20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the West has been increasingly concerned about the delivery of two French Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia. With the third round of sanctions on the way, Paris’s continued insistence on delivering the carriers has brought a note of discord to the West’s general strategy of countering Russian aggression in Ukraine. Paris-based journalist Elena Servettaz discusses the controversial deal.


The Vladivostok warship ordered by Russia at the Saint-Nazaire shipyard, France
Photo: Jean-Sebastien Evrard AFP/Getty Images


At the end of June, 400 Russian sailors arrived in Saint-Nazaire (located in the Loire-Atlantique district of Brittany) to receive training from the French navy on the operation of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers named after the Russian cities of Vladivostok and Sebastopol. The Russian sailors were welcomed by members of France’s far-right National Front and booed by members of the Ukrainian diaspora. It is interesting that since the arrival of the sailors, the Saint-Nazaire military shipyard has become off limits to the press.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Western diplomats have repeatedly called for France to hold off on the sale of the carriers, which caused delays in the arrival of the Russian sailors in Saint-Nazaire. U.S. authorities expected that in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, France would reconsider sending its ships into the service of the Russian fleet and would instead transfer them to NATO. But this hope proved vain. U.S. undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland and several U.S. congressmen declared that the United States was concerned about Paris’s delivery of the Mistrals to Moscow. In early June, U.S. president Barack Obama suggested that the French government should “hit pause” in its negotiations with Russia. The deal also displeased the Baltic countries of Poland and Georgia, who feared that in the future the ships could be used against them. But Paris did not budge: the first warship Vladivostok is expected to sail for Russia in October, and the second warship Sebastopol in 2015.

In a sense, France did not have much of a choice. When the French authorities mentioned that the Mistral delivery might be delayed, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s reaction was tough and sharp. He reminded Paris that in the Mistral contract signed in 2011, all possible force-majeures and penalties were clearly spelled out, and that if the contract were cancelled, Moscow would have to demand financial compensation. Such a move would also have a negative impact on future cooperation between Russia and France in the military and technical spheres. Apart from the financial compensation (the amount of which is unknown to the public), French authorities feared losing the thousand jobs created in Saint-Nazaire specifically to carry out the Mistral contract. Paris was not ready for such a scenario.

To appease the international community during negotiations, the French authorities claimed that Moscow would only acquire “empty shells” of the Mistrals, meaning that the helicopter carriers would not be equipped with the sophisticated, state-of-the-art military technology that makes them so valuable. Though the Kremlin demanded that all the desired technology be transferred along with the ships, this decision did not lie solely in the hands of the French authorities—it had to be made collectively by NATO, which, of course, refused to greenlight such a deal. However, Moscow insisted on the installation of French communications systems, control codes, and transmission systems (specifically, the SENIT-9 communication system, developed based on the SENIT-8 system installed on the French nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier). As a result of this concession, the cost of the deal increased from €980 million to €1.2 billion.

Officially, Mistrals entered the service of the French navy in December 2006, even though they had been used earlier that year to evacuate 5,000 people from Beirut during the conflict between Israel and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah. Since then, Mistrals have acquitted themselves well in military operations in Mali and the Central African Republic.

Mistrals are often called “Swiss knives” because of their versatility. These warships measure 199 meters in length and 32 meters in width; they have a displacement of 21,300 tons and a maximum speed of 19 knots. The Mistral is able to accommodate four (CTM-type) boats, 13 tanks, and about a hundred armored vehicles. In addition, 16 helicopters can be carried on a special wing of the warship. There is even a hospital with 69 beds onboard. When the contract between Russia and France was signed in 2011, Rosoboronexport, Russia’s sole state agency dealing with the import and export of military products, reported that Russia will be using these ships to carry Russian attack helicopters (both Ka-52 Alligators and Ka-29s).

The Malaysia Airlines plane that was allegedly hit by Ukrainian separatists on July 17, and the growing animosity between the West and Russia, who is being accused of supporting and sponsoring the separatist movement in Ukraine, brought about a new wave of criticisms against the French authorities. However, French president Francois Hollande has recently reiterated his commitment to the deal: “The [first] ship is almost finished and should be delivered [to Russia] in October,” he said to the press earlier this month. According to Hollande, “the Russians have already paid” for the vessel, and France doesn’t want to reimburse the Kremlin.

This May, when Hollande visited Baku, French diplomats close to the president explained that if France were to cancel the Mistral contract as a part of the sanctions, then ultimately, “the sanctions would work not against Russia, but against France.” That is why, according to some sources at the Élysée Palace, the Mistrals are not included in the third round of sanctions. However, following the recent developments in Ukraine, Hollande voiced a small reservation regarding the misbegotten contract. Speaking to the press on July 21, he said that delivery of the second ship Sebastopol will “depend on the attitude of the Russians.” Even so, he added, “if there must be sanctions… that would only affect future equipment”.

Negotiations over the Mistrals started in 2008, but Russia’s war with Georgia pushed them back for almost three years. During this time, France began working toward another deal with the Kremlin: selling the plot of land located right next to the Eiffel Tower to the Russian government for €70 million.

While it is understandable that France would want to sell its helicopter carriers, it does not make immediate sense why Russia would want to purchase expensive French ships without valuable equipment and technologies. Here it is important to stress that there are many other important factors in the complicated relationship between Russia and France that must be kept in mind. Negotiations over the Mistrals started in 2008, but Russia’s war with Georgia pushed them back for almost three years. During this time, France began working toward another deal with the Kremlin: selling the plot of land located right next to the Eiffel Tower to the Russian government for €70 million. (France turned down two other potential buyers—Saudi Arabia and Canada.) Russia wanted this land in order to construct a large new Russian orthodox church. According to French journalist Vincent Jauvert, the idea to build such a structure came from Vladimir Putin personally. It was later reported that as a part of this deal, the French power company GDF SUEZ was promised a share in the North Stream, a large pipeline project by the Russian gas giant Gazprom

As a result, in 2016, for the first time since the collapse of the Russian Empire, a Russian Orthodox church will be consecrated on French territory. This would be an important strategic achievement for Putin, especially given the fact that some of the Russian churches in France are still aligned with Constantinople instead of the Moscow patriarchate, like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Daru Street, close to the Arc de Triomphe.

It is worth noting that the land on which the church—or “Notre Dame de Putin,” as it has been dubbed by French journalists—will be erected is considered sensitive in terms of French national security. The headquarters of Meteo-France, the national French weather-forecasting service; the presidential postal service; and apartments for advisors to the French president are located nearby. According to Le Nouvel Observateur, the French Central Directorate of Homeland Intelligence highly recommended that the project be moved to another place. But these recommendations led nowhere.

The final flourish of this story is that the Russian church construction project was supervised by Vladimir Kozhin, a recently appointed presidential aide on military and technical cooperation and one of the Russian officials on the U.S. sanctions list. It seems that the new Russian Orthodox church is doomed to become a symbol of the union between Putin’s Russia and a French Republic that is still dependent on the Kremlin’s investments.