Mistral Conundrum Leaves France’s Hollande Navigating Competing Interests

Mistral Conundrum Leaves France’s Hollande Navigating Competing Interests
Russian sailors stand next to the Vladivostok warship in the port of Saint-Nazaire, western France, Sept. 5, 2014 (AP photo by David Vincent).

On Sept. 3, France announced that it would suspend the delivery to Russia of the Vladivostok, a multipurpose amphibious warship of the Mistral class, until at least late October, and that the delivery would take place only if the situation in Ukraine improved. The move comes after months of acrimony among France’s European Union and NATO allies over the sale, which French President Francois Hollande was loathe to cancel due to the economic implications of forfeiting the $1.6 billion contract.

Hollande inherited the Mistral problem from his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who entertained good personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sarkozy saw the decision to sell the helicopter carriers to Russia as a way to test the foundations of the partnership between the West and Moscow, a political and strategic gambit firmly in the Sarkozy style. It was also, of course, a major contract for the beleaguered French shipbuilding industry.

The contract was signed in 2011 for two ships to be built in France, with the option to build two additional ones in Russia. The Mistral-class ships, of which the French navy already has three in operation, can be used as command ships, assault ships or hospital ships. Known in French as Batiments de Projection et de Commandement (BPC) and in English as Helicopter Landing Docks (HLD), they can carry 16 helicopters. The Mistrals are not equipped with weapons, but they are endowed with modern combat systems.

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