Paris — As Russia absorbs Crimea and masses 60,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, is the West serious about sanctions against Moscow?
The best test could come this Tuesday, when the defense and foreign ministers of Russia and France are scheduled to meet for long-planned talks on relations between the two countries. French president François Hollande has already announced that “there will be sanctions Monday on visas and assets of a certain number of [Russian] individuals if there is no de-escalation.” But he absolutely must go further.
Three years ago, France signed a military contract worth $1.7 billion to build two advanced-technology Mistral-class helicopter carriers for Russia, with an option to build two more. The first carrier, Vladivostok, conducted its sea trials earlier this month and is set to arrive in Moscow later this year. A Russian crew is already being trained on the ship, currently berthed in the French port of Saint-Nazaire. A sister ship, Sebastopol — ironically named after the chief port of Crimea — is set for delivery to the Russian navy late in 2015.
Then–French president Nicolas Sarkozy signed the deal for the carriers in 2011, hailing the agreement as evidence that the Cold War had indeed ended. But the contract alarmed several of France’s NATO allies, especially because Russia had employed helicopter gunships in its brief war against Georgia in 2008.
In light of Russia’s latest aggression, defense and foreign-policy experts, gathered in Paris for a Gatestone Institute conference, agree that it would be impossible to take the West seriously if it turned over a weapon uniquely suited for close-in military commando operations such as the ones that Russia used to occupy Crimea. Stopping delivery of the carrier isn’t a private-property issue, either, given that the French government owns 75 percent of DCNS, the French shipbuilder.
French officials have been reluctant to discuss the carrier contract, telling me that they have no comment. When asked last Friday at a news conference about the carrier contract, President Hollande replied, “As far as other sanctions, notably military cooperation, that is the third level of sanctions.” But as recently as a March 7 news conference (more than a week after Russia’s invasion of Crimea), Hollande appeared unwilling to touch the issue. The Voice of Russia reported:
France continues to comply with the terms of the contract and will supply Moscow with two Mistral-class helicopter carriers, French president François Hollande announced: “We keep to the terms of the signed contracts. Right now we have no plans to cancel them and we hope to avoid this.”
The U.S. is certainly aware of the carrier issue. On Saturday, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had lengthy “reviews of bilateral military cooperation with Russia,” according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. The Pentagon has announced a suspension of all of its military cooperation with Russia and is reviewing its own purchases of Russian rocket engines.
But France has made no decision on the carriers, infuriating at least one former French military official I spoke with here. “Canceling the contracts is in part being treated as an issue of 1,000 jobs for the vulnerable shipbuilding industry,” he says. “But this is about the very credibility of our foreign policy.”
Indeed, at the United Nations, France has been a staunch opponent of Russia’s aggression, helping to lead the Security Council last Saturday to a 13-to-one vote against Russia (China abstained). “It is extremely dangerous if we accept that a country simply takes over a territory by force,” Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the U.N., told reporters. “We are going back to 1914, and we are in 2014. It is the message we were trying to send to the Russians. You cannot simply use force to solve your problems.”
True enough, which is why it’s important for the West to act decisively if it hopes to deter future aggression. John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., notes that China has laid down territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea and has sometimes sent military forces to occupy them. “You can bet they’re watching the West’s response to Crimea,” he told me.
Other countries — such as Iran — are undoubtedly also watching. In 1975, France signed a nuclear-cooperation deal with Saddam Hussein and sold Iraq an Osiris-class nuclear reactor and 75 kilograms of enriched uranium. France insisted that the reactor was designed in such a way that it could never be used for military purposes, but Hussein publicly declared at the time that his efforts to buy a reactor were “the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming.” The American private intelligence agency Stratfor later concluded that by 1981, Iraq’s Osirak uranium-fueled reactor “was believed to be on the verge of producing plutonium for a weapons program.” That concern prompted Israel to launch Operation Opera, a preemptive air strike that destroyed the reactor. In a 2005 interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, former president Bill Clinton praised the Israelis for the strike: “Everybody talks about what the Israelis did at Osirak, in 1981, which, I think, in retrospect, was a really good thing. You know, it kept Saddam from developing nuclear power.”
Keeping helicopter carriers out of Vladimir Putin’s hands would also be “a really good thing.” What respect could the Russians possibly have for the West if France actually delivers sophisticated helicopter carriers that can ferry the Spetsnaz, the Russian military’s elite commando forces, to the next target of Russia’s choosing?
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.