Over the past nine months, as Europe was shaken by Russian adventurism, France’s contract to build and deliver two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia underwent from routine to intense scrutiny. The pressure on the French government to scrub the deal, however, could be unfair and even counterproductive. Rather, the United States and European Union should focus on practical solutions to the problem because of the cost incurred by France in building the vessels and possible penalties for breach of contract.
In 2011, France signed the contract with Russia. Three years later, Russia backed Crimean and eastern Ukrainian separatists, annexed Crimea, and now supplies militants in East Ukraine. The West responded with ever-increasing sanctions. France initially stated that this would have no impact on theMistral deal. As pressure mounted, France offered that it might withhold the second carrier, and then put the contract on hold. France subsequently stated that it would not hand over the completed carrier until Russia met newly imposed conditions: a permanent ceasefire in Ukraine and roadmap for the permanent settlement of the dispute. Russia responded by setting a deadline: the end of November for the first ship’s delivery, or it would initiate legal proceedings. Rebuffingthis move, France indefinitely suspended the agreement.
France’s continued refusal to cancel the contract reveals its struggle to complete it without offending its allies. Yet France’s true warship problem is offsetting costs, not completion of the contract. It cannot supply the Russian military while simultaneously denouncing its actions. In this vein, the US and its allies should take a much more serious and active role in finding alternative destinations for the Mistrals. While it is hypocritical of France to maintain the viability of its warship contract, it is also unfair for the US and others to demand cancellation without concerted efforts to mitigate resulting costs. This situation is made vivid by showing the weakness of every argument for contract completion.