Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 5. A group of US senators are urging Hollande to halt a warship sale to Russia. (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP)
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WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of US lawmakers wants French President François Hollande to halt the sale of two warships to Moscow, warning the vessels could be used to invade other European nations.
“In light of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea, we are writing specifically to urge you to cancel the delivery of two Mistral-class warships to the Russian Navy and end all cooperation on future construction,” the American senators wrote Hollande in a Thursday letter.
The five Democrats, including Senate Majority Whip and Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, and one Republican warned the Mistral-class ships are “designed explicitly for the type of invasion that occurred in Ukraine.”
The senators told Hollande that since his high-profile visit to Washington in February, Russia’s invasion, occupation and contested annexation of Crimea “has challenged the international community to take a principled stand against those who wish to disrupt the international rule of law and the rights of sovereign nations.”
The group told the French president that any new weapon sales to Moscow by Paris would only bolster Russian military capabilities, especially its ability to project power.
That, they warned, would make Russian President Vladimir Putin more equipped to “intimidate neighboring countries, and illegally seize sovereign territory.”
In Paris, a French defense official said the Russian deal is entirely legal. “It falls within the legal framework,” the official said.
Work under the contract is proceeding as planned and the French government will decide in October whether to deliver the first ship, the official said.
The ships would be equipped with French radar and communication systems and would be handed over without weapons, the official said. The Russian Navy will decide the armaments and will need 18 to 20 months to arm the vessels.
French defense experts said it takes around two years to fit and coordinate the combat systems, which includes linking the weapons into air operations, and a first-of-class ship would take longer.
The senators also attempted to show Hollande they are working to ensure their own government stops doing business with Russia’s state-run defense industry.
“We fully appreciate that canceling such contracts may have consequences,” they wrote. “Similarly, we are urging our own government to suspend its agreements with the Russian defense contractor Rosoboronexport.”
Many US lawmakers want the Obama administration to stop buying helicopters from that Russian firm for Afghanistan’s military.
But White House and Pentagon leaders are holding firm — for now — that Afghan pilots and mechanics are best-suited to fly and repair the Rosoboronexport choppers.
Among the US lawmakers who are opposed to the Pentagon continuing to buy the Russian aircraft are a long list of ones with helicopter-related interests back at home.
Joining Durbin on the letter were fellow Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, as well as Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
The letter was released around the same time US President Barack Obama publicly urged Paris to put the deal on ice.
"I think it would have been preferable to press the pause button,"? Obama said at a news conference in Brussels. ■