Europe’s unity and successful Ukrainian strategy hangs on two French frigates

The Landing Helicopter Dock Dixmude (L9015) in Jounieh bay, Lebanon / Simon Ghesquiere/Marine Nationale
The Landing Helicopter Dock Dixmude (L9015) in Jounieh bay, Lebanon / Simon Ghesquiere/Marine Nationale

GENEVA, April 28, 2014 — Europe has found itself in quite the pickle. The consequences of the Crimean crisis are far from clear, and political leaders are left to guess what Putin’s end game will be. The political fallout for Russia hasn’t been as dire as some have hoped, even though Standard & Poor’s downgraded Moscow to “almost junk” status on April 25th. However, investors and capital have fled the country at an alarming rate, its economic growth prospects have been slashed, and Russia has been suspended from the G8 and the Council of Europe.

That doesn’t sound like much, given that Putin cut out a chunk of Ukraine and redrew the map of Europe.

There is talk of further, more serious “round three” sanctions in the air. Indeed, beyond the symbolism surrounding measures such as blacklisting Russian officials, Europe has access to significant levers of power. But does the political will to impose such measures exist, considering that any meaningful sanctions will have a boomerang effect on European national economies?

If one really wanted to hurt Russia, a jab at its military capacities would be the way to go. France is in the best possible position to do so. In 2011, under the Presidency of Nicholas Sarkozy, Paris signed a $1.6 billion contract with Moscow for the delivery of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers. At over 200 meters long and capable of carrying a full tank battalion, they are one of the most advanced ships in the world. Russian commanders were so thrilled about the deal that Admiral Vysotsky, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, inelegantly remarked that if Russia had been in the possession of one such frigate, the Georgian war would have ended much quicker. Indeed, one Mistral can singlehandedly overpower the navies of countries such as Romania or Georgia, while also mounting a crushing land attack.

READ ALSO: Ukraine on the brink of war

At the time, the deal was hailed as a major success for French engineering and Russia was seen as coming back into the fold as a reliable and stable ally of the West. Moreover, the contract has another clause that sparked a twinkle in Russian eyes: The French offered a technology transfer, meaning that Moscow would be receiving the ship, along with the blueprints and knowhow behind its technology.

The first frigate is almost ready, with an expected commissioning date of October 2014, while the second frigate, ironically named Sebastopol after the Ukrainian-turned-Russian port in Crimea, is still under construction.

A little less conversation and a little more action

It is only in times of crisis that commitments to global security and pledges of unity are put to the test. For Europe and Washington, the Crimean crisis is a make-or-break litmus test. Last week, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen placed the ball in Europe’s court regarding the possible cancellation of the Mistral deal: “Let me stress that such possible regulations are not NATO business, they are dealt with in the European Union and other fora”.

READ ALSO: Risks to Russia of alienating the West over Ukraine

When asked about the fate of this contract, France’s Defense Minister, Le Drian was hesitant to annul it outright, saying, “The question of a suspension will arise in October.” He also suggested that France would be encouraged to take further action only if other European partners chip in. Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Affairs minister asked his British counterparts to freeze the assets of Russians living in London as a show of unity, before he could consider suspending the Mistral deal. But by making this request, he has essentially guaranteed that the deal will go forward, as it is highly unlikely that Cameron will take any such measures against the Russian elite in the business capital.

Many pundits applauded France’s decision, while some argued that canceling the contract would hurt France’s image in export markets, and others noting with concern that 2000 jobs depend on the Mistral being finished. In retrospect, such concerns seem petty and selfish, when one realizes that European defense and peace hang in the balance. This is a disappointing turn of events, highlighting the strategic differences between the nimble Russians, quick to jump at opportunities of expanding their influence, and the numb Europeans that seem too concerned with pointing fingers at each other and playing the blame game, proving incapable of reach a strong consensus.

It is ironic that, with Russian troops on its doorstep ready to pounce on Eastern Ukraine at any heated moment, Europe still fails to comprehend what the further arming of Moscow could mean for the Union’s influence in the long term. Stuck in a fruitless pursuit of ‘constructive dialogs’ and appeasements, European leaders are bound to make yet another strategic mistake, seeming more than able to forget once again Russia’s aggression toward its European neighbors.

It is for this reason that the Mistral deal must be annulled, effective immediately, even if it means losing a few jobs and several billions of Euros. Europe should coordinate with its American allies and accept the fact that democracy and peace are more than just empty words that brandish the luster of a shared rhetoric.

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