France delays decision on warships sale to Russia

AFP , Thursday 20 Mar 2014

France on Thursday resisted pressure to suspend the controversial sale of two Mistral warships to Russia over the Crimea crisis, insisting it would not make any decision before October.

"The delivery of the first boat is due in October, so the question of a suspension will arise in October," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Britain and Germany have both this week suspended military exports to Russia in protest at what they see as Moscow's illegal seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

Le Drian reiterated France's position that a suspension of the 1.2 billion euro ($1.4 billion) Mistral contract could only happen as part of a broader package of economic sanctions against Russia implemented by the European Union.

Moscow, meanwhile, defiantly responded that it would "enforce its rights to the end" if France broke the contract and would ask for compensation.

Yuriy Borisov, deputy defence minister, said the contract provided for penalties if it was broken, but did not say how high these were, adding any breach in the deal would damage France's reputation globally.

The Mistral is an advanced helicopter assault ship and France's 2011 agreement to sell them to Russia triggered protests from the United States and other NATO allies.

Germany on Wednesday blocked defence group Rheinmetall from proceeding with a 100-million-euro ($140-million) contract to build a training camp for Russian forces, saying any military deals in the current context would be "indefensible".

But with 1,000 jobs dependent on the Mistral deal, France has been reluctant to put it on the line as part of Western efforts to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate a resolution to the crisis.

"Now is the time for firm diplomacy to avoid any escalation," Le Drian said.

"The hypothesis of military intervention seems to me to be ruled out at the moment because I have confidence in the diplomacy that is underway."

Le Drian said he would be meeting Friday with defence ministers from Poland and the Baltic states to express solidarity with them and discuss security issues.


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