France delays warship deal with Russia, but rules out suspension
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France pushed back the sale of two high-tech Mistral warships to Russia on Thursday over the Crimea crisis. But it stopped short of cancelling the 1 billion euro deal unless the EU comes up with a broader package of economic sanctions against Moscow. Harsh trade sanctions seem unlikely though, as many European countries depend heavily on Russian oil and gas.
Asked if the deal would be cancelled, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said "the delivery of the first boat is due in October, so the question of a suspension will arise in October."
The deal, the first between Russia and a Nato country, had already raised deep misgivings among France's allies when it was signed in 2011 only a few years after Russian invaded Georgia.
But despite the threat of another war involving Moscow, François Hollande insisted the contract would be honoured. Suspending the sale could lead to France paying high penalties. And with 1,000 jobs dependent on the Mistral deal, Paris has been reluctant to include it as part of Western efforts to sanction Vladimir Putin.
Experts consider the addition of the Mistral to Russia's ageing fleet as a major leap forward. Defense analyst, Thomas Withington told RFI that "a postponement of the deal would be a big deal for Russia because it doesn't have the military capacity to project amphibious forces at range from shore."
The Mistral – a 180-metre, 22,000-ton vessel – is capable of carrying 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armoured vehicles, 13 battle tanks and hundreds of combat troops.
The first warship was floated out in Western France last year and is set to be delivered to the Russian navy in October. The second is still under construction.
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