The Vladivostok warship, a Mistral class LHD amphibious vessel ordered by Russia, is seen June 23 in Saint-Nazaire, France. (Jean-Sebastien Evrard / AFP)
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — A controversial French-Russian warship project that has been decried by NATO came a step closer to completion on Thursday when the stern of the helicopter carrier was dispatched to France.
The Baltiysky shipyard in Russia said it had begun towing the stern of the Mistral-class carrier to the STX shipyard in St. Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast.
The French shipyard will weld the stern to the hull before delivering the finished warship to the Russian navy at the end of next year. A second carrier has already been completed and is due to be delivered to Russia later this year.
With the Ukraine crisis plunging relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War, the timing of the project has been heavily criticized by Washington and NATO.
Adding to the awkward symbolism, the 22,000-tonne carrier will be named Sevastopol, after the port city in Crimea which Moscow annexed in March.
President Barack Obama urged Paris to “press the pause button” on the project earlier this month. Other NATO allies worry Moscow will use the carriers to threaten its Black Sea neighbors.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius argued France cannot renege on the contract, which was signed in 2011, without incurring penalties of $1.6 billion (€1.2 billion).
It will take three weeks for the hull to arrive in France. The ship is due to be completed and put to sea in October, and delivered to Russia in late 2015.
“Construction of the Mistrals has been a good experience of working with French shipbuilders which we will surely need in the future,” Baltiysky’s director Alexei Kadilov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.