France may have agreed to impose sanctions against Russia for its March military occupation of Crimea, but that won't stop it from selling warships to the same Russian force that carried out the occupation.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed Friday that his country will go ahead with the $1.6 billion sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia under a deal signed well before the Crimean crisis. “The contracts were agreed in 2011, they represent many jobs and they will be fulfilled," Fabius wrote on Twitter.
The decision flies in the face of direct U.S. pressure on France to halt the sale. Hours before arriving in Paris on Thursday night, President Barack Obama told reporters in Brussels that it “would have been preferable to press the pause button” on the military contract. “I have expressed some concerns, and I don’t think I am alone,” Obama said.
Indeed, various members of the NATO alliance, as well as the leaders of Ukraine, have called on France to stop the sale of the Mistral warships to Russia. Their concerns stem in large part from the fact that at least one of the ships will to be stationed in Crimea as part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the very same force that led the Russian takeover of that southern Ukrainian peninsula.
“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,” Radek Sikorski, the Foreign Minister of Poland, a NATO ally, said earlier this week. “I don't think France would want to be in the position of supplying efficient weapons to an aggressor," Sikorski told French newspaper Le Monde.
Other NATO allies, particularly Germany, have defended France’s right to sell the ships, as Russia is not under any Western military embargo. Dozens of Russian officials, as well as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, have been hit with Western travel bans and asset freezes. But the U.S. and E.U. have shelved a further round of sanctions against the Russian economy, in particular its energy and weapons industries, in order to give Russia a chance to back off of Ukraine.
Still, the French arms deal seems to have tainted Obama’s attempts to isolate Russia in response to the Crimean crisis, as have some elements of French diplomacy. On Thursday night, French President Francois Hollande, who is hosting more than a dozen world leaders for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on Friday, held two separate dinners with his American and Russian counterparts – the first with Obama and the second, two hours later, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On the eve of his departure for Paris, Putin told French media that he was confident the weapons deal with France would move ahead. “I believe we are living in a civilized world and we will all continue to fulfill our obligations and contractual commitments,” Putin said. “If everything goes as we agreed, we will not rule out the possibility of further orders – and not necessarily in naval shipbuilding.”
That promise of further weapons deals hits at the core of Putin’s strategy toward the West. Even as he thumbs his nose at Western condemnations over Crimea, Putin has moved ahead with lucrative partnerships with individual European states and major corporations. In effect, this has created a powerful lobby within Europe that opposes any Western actions against Russia, and the Mistral deal has benefitted accordingly.
At a time of stubbornly high unemployment in France, that deal has created a thousand jobs in French shipyards, forcing Paris to choose between its economic priorities at home and its solidarity with foreign allies. With the choice clear after Fabius’ Friday tweet, Russian troops are expected to go ahead with a planned training mission to France, where they will reportedly be taught how to use their new warships later this month. The West can only hope they won’t use that knowledge for another land grab in Eastern Europe.