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article imageU.S. call for NATO to buy French-built warships destined for Russia

By Robert Myles     Jun 2, 2014 in World
Brussels - Three American Congressmen have called on NATO to buy or rent two advanced warships currently being built for Russia at a shipyard in western France.
In a letter obtained by Reuters and submitted to NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, along with two colleagues request NATO to step in as purchaser or lessor of the two Mistral amphibious assault ships under construction at STX Europe’s shipyard at Saint Nazaire at the mouth of the river Loire on France’s Atlantic coast.
When France and Russia signed the agreement to build the two warships for the Russian Navy in June 2011, with the STX Europe shipyard, along with 75 percent state-owned French defence contractor DCNS, engaged to fulfil the 1.2 billion euro order, it was seen as a guarantee of the shipyard’s future, as well as safeguarding at least 1,000 skilled jobs.
The design of the Mistral amphibious assault ships follows that of the first ship, called “Mistral,” that went into service with the French Navy in 2005. As well as “Mistral,” France currently has two ships of the same class in service, namely “Tonnerre” and “Dixmude.”
The Russian Navy plans a complement of four Mistral class ships. As well as the two in progress at the STX yard in France, the Franco-Russian contract includes an option to build two more.
Of the ships being built for Russia at Saint Nazaire, the first, named "Vladivostok" is due to be handed over to the Russian Navy in 2014. Russia is scheduled to take delivery of the second one, "Sevastopol," in 2015.
The Mistral class ships, technically termed "projection and command ships,” are also known as helicopter carriers. Each warship is multitasking, capable of transporting and deploying 16 large helicopters, four landing craft and up to 70 mix-and-match armoured vehicles. Alternatively, the armoured complement can consist of a 40-strong tank battalion and up to 450 soldiers. Adding to their capabilities, the ships are also equipped with a 69-bed hospital.
In his letter to NATO’s Secretary-General, Engel, along with colleagues Michael Turner of Ohio, chairman of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and Massachusetts Representative William Keating, two leading Democrats on the House Europe subcommittee, states acquisition of the ships would reinforce NATO’s military potential at a time when many member countries were facing cuts in defence budgets. The US lawmakers also argue that acquisition on the part of NATO would provide reassurance to NATO partners in Central and Eastern Europe against a backdrop of Russia recently taking Crimea back into the Russian Federation and facing accusations of instigating violent unrest in eastern Ukraine.
"The purchase of the ships will show Russian President Vladimir Putin that NATO won't tolerate his imprudent actions," says Reuters, quoting the letter.
Despite the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, the French government has consistently said it would fulfil the controversial contract to supply these advanced ships to the Russian Navy, claiming that cancellation now would harm France more than it would hurt Russia.
In March, at a press conference, French President François Hollande said, “We keep to the terms of the signed contracts. Right now we have no plans to cancel them and we hope to avoid this."
Ironically, when the warship agreement was signed with Russia in 2011, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy greeted Moscow’s first significant foreign arms purchase since the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union as proof that the Cold War was over.
Even then, however, the contract had raised eyebrows among France’s NATO partners since Russian helicopter gunships played a prominent role in Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia.
Despite Reuters quoting a representative of the General Staff of the Russia’s Armed Forces stating the plans for the ships' deployment as part of the Russian Pacific Fleet hadn’t changed, tactically these additions to the Russian Navy’s capabilities are ideally suited to any Russian ambitions to establish a Russian land “corridor” along the Black Sea to Crimea or to act in support of the self-declared breakaway state of Transnistria, officially part of Moldova, even further to the west.
Although economics and employment numbers may weigh heavily as French politicians press on with fulfilling the order for the Russian warships, not all in France see the contract as merely a business transaction.
Writing in National Review, John Fund quotes a former French military official as stating, “Cancelling the contracts is in part being treated as an issue of 1,000 jobs for the vulnerable shipbuilding industry. But this is about the very credibility of our foreign policy.”
If NATO took up the US legislators’ suggestion it would be the first time the organization had engaged in such “community acquisition” of major military hardware. Up till now, the only assets shared among NATO member states have consisted of AWACS early warning aircraft, reports The Local France.
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