To most American and European observers, Hollande’s reluctance to cancel the Mistral sale was incomprehensible. Russia’s flagrant violation of European security principles confronted France with what seemed to be a no-brainer for a country heavily invested in upholding an international order based on the peaceful resolution of conflicts. But for Hollande, the Mistral matter was and remains an extremely sensitive affaire d’état that sits at the heart of an ongoing debate in Paris about France’s role in the 21st-century world. Should France follow de Gaulle’s dogged defense of French sovereignty and grandeur in a world increasingly shaped by non-Western powers? If so, Paris should deliver the ships. Or should France exert leadership within NATO, stand with its allies, and promote a rules-based international order? If so, then it should cancel the Mistral deal in defense of Euro-Atlantic security principles, despite the possible risks to France’s economy, defense industry, and relations with Moscow. . . .
After all, France can hardly be an autonomous global power if it is forced to import strategic weapons. Unfortunately for France, autonomy is expensive in the 21st century; to arm itself it must maintain an export market, for the capitalization costs of major platforms cannot be recouped from the domestic market alone. Therein lies the cruel irony of modern French defense policy and the crux of the Mistral conundrum: In order to maintain the defense base that underpins France’s strategic autonomy, France has made itself dependent on defense exports to fickle, non-allied countries like Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia. . . .
Would canceling the Mistral really hurt the Rafale or other French arms on the export market? History suggests otherwise. France has canceled defense contracts before for political reasons—to Israel in 1967 and to apartheid South Africa in the 1970s—and yet Paris managed to maintain its credibility as an arms exporter. Moreover, France’s major competitors in the high-tech defense market are mostly Western firms from the United States, Britain, Germany, and Sweden (with Russia the notable exception), which potential export customers view as even more likely than Paris to cancel contracts for political reasons. . . .
In late November, the Elysée Palace announced the indefinite suspension of the delivery of the Vladivostok until further notice, although construction of the Sevastopol continues at Saint Nazaire. Russian officials have said that Moscow will wait patiently for the Vladivostok, but also have hinted that they would pursue penalties for breach of contract if the ship is not delivered in due course.
French government lawyers are doubtless working long hours in search of a loophole that would allow the government to avoid penalties for breach of contract. As of now, however, Paris has no workable alternative to delivering the Mistrals. France’s best hope is that Russia will ease up enough in Ukraine to allow for the delivery of the ships in slightly less embarrassing circumstances. After all, the Mistrals—and raison d’état—are proudly made in France.
Jeff Lightfoot is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.