The Mistral-class Vladivostok helicoper carrier ordered by Russia leaves its French shipyard for its first trial on March 5. (AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS — France views its two advanced helicopter carriers sold to Russia as unarmed civilian ships, and it is too early to say whether the €1.2 billion deal (US $1.7 billion) would be canceled in view of the Ukraine crisis, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday.
“We will deliver civilian hulls,” Le Drian said at an aeronautics and defense conference organized by business daily Les Echos. “It’s a reality. The client can then arm the two ships. We will deliver, under the signed contract, a package which is not armed.”
A cancellation of a contract for two command-and-projection ships of the Mistral class would be “an extreme measure,” one which would only appear on a third set of sanctions against Moscow, Le Drian said.
“The heads of government and state will decide three sets of measures,” he said. “If there are industrial measures, it will be in the third set.
“We are at the first set. If there are industrial measures, it will be in the third set. The second set is military,” Le Drian said.
On a Mistral cancellation, Le Drian said, “We will see how the situation develops, but it is an extreme measure.”
The first ship, named Vladivostok, is due for delivery at the end of the year.
A defense executive expressed surprise at the description of the Mistral as a civilian hull.
“All these people know better than that,” the executive said, referring to the conference. The ships will be fitted with a combat system, the executive said.
The combat system is based on a Senit command-and-control system and radar, covered by the contract. These will work under Russian standards.
DCNS is prime contractor for the ships, which are built by the STX group at the port of Saint-Nazaire. france’s Thales supplies the radar.
Meanwhile, Russian troops on Wednesday seized the Ukraine’s naval base at Sevastopol and raised their flag, Reuters reported.
The second of the carriers under construction for Russia is named Sevastapol. Russia has options for two more Mistral ships.
European Union political leaders are due to meet in Brussels on Thursday to craft a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday raised the possibility of canceling the Mistral deal, and said Paris will call on European partners to follow suit, particularly the UK, which could freeze assets of Russian oligarchs invested in London.
As part of France’s response to the Russians, Le Drian said he and Fabius stayed away from an annual meeting Tuesday with their Russian counterparts in Moscow. Le Drian said other measures would be decided at the high-level meeting on Thursday.
Regarding military sanctions, Britain has suspended bilateral cooperation with Russia that is not covered by treaty obligations, and it has canceled a planned naval exercise among France, Russia, the UK and the US, Reuters reported.
France stirred controversy with the Mistral sale in 2011, and argued that the ships were essentially civilian vessels, as there was deep concern after Russia’s armed forces moved into the South Ossetia region in Georgia.
In a first round of sanctions, the EU has decided to ban travel rights and freeze the assets of 21 Russian and Crimean officials. ■