the decision as a weakening of French credibility and others who applauded the decision. The far-right National Front party decried the postponement as a sign of docility in the face of Washington.

The announcement in 2010 of the Mistral deal went virtually unnoticed by all but Lithuania that vigorously protested the sale as an "error". History has proved the Baltic state right. Lithuania's defense minister at the time, Rasa Juknevičiené, was surprised that a NATO and EU member state was prepared to sell "offensive armament" to a country where "democracy has not reached a level such that we feel secure" although she conceded that "the two ships cannot modify the balance of forces in the region."

The Mistral-class is a helicopter carrier for 16 NH90/Tiger type aircraft with six landing spots on a 5,200-sq.-meter (55,972-sq.-ft.) flight deck; a wet dock for four landing craft or two LCAC's (landing craft air-cushioned); a NATO level 3,750-sq.-meter (8,070-sq.-ft.) 19-bed hospital (which can be augmented by 50) with two operating theaters and a radiology center; accommodation for 450 passengers or 1,008 troops; and an 850-sq.-meter (9,149-sq.-ft.) convertible space for an embarked command and control centre. France has three of these ships: the Mistral which has been operational in the French navy since Dec. 18, 2006, the Tonnerre since Aug. 1, 2007 and the Dixmude that was handed over to the navy on Jan. 14, 2012.

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