More pressure on France to scrap Russia ship deal

The suspected shooting down of a passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine has triggered more international pressure on France to pull the plug on its €1.2 billion deal to sell two warships to Russia. But experts say Paris is likely to withstand the calls.

More pressure on France to scrap Russia ship deal
Will France still go ahead with its controversial warship deal with Russia. Photo: AFP

Global pressure on France to scrap a controversial €1.2 billion deal to sell two warships to Russia is set to be ramped up after the suspected shooting down of a passenger plane carrying 298 people on board.

Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 disappeared from radar contact around 1415 GMT as it was flying over eastern Ukraine with 295 people on board. 

Several sources in Ukraine say they believe the jet was shot down by Russian separatists. The militants have denied the accusations and in turn blamed the Ukranian military.

Since Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Washington has voiced repeated objections to the deal, but Russia has stressed that France would face heavy penalties if the deal is scrapped.

If it turns out separatists loyal to Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin, did bring the plane down, then the US and Europe are likely to turn the screw on France and demand it pull the plug on the deal for the two Mistral helicopter carriers, the first of which is due to be delivered in October.

On Friday the German chancellor Angela Merkel upped the pressure by pointing out that her country had put on hold its own €120 million deal to build a combat simulation training centre in southwest Russia, in light of the situation in Ukraine.

Reinhard Bütikofer, An MEP in Germany's Green party took to twitter along with many others on Friday to turn the heat up on France, following the air crash.

On Thursday, the same day the plane came down the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding an embargo on arms sales to Russia from Europe, be put in place. Following the adoption France ‘s own Green party, the EELV, demanded Hollande take the "responsible" course of action.

“How can we strengthen the military capability of a country that is feeding a civil war in Europe and on the borders of the EU,” said French Greens MEP Yannick Jadot.

“President Hollande must immediately terminate the contract that was signed by Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin,” Janot added.

The Mistral, the second largest ship in the French navy, is a high-seas military base that can transport up to 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armed vehicles and some 700 troops.

Part of the reason why the deal is so sensitive is that Russian engineers are helping to build the ships and picking up valuable know-how about military ship building.

“The biggest concern for NATO is the foreign technology aspect, that is really the key," Dmitry Gorenburg an expert on the Russian military at US-based think tank CNA, told The Moscow Times.

In June The Local reported how 400 Russian marines had arrived at the port of Saint Nazaire, in western France, where the ships arebeing built in order to undergo training.

'Pulling out would cost France hundreds of millions'

Up until now France has shown no sign of buckling under the pressure to scrap the deal, although Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has suggested he would look again at the deal in October, depending on the state of the crisis in Ukraine.

And with €1.2 billion at stake some experts say Paris will continue to withstand international calls.

“The problem is half of the money has already been paid,” Philippe Migault, an expert on Ukraine from the think tank Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris, told The Local.

“If France pulled out it would have to reimburse the Russians and that would cost hundreds of millions,” he said. 

“It’s almost impossible to stop the sale because the Russians are working on it as well,” he said.

What appears clear is that the longer the violence rumbles on in eastern Ukraine, France will continue to incur the wrath of the US and Europe.

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Senior French officer held on suspicion of spying for Russia

A senior French military officer stationed at a NATO base has been indicted and jailed on suspicion of spying for Russia, local media and sources said on Sunday.

Senior French officer held on suspicion of spying for Russia
A change of command ceremony at the base of NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance Force in Sigonella, Italy. It is not known at which Italian Nato base the officer was stationed. Photo: Falk Plankenhorn
The French army officer was stationed abroad, a judicial source said confirming details from Europe 1 radio. According to the report, the soldier was stationed on a NATO base in Italy and is suspected of espionage on behalf of Russia.
The French government confirmed it was investigating a senior military officer over a “security breach”.
“What I can confirm is that a senior officer is facing legal proceedings for a security breach,” Defence Minister Florence Parly told Europe 1 radio, CNews and Les Echos newspaper. She gave no further details.
The judicial source said the officer had been indicted and jailed on charges involving “intelligence with a foreign power that undermines the fundamental interests of the nation”.
He is being prosecuted for “delivering information to a foreign power”, “collecting information harming the fundamental interests of the nation with a view to delivering them to a foreign power” and “compromising the secrecy of national defence”, the source said.
Europe 1 said the officer was a lieutenant-colonel stationed with NATO in Italy and had been placed under investigation on suspicion of spying for Russia.
He speaks Russian and was seen in Italy with a man identified as an agent of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence
service, the report said. It said he is suspected of having supplied sensitive documents to Russian intelligence.
The man was arrested by DGSI intelligence service as he was about to leave for Italy at the end of his holidays in France, and is being held at a prison in Paris, Europe 1 said.