Workers, officials and journalists watch the launching of the completed stern section of The Sevastopol Russian Mistral-class helicopter carrier April 30 at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg. (Olga Maltseva / AFP)
SAINT PETERSBURG — Russia on Wednesday marked the completion of a key part of a project to build two helicopter carriers with France, which has been eyed with increasing unease in the West amid the escalating Ukraine crisis.
The Baltiysky shipyard in St. Petersburg held a ceremony to mark the dispatch of the stern of one of two Mistral-class amphibious helicopter carriers being jointly developed in the €1.2 billion ($1.66 billion) project with France.
It will be towed to St. Nazaire on France’s Atlantic Coast, where it is due to be welded together with a hull being built at the STX France shipyard. The full 22,000-ton vessel is then due for delivery to the Russian navy at the end of next year.
The first of the two warships has already been completed and is undergoing sea trials at St Nazaire.
But rising East-West tensions mean it is no longer clear whether the project will be finalized.
The first vessel, called The Vladivostok, is due to be delivered to the Russian navy in October. France’s defense ministry said last month it has yet to decide whether to complete the delivery.
Moscow threatened to levy heavy penalties if the deal is canceled.
France agreed in 2011 to sell two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia, attracting criticism from several NATO allies concerned over Russia’s military resurgence in the wake of the 2008 Georgia war. The deal has gathered fresh controversy since the start of the Ukraine crisis.
NATO said this month that France has the right to decide whether or not to deliver the warship to Russia but should take its allies’ concerns into account.
The second ship is called The Sevastopol, named after the port city on the Crimean Peninsula that Moscow annexed in March.
Defense industry cooperation between Russia and France looks increasingly strained as a new round of Western sanctions this week targeted Russia’s chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, and Sergei Chemezov, head of RosTec, the state-owned corporation that oversees the Mistral project.
Those involved in making the warships have remained positive.
“We’re happy with the work that was done in St. Petersburg and are confident that new collaborative projects await us in the future,” said Jean-Yves Jaouen, operations director at STX France, in a statement.