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France faces dilemma as warship deadline nears

AFP/The Local · 7 Nov 2014, 08:55

Published: 07 Nov 2014 08:55 GMT+01:00

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As a deadline for the controversial delivery of a warship to Russia nears, France faces a gruelling dilemma: ditch the deal, lose billions and antagonise Moscow - or go ahead and attract NATO's wrath.

Until the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted this year, the €1.2 billion ($1.5-billion) contract to build and sell two mammoth Mistral-class assault ships to the Russian navy had been firmly on track.

But faced with a growing outcry over the deal as Russia's involvement in the Ukraine crisis became ever clearer, President Francois Hollande in September suspended delivery of the first ship - planned for October or November - and Paris said the decision would be reassessed this month.

A ceasefire signed by Kiev and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine seemed to pave the way for a happy, guilt-free ending. But leadership elections held by rebels last weekend threaten to close the lid on any immediate resolution of the crisis -- and Hollande's daunting dilemma.

"Whatever our future decision, half of the world will have it in for us,"said a top-level French official who declined to be named.

'No plan B'

On THursday French PM Manuel Valls once again insisted that "conditions have not been met" to allow for the delivery of the Mistral.

If Paris decides to deliver the amphibious assault ships, which can carry 16 helicopters, four landing crafts, 13 tanks, 450 soldiers and a hospital, it will antagonise Poland and the Baltic states -- all of which are nervous about the close proximity of an unpredictable Russia.

The United States is also firmly opposed to the delivery at a time when sanctions are raining down on Russia to try and force Moscow to drop its support for rebels in Ukraine's east.

But if France cancels the deal altogether - the second ship is due to be delivered some time next year - it risks gaining the reputation of a country that does not honour its contracts.

And as the country suffers through a tough economic crisis, huge, job-creating manufacturing deals are more than welcome.

"Russia will make an official complaint and will demand that penalties be paid, and it will have strong chances of winning a trial," said Alexandre Goltz, an independent military analyst based in Moscow.

"France will also be seen as the country that had to yield to US pressure."

The fines for not honouring the contract could run into billions of euros.

A French source who is close to the case and wished to remain anonymous said that if Paris ditched the contract, it would earn the "esteem of Poland and the applause of Washington".

But, he added, "we're not going to get very far with that."

More worrying, "there is no plan B," says another source close to manufacturer DCNS.

Selling the ships to another client is not possible as Russian technology has already been installed on board, which Moscow would not want any other country to have and which in any case is not technically compatible with Western military systems.

Concerns over the impact of a cancellation on other ongoing negotiations such as the sale of 126 Rafale fighter jets to India, however, appear overblown.

"Ties between India and France are completely different to those between Russia and Western countries," said Philippe Plouvier of the Boston Consulting Group.

Delay delivery? 

In Moscow, a source working in the area of military cooperation told TASS agency Tuesday that the contract allowed for delivery to be postponed for three months.

Story continues below…

Another "military-diplomatic" source cited by Interfax news agency on Thursday said that Russian sailors currently being trained in Saint-Nazaire in western France, where the shipyard is located, could wait until the end of December to take ownership of the vessel.

"After that our sailors will have to go back to Kronstadt (a naval base in Saint-Petersburg)," the source was quoted as saying.

Although Paris has not confirmed this, experts agree that delaying delivery of the first warship could be Hollande's best move -- for now.

"The political and financial cost would remain limited at this stage," said Bruno Tertrais of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank.

Still, Paris will have little room for manoeuvre.

"If we're still in the same situation in a few months time, all things considered, it would be indecent not to consider a cancellation," Tertrais said.

"One way or another, we will have to resolve this dilemma during the winter."

AFP/The Local (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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