89.1 WEMU

The French Ask: Should We Be Building Warships For Russia?

May 13, 2014
Originally published on May 13, 2014 9:57 am

French President Francois Hollande says that for now, France intends to go through with a deal to build two warships for the Russian navy. The first of the Mistral-class assault vessels is supposed to be delivered in October.

The $1.6 billion deal is the biggest sale to Russia ever by a NATO country. And three years ago, when the contract was signed, French officials hailed it as a sign that Moscow should be considered a partner, not an enemy. Still, there were critics among NATO allies even then.

Today, in light of Russia's actions in Ukraine, the warship sale is hugely controversial — even in France.

The French foreign minister is in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and might face pressure to suspend the sale.

And when asked on a radio talk show recently whether France should suspend the sale, parliament member Bruno Le Maire responded: "Absolutely."

"It's the only way to show Vladimir Putin we're serious," he said. "Putin is playing on Europe's divisions and hesitations."

Le Maire did not want to speak to NPR. Neither did several other politicians approached for interviews.

That's because it's a sensitive issue, says Etienne de Durand, a defense expert at the French Institute for International Relations.

"[There's] a lot of money involved, possibly also jobs at stake, so of course it's a sensitive issue," he says.

De Durand says the warships are an easy target for critics because they're so visible. But there are other European countries with more at stake in Russia than France, he says: Germany because of the industrial and energy links; Britain because of all the Russian money that London manages.

One of the ships is named the Vladivostok, after the far eastern Russian city. The other ship is the Sevastopol — which is the port and naval base in Crimea, which Russia just annexed from Ukraine.

These helicopter assault ships can serve as hospitals or military command centers, with the capacity to carry 16 attack helicopters, 40 tanks and up to 600 troops.

Economics Vs. Moral Responsibility

At the Georgian Embassy in Paris, Ambassador Ecaterine Siradze-Delaunay says the events in Ukraine remind her of what happened in her country six years ago.

"It is absolutely like déjà vu because the feelings all Georgians had, including myself, when we saw what was happening in Ukraine, 2008 came back immediately," she says.

In 2008, the Russian army went into its southern neighbor, Georgia, occupying the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Kremlin claimed it was protecting the rights of ethnic Russians. Later the commander of the Russian navy said his country would have won the Georgian war much faster if it had had the French warships.

Siradze-Delaunay is diplomatic about whether she thinks France should suspend the deal. She says she understands the economic repercussions, but that there is a "moral responsibility" when facilitating a country that occupies other countries' territories.

Though France is not including advanced command and control systems on Russia's ships, some analysts say the boats will change the power equation in the Black and Baltic seas.

Analyst de Durand disagrees. He says Russia could build the ships on its own, although it would take longer and cost more. But he says the whole discussion about the warships brings up the question of whether military deals can still be done with Russia at all.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. and the European Union are trying to punish Russia. They want to be certain Russian authorities pay a price for grabbing parts of Ukraine. But here's the problem: American and European firms do business with Russia so economic sanctions can hurt the West as well. France, for example, is building two warships for the Russian Navy. French President Francois Hollande says he wants to go through with that very lucrative deal, though he's facing increasing pressure to call it off. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Russia and France, wow.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A television reporter with "Russia Today" hails the new French-Russian military partnership. Parts of the military vessels are being built in Russia and she was reporting from a St. Petersburg shipyard last June as the stern section of one of the war ships was being launched before being sent to France.

The $1.6 billion deal is the biggest sale to Russia by a NATO country ever. When the contract was signed three years ago, French officials hailed it as a sign that Moscow should be considered a partner, not an enemy. There were critics among NATO allies then. Today, in light of Russia's actions in Ukraine, the warship sale is hugely controversial, even in France.

Parliamentarian Bruno Le Maire spoke recently on French Radio.

BRUNO LE MAIRE: (French language)

BEARDSLEY: So should we suspend the sale? asked the talk show host. Absolutely, says Le Maire, it's the only way to show Vladimir Putin we're serious. Putin is playing on Europe's divisions and hesitations. Le Maire didn't want to speak to NP. Neither did several other politicians approached for interviews.

ETIENNE DE DURAND: It is a sensitive issue because it's a lot of money involved, possibly also jobs at stake, so of course it's a sensitive issue.

BEARDSLEY: That's Etienne de Durand, a defense expert at the French Institute for International Relations. De Durand says the warships are an easy target for critics because they're so visible. But there are other European countries with more at stake in Russia than France, he says, like Germany and Britain with its financial center in London.

DURAND: Germany because of industrial and energy links, but also the UK because of all the Russian money that is managed by the city.

BEARDSLEY: The ships are named the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol, after the port and naval base in Crimea, which Russia just annexed from Ukraine. The helicopter assault ships can serve as hospitals or military command centers, with the capacity to carry 16 attack helicopters, 40 tanks and up to 600 troops.

At the Georgian embassy in Paris, Ambassador Ecaterine Siradze-Delaunay says she has a sense of deja vu watching Ukraine.

AMBASSADOR ECATERINE SIRADZE-DELAUNAY: Yes. It is absolutely like deja vu because the feelings I think all Georgians had, and me, including myself, right now we - we saw what was happening in Ukraine, you know, 2008 came back immediately.

BEARDSLEY: In 2008, the Russian army went into its southern neighbor, Georgia, occupying the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Kremlin claimed it was protecting the rights of ethnic Russians. Later the commander of the Russian navy said his country would have won the Georgian war much faster if it had had the French warships.

Ambassador Siradze-Delaunay is diplomatic over whether she thinks France should suspend the deal. She says she understands the economic repercussions, but...

SIRADZE-DELAUNAY: On the other hand, you have this moral responsibility, I guess, while, you know, facilitating, in some ways, the country who occupies other countries' territories.

BEARDSLEY: Though France is not including advanced command and control systems on Russia's ships, some analysts say the warships will change the power equation in the Black and Baltic Seas. Analyst de Durand disagrees. He says Russia could build the ships on its own, although it would take longer and cost more. But he says the whole discussion about the warships brings up the question of whether military deals can still be done with Russia at all. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.