Air disaster puts spotlight on French warship for Russia
France risks “international ridicule” if it delivers a warship to Russia despite the Malaysia Airlines disaster, but its intentions remain unchanged in the immediate aftermath.
The ship, a “Mistral” assault vessel which forms part of a €1.2 billion contract, is to be sent to Russia in October, with the French navy currently training Russian sailors how to use it at the port of St. Nazaire in Normandy.
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The US and some EU states had already criticised the deal before the air crash because of the Ukraine crisis. But others, such as Germany, had defended France’s decision to go ahead.
The new debate comes amid allegations that pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine shot down the Malaysian airliner by mistake using a Russian-supplied “Buk” missile.
The US has not mentioned the Mistral since the disaster on Thursday. But German chancellor Angela Merkel hinted at a change of heart on Friday.
When asked by press in Berlin whether France should still deliver the warship, she said Germany already in March suspended a contract to build a combat training facility in Russia “given the situation”.
Merkel’s suspension is not as tough as it sounds because the training facility has already been built.
“Over 50 thousand troops already trained there. It was effectively just the formal signature of the act of transferral of the facility to the Russian side which was cancelled”, Igor Sutyagin, a Russia specialist at the Rusi think tank in London, told EUobserver.
But the air crash has sharpened anti-Russia and anti-Mistral feeling among France’s EU allies.
In an insight into British thinking, Sir Andrew Wood, the UK’s former ambassador to Moscow, said Britain believes the Russian Buk allegations are true.
“What he [Russian leader Vladimir Putin] did was supply weapons to people [the pro-Russia rebels] who are fundamentally irresponsible. This means he has a moral, if not a direct, responsibility for what happened”, Wood said.
“It raises the question whether it is safe to send certain types of equipment to Russia and it becomes more difficult to argue that it [the French deal] is just a matter of fulfilling a contract”.
A senior EU diplomat speaking off the record was more blunt.
He said France risks “international ridicule” if it goes ahead and described the Mistral as “an increasing factor of irritation inside the EU”.
“Putin has pursued a policy of dividing the US and the European Union, as well as the EU internally. This incident [the air disaster] is going to make it harder for him to do this”.
For his part, French President Francois Hollande did not mention the warship in his remarks about the air crash on Friday.
A French government source also indicated that France is keen to keep talk of the disaster separate from the arms deal.
“The most important priority right now is to shed light on what happened in this catastrophe … We should not turn away from this subject in order to discuss some hypothetical consequences, or to talk about subjects which are not really connected”, the source told EUobserver.
Inside France itself, opinion is divided.
Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, a Russia analyst at the Paris-based think tank Ifri, said NGOs have held small protests in St. Nazaire.
But she added: “The French chambers of commerce have been doing what they can to make sure the contract is respected, saying that France needs to protect its commercial reputation on the world stage”.
She predicted the air crash will see public opinion swing against the deal.
But she said the French government is likely to wait until the last minute in October before calculating whether the political cost of the Mistral outweighs its financial benefits.
“For now, they will probably continue as before”, she said.