There’s no question that France should have cancelled its sale of a pair of Mistral-class warships on order from Russia. Vladimir Putin’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea is reason enough. His sowing of violence and chaos in the rest of Ukraine, culminating in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is yet more. But French President François Hollande is understandably wary of the economic consequences for France. As wrong as it is for Paris to be arming Moscow with weapons that could one day be deployed against NATO allies, it is equally short-sighted of those same allies to dismiss Mr. Hollande’s concerns out of hand. Instead, they should be working with France to find ways of mitigating damage done by defaulting on the deal.
The Mistral amphibious assault ship is a powerful asset for any navy. It can deploy 16 helicopters, four landing barges, 70 vehicles and 450 soldiers. The ships are equipped with a 69-bed hospital. Price tag for two vessels? 1.2-billion Euros. When Moscow ordered the ships in 2008, it was a boon for France’s ailing shipbuilding industry. That industry averages roughly $2-billion in military orders per year, and the shipbuilder on the Russian contract is 33-per-cent owned by the French government. Paris’s decision to proceed with the sale, in this context, is perfectly plausible. But that doesn’t make it right.
The point of the sanctions is to punish Mr. Putin for his actions in Ukraine. The sale of the ships is particularly egregious, as it would directly bolster the capabilities of the Russian navy. Sanctions, however, rarely just punish those they are meant to target. The loss of the Russian contract would represent a serious blow to France even though Russia is supposed to be the country that loses out. The quandary France finds itself in is not unlike those of other European nations. Britain is wary of intervening in its financial markets to stem the tide of Russian money. Germany is wary of jeopardizing its supply of Russian natural gas. That’s why, instead of denouncing France for continuing with the sale, its allies need to help the country find a way of recouping its losses. A group of U.S. lawmakers has floated a compelling idea: NATO should buy the ships. Washington has been urging Europeans to spend more on their own defence. This would be a good place to start.