Brussels, Belgium — France has decided to ignore pleas from the U.S. and its other NATO allies and go forward with a $1.7 billion contract to sell two helicopter carriers to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “The contract has been paid and there would be financial penalties for not delivering it,” a French official told Reuters on Monday. “It would be France that is penalized. It’s too easy to say France has to give up on the sale of the ships. We have done our part.”
The French decision makes a mockery of the attempt to impose sanctions on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea in March, the first forcible shifting of borders in Europe in more than 60 years.
It’s not hard to figure out why the Russians want the carriers. They purchased them just after invading Georgia in 2008. Russia’s lack of a mobile platform for delivering troops had hurt it badly during that brief conflict. In a 2011 report on the invasion, the Strategic Studies Institute, an arm of the U.S. Army War College, found that Russia had used helicopters to insert Spetsnaz commandos in black uniforms behind Georgian lines to conduct subversion and espionage. Putin used the same tactics in Crimea this month. But Russia’s experience in Georgia, in which aircraft had landed on the coast, had “highlighted the need for improvements in the area of amphibious landing platforms,” the SSI report noted. “The limitations in this capability exposed by the war were certainly part of the reason for Russia’s recent decision to buy Mistral-class ships from France. The Mistral, a multi-role ship capable of transporting and deploying 16 helicopters, 70 armored vehicles, and up to 450 personnel represents a significant improvement over current Russian helicopter carriers and landing craft.”
A Russian admiral later said he could have won the war in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours” if he had had them earlier.
“Russian ship-based attack helicopters are particularly important for naval reach and punch,” the SSI report continued. “Vladimir Putin has made no secret that he would deploy the Mistral-class ships wherever he wants. . . . Europe’s acquiescence in the face of the Russian power projection aspirations is both obvious and disturbing.” Indeed, it almost makes one think that Neville Chamberlain has risen from the dead — sporting a beret this time rather than a bowler.
The first Mistral carrier, the Vladivostok, just finished its sea trials, and a Russian crew is already being trained on the ship, berthed for now at the French port of Saint-Nazaire. A sister ship, Sebastopol — awkwardly named after the chief port of Crimea — is due to be turned over to the Russian navy late in 2015.
To its credit, the U.S. State Department has complained to France about its decision to continue in its business-as-usual relationship with Putin’s regime. Secretary of State John Kerry met with French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Washington on Tuesday to express his disapproval. But don’t expect the French to bend much to accommodate American concerns. Asked before his meeting with Kerry whether France was on the same page as the United States, Fabius said: “I think so, provided that everybody makes the same sacrifices.” But no other nation would need to sacrifice arms sales — because no one else is selling Russia a mobile weapons platform.
France had other options. It could have sold the ships to another buyer — perhaps one of the Middle Eastern states worried about Iran’s military muscle — or at least stripped them of the advanced Western technology that is being installed in them, described in the SSI report as “leading-edge command, control, communications, and intelligence capabilities.” But by opting to complete the sale, France has strained relations with its allies and allowed Russia to shrug off the supposedly “unified” Western response to Putin’s land grab.
Why is Vladimir Putin smiling? Because his gamble has paid off and his low opinion of the weak Western response has been confirmed. This will only embolden him in the future.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist at National Review Online.