The Mistral Affair: Technology for Russians, Ships for Mediterranean Migrants

The Mistrals contract has already provided a transfer of some technology, because Russians took part in the construction of these ships. If the Russian navy decides to build its own ships, they may not be absolutely identical but inspired by Mistrals.

The Mistral issue has multifaceted nature and its consequences are to stay long in diplomatic annals of Europe. Thierry Mariani, French politician and Member of the National Assembly of France, discussed the Mistral affair with editor-in-chief Alexander Artamonov.

Information on the Mistral affair is quite controversial. Moscow is blowing hot and cold and according to the leaked information Russia is about to give up the delivery of French helicopter carriers because the contract did not follow deadlines. A senior Russian official Dmitry Rogozin still denied that the final decision was made. What can you say about it?

I'm not the head of the French state so I am not aware of the secrets of the Gods. But there are well known facts. Firstly, we have signed a contract for delivery of two ships. The Russian sailors were already training on these vessels. The first helicopter carrier was already completed and should have been delivered. The obvious thing is that France did not respect the calendar.

Secondly, France formally has decided to suspend realization of this contract. You know, when you suspend something in politics, it means always the first step toward abandonment. I think the suspension of this contract was a mistake because in reality nothing legally obliged France to freeze it. Mistral did not fit the category of the military equipment that was under the introduced embargo.

Thirdly, as you said, today there is a little imbroglio. From the Russian side we are told that the deal is finished. From the French side nothing is said openly. But everything suggests that Russian claims are justified. Negotiations have already begun, the Russians claim compensation since France does not respect the contract. And for France it is quite logical to ensure that that compensation is as small as possible. Official statements are expected soon. What is certain that this contract won’t be carried out and, I repeat, it is a serious mistake.

Could France sell these Mistrals to China without Russian approval or can these ships be used to resolve migration problem in the Mediterranean?

First, some parts of the ships were manufactured in Russia. The cable wiring was provided by Russian specialists. So it is obvious that these vessels could not be sold without Russia’s consent. Part of its value is, so to speak, of the Russian origin. Can France sell these ships to whom they please? In my opinion, no. It seems quite logical when Russia said that ships can be sold only when trade dispute is settled. But to whom they can be sold? There is no credible buyer! The French Navy certainly does not need these ships, because it is already equipped with three identical ones, that is enough. Secondly, until now no foreign navy has apparently expressed interest in buying them.

If we want to sell them, it is necessary to keep in mind that two ships were made to be used by the Russian navy. There are a number of things that need to be re-made because Russian helicopters are not necessarily the same size as helicopters made by other countries.

As to the use of Mistrals by Europe, it is the idea that I put forward. You know, France is in this situation because a number of our partners have requested solidarity. But it must be manifested from both sides because the French government has decided not to sell ships to Russia. Those who have asked us for solidarity should participate in the purchase of these vessels. Europe is in reality a political dwarf and a military dwarf. But European citizens sometimes could be attacked and may need to be evacuated from some parts of the world. I remember when we needed to evacuate thousands of Europeans, especially from Lebanon. We have a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Since Europe speaks of solidarity, we need Europe now to take note of the unwilling French boycott.

Europe has to buy two ships and to use them as a humanitarian force. The Mistrals are not combat ships but means of logistic support. And that is why it was absolutely stupid to make a link with the Ukrainian crisis. Europe could use these two ships as emergency vessels, for instance, in the Mediterranean to save lives of migrants who die at sea, but also to exploit them as quarantine facility for immigration applications. At the moment immigrants land on the European soil and, are not expelled, they stay in Europe and live without documented papers. So Europe is endowed with a humanitarian force that would both save human lives and protect our borders.

And finally, these boats could be useful during international crises. It would also allow the French taxpayer not to be alone to foot the bill of ships that unfortunately still are not sold.

Someone said that these ships are very expensive even at anchor in Saint-Nazaire. If they are to be destroyed, does that mean a blow to the political career of François Hollande, which is already floundering?

Frankly, I do not think so. François Hollande is in a very bad position according to the polls, but the Mistral affair represents a significant amount of money, the final addition should be around 1 billion 200 million euros. But if compared to the current deficit of the French budget, this amount can be considered not so big. In any case the Mistral affair is a bad sign given abroad because when you sign a contract, you must follow it. Respect for signature in international trade is something primordial. When you buy something, you want it to be delivered. If the supplier becomes an unreliable provider, well, next time we sign a contract with another provider. The signal sent by France on this contract is extremely bad.

And final question of both diplomatic and military nature: according to the Russian media, the Russian Navy is poised to develop its own helicopter carrier. However, Russian sailors now can be aware of the morphology of French warships. If that really happened, would it be a legal use of foreign technology?

Is Russia able to build the same type of helicopter carrier? The answer is obvious. Russia is a big country. I think that the signing of this contract was rather a political act between the then Presidents Medvedev and Sarkozy. They did it to show that the two countries could work together. But Russia surely is capable to make her own helicopter carrier. The Mistrals contract has already provided a transfer of some technology, because the Russian navy took part in the construction of these ships. If tomorrow the Russian navy decides to build its own ships that may not be absolutely identical but inspired by Mistrals, I do not see how I could condemn it. France had a solution to prevent this: to honor its signature. President Hollande decided not to respect this contract ... This is in my opinion very dangerous because Russia is now actually able to manufacture almost identical ships. And why not to sell them in the market? 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.