27th Mar 2019

France sticks to Russian warship deal despite concern

  • A lucrative deal for France: One Mistral ship is sold for at least €300-400m (Photo: David Monniaux)

President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday (8 June) defended his plans to sell to Russia up to four French warships, despite concerns raised by his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili during talks taking place a few days before a visit to Paris of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Georgia, along with EU's Baltic states and the US, has criticised what would be the first-ever warship sale from a Nato country to Russia, especially after comments made by a Russian general that Moscow would have won "in 40 minutes" the 2008 war against Georgia if it had a Mistral-class carrier at the time.

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Paris announced in March it was in talks with Moscow for the sale of up to four Mistral carriers.

But Mr Sarkozy brushed aside these concerns, saying: "if Russia is expected to behave like a partner in every domain, including in the area of security and defence, then it must be treated like a partner in every domain," according to a presidential aide quoted by AFP.

"It's a political choice France is clearly standing for," Mr Sarkozy told his counterpart. The latter "didn't hide his concerns on this matter but said he could understand the rationale," the source added.

Mr Sarkozy also reassured the Georgian leader that Paris is one of his country's "main supporters" within the

EU and that it was pressing to start negotiations on an association and free trade agreement this summer, while noting the progress made in order for Georgians to get EU visas faster and cheaper, AP reports.

France's commercial interest in the "exclusive negotiations" with Moscow is obvious: for sale at €300-400 million a piece, the deal would also boost employment in the dockyards of Toulon, Saint-Nazare and Brest. Paris approved the sale of four such ships capable of carrying 16 helicopters and 750 troops, but meanwhile Moscow has signalled it would rather buy just one and build the other three in its own shipyards.

The issue is likely to come up again on Friday, during the working lunch between Mr Sarkozy and Mr Putin.

Coming out of the talks on Tuesday, Mr Saakashvili said the warship sale was a "bilateral matter between Russia and France." The most important thing, according to the Georgian leader, was France's "unconditional support" for his country.

"Despite the crisis in Europe, despite all the problems in the European Union, France continues to have a very strong presence in our region and plays a decisive role in solving the conflicts, the problems we have," he added.

Mr Saakashvili also stressed the importance of this official visit at the Elysee palace, for the first time after the 2008 war and two days before the Russian Prime Minister Putin is expected in Paris.

"The fact that my visit has been organised two days before Putin's visit sends a very clear message. This buries Russia's efforts to isolate our country," Mr Saakashvili said.

He added that he received full support for his country's territorial integrity - a formula frequently used by EU politicians in reference to the continued presence of Russian troops on Georgian territory.

In August 2008, when France was chairing the rotating EU presidency, Mr Sarkozy personally flew to the region and managed to broker a ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi, putting an end to the Russian invasion following the Georgian attack its rebel region South Ossetia.

An EU civilian mission was deployed on the ground within a month to monitor the Russian withdrawal, which is still not fully complying with the ceasefire. Russia claims that those conditions are no longer valid, since both regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – have declared their independence and Moscow has recognised them.

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