This story has been updated.
French officials have spent years defending a $1.7 billion arms sale to Russia, a deal Paris won after beating out rival nations like Germany and Spain. The United States and its Baltic allies have spent just as long warning that selling powerful amphibious warships to the Kremlin risked giving Russian strongman Vladimir Putin powerful new weapons to use against his neighbors.
With Russia showing no signs of ending its military occupation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, the deal is suddenly facing new scrutiny. French President Francois Hollande said Saturday that France will review its military cooperation with Russia if Moscow doesn't begin to pull its forces from Crimea and drop its threats against Ukraine's fragile central government. The tough language was a first for the French leader: Hollande had previously given no indication that he was willing to suspend or cancel the deal. Earlier this month, in fact, he said it was still on track. Barring something unforeseen,the first French-built ship, the Vladivostok, will be delivered to Russia this fall. The second is under construction in France.
Still, Hollande's willingness to reconsider the deal comes as France takes an increasingly combative diplomatic tone toward Russia. France's United Nations envoy, Gerard Araud, has gone out of his way to needle his Russian counterpart, Vitaly I. Churkin, disparaging his legal justification for Crimea's secessionist bid as a "pathetic" and outdated relic of a bygone era of Russian and Soviet imperialism. While American and British diplomats highlight Russia's what they see as anti-democratic aggression in Crimea, Araud has taken particular pressure in dismissing Moscow's hardline approach as plain dumb.
"I see a rookie chess player," Araud said in a recent statement before the U.N. Security Council, suggesting Russia's military action would undermine its effort to exercise influence over Ukraine. "Russia might win the rook, but it will lose the game."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reinforced the possible end of the deal on Monday, telling a TV station there that cancelling the delivery of the ships to Russia is on the table.
"If Putin carries on like this, we could consider canceling these sales, " Fabius said. He added that including the deal in sanctions would also hurt the French economy.
The deal in question dates back to January 2011. It called for four of France's Mistral-class ships to be built - two primarily by French defense firm DCNS, followed by two in Russia -- and then delivered to the Russian navy. The agreement would create jobs in both countries, and provide Moscow with something it was sorely lacking: the kind of amphibious war ships it could use to project power by flying troops into conflict zones from the sea by helicopter. Moscow's need for such ships had been evident since its 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia. Russia won the engagement decisively, but later said it would have captured a key port in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia more quickly with better warships.
Despite the mounting Western fury over Russia's current occupation of Crimea, it's unclear how much more would have to happen for Paris to cancel the deal. France's ailing defense industry desperately needs new customers, and the Russian deal is an unusually large and lucrative one, according to Christopher Chivvis, an expert on European security issues at the Rand Corp.
"There are economic incentives on both side before you even start getting into the military incentives from the Russian side," he said. "I think you'd have to see the crisis continue to deteriorate."
Russia may be betting on France not wanting to scuttle the deal. Moscow has significant ambitions to expand its navy in the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea, but has struggled to get its own shipyards to build vessels, said Eric Wherteim, a military analyst with the independent U.S. Naval Institute.
"Since the Cold War a lot of their warships have kind of just been in limbo," he said. "It takes them 10 years or more to build something... The French ships were laid down and the construction started in 2012, and they are almost ready for delivery [to Russia]. Other countries and other shipyards are able to do things very quickly and efficiently, and the Russians are just not able to do it."
When the Mistral deal was first announced, it sparked widespread fury among Russian shipbuilders who wanted the work, Wherteim said. But Moscow decided its military shortcoming were serious enough that it needed to make the agreement anyway. The Mistral ships carry about 160 personnel, and are able to carry at least 16 heavy military helicopters at any one time, along with landing craft, according to a U.S. Navy assessment.
The United States raised objections about the Mistral deal privately before it was signed. then-Secretary of Defense pressed French defense minister Herve Morin on it in a February 2010 meeting in France, according to a diplomatic cable released by the website Wikileaks.
"SecDef raised U.S. concerns over the sale of a Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Russia as sending a mixed single to both Russia and our Central and East European Allies," the cable said. "Morin refuted this idea, arguing that the sale was a way to send a message of partnership to Russia at a critical time."
At the time, Gates took a decidedly more measured tone publicly. Asked during the same trip about Russia's interest in buying the ships, Gates declined to discuss what he told Morin.
"Yes, we did discuss it. We had a good and thorough exchange of views," Gates said. "I will leave it at that."
Staff writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report.
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