SAINT-NAZAIRE, FRANCE - Russian authorities say they expect their deal to buy two warships from France will go through, despite the announcement in Paris that delivery of the first vessel has been suspended.
That statement Thursday follows comments by French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday that Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine meant conditions were not right to complete the delivery.
Russia's industry minister Denis Manturov said Thursday the Kremlin “assumes the $1.6 billion contract will be fulfilled according to the agreements” with France. Neither side has indicated when the warships might be transferred to Russian control.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko thanked France for halting its Mistral delivery to Russia during a meeting with French President Francois Hollande on the sidelines of Thursday's NATO summit in Wales.
The first two Mistral helicopter assault ships destined for Russia are near completion, and 400 Russian sailors have been in France since June, training in shipyards at Saint-Nazaire on France’s Atlantic coast. A Russian crew already is aboard the Vladivostok warship as construction continues.
The second assault vessel is to be named Sevastopol, after the port in Crimea that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March.
Meanwhile, France faces a huge bill if it does halt the contract, and at the Saint-Nazaire shipyard where the vessels are under construction, there is local anger at the potential fallout.
Towering above the Saint-Nazaire shipyard, the sleek matte-gray lines of the Vladivostok conceal a wealth of cutting-edge technology. The ship is designed to carry helicopters and tanks for amphibious assault, and was due to be delivered to Russia next month. The deal was worth over $1.5 billion; Paris now faces paying the money back.
With Russia accused of sending troops into eastern Ukraine, France had little choice, according to Ian Bond, director of Foreign Policy at the Center for European Reform in London.
“I’m sure that pressure from other NATO members will have had some influence on the French, but I think also that domestically there had been stories that, even among the people who were building these ships, there was some concern about what they were really doing and why they were supplying ships to Russia in these circumstances,” he said.
But on the dockside in Saint-Nazaire, there also is fear over the consequences of freezing the deal. Jean-Claude Blanchard is the local leader of the far-right National Front party, which is staunchly defending the deal.
Blanchard said that if Russia wishes to start a war with anyone, they would not need these ships.
“I think that the Russian navy is already well-equipped,” he said, adding that the ships directly support 800 jobs, and thousands more through suppliers and subsidiary contracts.
Docked nearby and ringed by a high fence, the Russian frigate Smolny is home to 400 Russian sailors who were sent here to train on the new Mistral-type warships. Their fate remains unclear.
The Russian visitors -- and the warships -- have become a tourist attraction.
Joel Lauvaux, who is on vacation in the area, said, “It’s delicate, in the sense that the ships were already commissioned, already built, already paid for. Some say canceling the contract will provoke even more tensions. But that’s not evident. So I think on balance it’s better to cancel, than give them to Russia.”
A march is planned for Sunday in Saint-Nazaire to protest against the postponement of the contract. Paris and its NATO allies say they have sympathy for local workers, but Europe’s security must come first.