Russian Sailors Leaving France Without Mistral Warship

Russian sailors in front of the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok, Nov. 25, 2014Hundreds of Russian sailors pulled out of a French port Thursday, bearing perfumes for their loved ones but lacking the controversial bounty they came for: a 1-billion-euro, French-built warship that has become a hostage to the biggest East-West conflict since the Cold War.

The Vladivostok helicopter carrier is part of a strange and divisive arms deal now on hold and perhaps on the verge of collapse because of the conflict in Ukraine. France built it for Russia’s navy but is now having second thoughts, notably amid heavy U.S. criticism of the deal. . . .

A top French official involved in negotiating the sale in 2009, former Defense Minister Herve Morin, is now opposed to it. His change of heart reflects Europe’s evolving relationship with Russia, a powerful neighbor, trading partner and energy supplier. . . .

Morin, who took part in the negotiations in 2009-2010, told The Associated Press, “Some were for and against around the table. In the end, Sarkozy arbitrated, saying: ‘We do it.'”

Today, Morin admits he has changed his mind. “It was a political gesture when we signed the deal, it is a political gesture, too, when we deliver it”  or not, he said.

The deal has become a liability for Sarkozy’s Socialist successor Francois Hollande. In August he put it on hold, saying “conditions haven’t been met” to deliver the ship. In November he said formalized the suspension “until further notice.”

Hollande still hasn’t taken a definitive decision on the contract that was supposed to be the biggest arms sale by a NATO country to Russia. . . .

Russia agreed to wait until February for a final decision, while France risks having to pay over 1 billion euros for not fulfilling the contract, according to a top French official and a Russian diplomat. The French official said Russia has already paid a substantial part of the 1.2 billion euros ($1.48 billion) deal. They spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to disclose details of the deal.

In Saint-Nazaire port, the two impressive ships are visible but protected by barbed-wire fence and guards. The Mistral-class vessels can carry 700 troops, 16 helicopter gunships and up to 50 armored vehicles.

The second warship, ironically named the Sevastopol after a port in Crimea, is due to be ready in autumn 2015.

About 400 Russians composing two crews for the two warships arrived in Saint-Nazaire on June 30. They trained on the Vladivostok, on the ground and at sea, as part of the deal. They could be seen coming and going in uniform to their training, or practicing sport activities. . . .

While on the French coast, the Russian sailors slept and ate on their own ship, the Smolny which pulled out of port at high tide Thursday and is now sailing them home.

Image: Russian sailors in front of the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok, Nov. 25, 2014 (photo: Reuters)