Less than two months before the expected date of transfer of the Vladivostok universal landing craft (UDC), the first of two UDCs being built for the Russian fleet in Saint-Nazaire, Paris turned its position 180 degrees. The Champs Elysees issued a statement stating the following: “President Hollande notes that despite the prospects for a ceasefire (in Ukraine), which requires confirmation and implementation, the conditions under which France permits the delivery of the first UDC have not yet been created” . The statement was issued following a meeting of the Security Council, chaired by the President of the country.
Growing pressure from the allies of France
Last week, Francois Hollande had no reason to impede the delivery of Vladivostok to Russia, doubts were expressed only about the same type of ship Sevastopol, whose program is scheduled for 2015. Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure on Paris has greatly increased. For several months, the United States, the United Kingdom, the countries of Eastern Europe, and Germany that recently joined them expressed their displeasure, if not the opposition, to the transfer of Russia to the UDC. Despite the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March, so far France has resisted criticism, hoping that the fighting in Ukraine will end, and diplomatic reconciliation, which will follow, will make it possible to fulfill the contract. But the situation, on the contrary, has become even worse, at the moment the West is accusing Russia of directly intervening on the side of the Ukrainian separatists in order to divide the country into parts. For the Elysée Palace, a symbolic line was passed: “The recent actions of Russia in the east of Ukraine contradict the basic European concepts of security,” the French president told 3 on September.
Getting out of isolation on the eve of the NATO summit
The statement appeared exactly before the start of the NATO summit in the UK. The heads of 28 states and governments from alliance member countries will gather in Newport. And Ukraine will be the main topic for discussion. Although Europe is considering a new package of sanctions against Russia, the plan for overcoming the crisis, proposed by Vladimir Putin, will also be studied. But on the agenda is the question of revising the strategy of NATO, to give the organization the necessary tools to solve the most important task: ensuring security in Europe. That is why the issue of creating a NATO rapid reaction force will be on the agenda. A program for creating a more mobile association of several thousand people must be approved, capable of being deployed anywhere in the world within 48 hours. Therefore, weapons will be deployed in Eastern Europe. Other sensitive issues should also be considered: Ukraine’s entry into NATO and the creation of a missile defense system to protect Europe from ballistic missiles.
One of the main goals of the summit is to reassure some countries. First of all, the Baltic states and Poland. It is worth recalling that Poland, which is adjacent to Ukraine, is just a few hundred kilometers from the combat zones. For members of the EU and NATO, who have spent several decades under the Soviet yoke, Russia still represents a danger. Just as after the conflict in Georgia six years ago, many view the events in Ukraine as evidence of Moscow’s expansionist aspirations.
In response from the Europeans and Americans to these fears, reliance is placed on two institutions: the EU in terms of diplomacy and economic sanctions, and NATO in the field of collective security. Before arriving in Newport, Barack Obama visited Tallinn the day before. The American president held talks with his Baltic counterparts and reaffirmed his continued support and guarantees given by NATO with regard to their protection and territorial integrity. Therefore, in connection with Russia, the White House recalled that in the event of aggression, NATO members are interconnected. Not only in the case of a direct military invasion, but also that is less known and more likely if one of the countries of the alliance becomes an object of destabilization.
Looking for the trust of Eastern European countries
In this very tense context, the position that prevailed in France regarding the UDC is no longer suitable. Criticized and isolated within its allies, Paris faced deep disagreements even in Europe; Eastern European countries do not understand its position, which is often regarded as a departure from political considerations in favor of economic factors. It was urgent to give an answer. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian paid a visit to Poland on the occasion of the opening of the MSPO Naval Salon, which opened in early September. His participation was to show that trust on the part of Warsaw is a priority for France, both from an economic and political point of view. Since the French military-industrial complex is counting on weapons contracts from this country.
Thus, the issue with the Russian UDC may have unpleasant consequences for the French in terms of obtaining these contracts. That’s why Paris put up heavy artillery, offering Poland, if she opted for Scorpene submarines, presented by DCNS, to deliver the most advanced model cruise missiles along with the boats. This missile, which is seen as a strategic weapon and a deterrent, has never been exported. Thus, the Polish Navy offers a first-class variant in terms of the possibility of striking land targets from a long distance. What bothers Russia, which with great irritation will observe the appearance of such weapons in the immediate vicinity of its borders.
France sets out its terms
But this proposal, which equally distinguishes the geopolitical and commercial component, is not sufficient, even despite the double message that it carries to Poland and Russia, in order to sweeten the pill on the UDC issue. On the eve of the NATO summit, under the pressure of his allies, President Hollande had to publicly speak about the possibility of revising the contract with Russia signed in 2011 for the first time. Every word in the statement of the Elysian Palace was carefully verified. Unlike what was reported in most media outlets, Francois Hollande did not decide to suspend the transfer of "Vladivostok". The Foreign Minister in the evening of the same day gave a written explanation: “The President wanted to say the following: are there necessary conditions for this today? No, but we hope that they may arise later. ” And in addition, Laurent Fabius voiced the conditions under which the execution of the contract is possible: “a cease-fire must be reached, at least preliminary, then it should be applied, and in addition requires a political agreement to prevent clashes between Russia and Ukraine”
That is, France managed to find a less risky formula. She reserves the right to put the UDC in the event that these well-known conditions are achieved, while making a concession to her partners by increasing the pressure on Russia. Thus calming down critics and destroying the isolation in which France ended up in Europe and NATO. The reaction of the Allies was not long in coming - the United States welcomed the “sensible decision”, and Latvia noted that it was “a good decision at the right time.”
Returning to the Cold War?
Today it remains only to observe how this will end. The epilogue of this very confusing stories will depend on many factors that are not at the mercy of anyone today. The evolution of the situation in Ukraine will be fundamental, but the decisions that will be made on the basis of the NATO summit in Newport and their implementation should also be taken into account. It should not be ruled out that this summit will become a really turning point, as well as a sign (according to some diplomats) that the Cold War between the West and the East has returned. It is not possible to assess the consequences, especially in the field of economics. The NATO bloc created in 1949 to restrain Soviet penetration into Central Europe, according to some, may return to the days of its youth and make those who claim its obsolescence fall silent. It must be recognized that in the face of the inability of the European Union to obtain a means of collective protection of sufficient power, NATO today remains the only shield that is trustworthy. It will be very interesting to study the statements that will be made during the summit in order to understand what the next steps will be.
On the contrary, the reaction of the Russians will also be decisive, Vladimir Putin is pursuing a very tough policy. Russia is confident in its right to expect that Ukraine is in the sphere of its direct influence, and the attempts of the EU and NATO to attract it to the Western bloc represent actual aggression. Thus, if, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia was too weak to withstand the “transition” to the West of its former allies, today it considers Ukraine as the last bastion. And maybe, quite possibly, somewhere in the subconscious there is a motive of revenge on the West, whose actions in Eastern Europe after 1989 have often been viewed as humiliation. It also has to somehow be decided today by Europe, the United States and NATO.
Although Moscow has already made it clear that, following the announcement of the launch of the project for the reorganization of NATO’s rapid reaction forces, Russia will follow the same path, the evolution of the French position on the UDC will certainly have diplomatic consequences. It can be assumed that the Kremlin’s statement by the Elysée Palace is regarded as an insult, and that Russia will try to repay France one way or another. This situation in any case strengthens the position of the nationalists, who actively criticized the purchase of large warships abroad and noted that Russia is fully capable of covering their own military needs.
Under these conditions, Paris could, at least in the eyes of Moscow, cross the red line. In any case, the Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia made a rather unexpected statement in the evening of the same day, as if the contract for him no longer existed: “Refusing this contract would not be a tragedy for us in the matter of rearmament, even though it is an absolutely undesirable event which introduces certain tensions in our relations with French partners, ”said Yuri Borisov to ITAR-TASS.
What are the implications for STX France and DCNS?
Now all eyes are on Saint-Nazaire, where two massive silhouettes of "Vladivostok" and "Sevastopol" rise. The first ship is almost completed construction and is used for crew training. For this reason, at the end of June, the 400 of Russian sailors arrived in France aboard the training ship Smolny, which serves as the floating squad. These seafarers will become the main future two crews (200 seafarers on the ship) and their training is conducted simultaneously, despite the fact that the delivery times of two UDC are separated by a year. Russian sailors climb aboard "Vladivostok" for training on board, but at the same time they take it to sea - the next exit is scheduled for September 10.
For STX France, the first UDC is of little interest from the point of view of workers loading, which cannot be said about its twin, which employs 400 workers and representatives of subcontracting companies. Like his older brother, "Sevastopol" is built of two parts. The aft part was built by the United Shipbuilding Corporation in St. Petersburg, the UDC construction program represents a significant source of technology transfer to increase the technological level of Russian shipyards. After completion of construction in Russia, the feed was towed in July to Saint-Nazaire, where it was welded to the bow, built by STX France. The French shipyard is responsible for the completion of construction, whose launch is scheduled for October. At this stage of construction, even if the contract with the Russians is suspended, it is difficult to assume that the second building will not be completed. In the worst case, pending the final decision, work on it may be suspended, which may have consequences in terms of shipyard loading, which has already manifested itself in the case of the construction of a new ship for the shipping company Brittany Ferries.
As for the financial side of the contract, which reaches 1,2 billion euros, it must be recalled that the Russian Navy is not a customer of STX France. This company is a subcontractor of DCNS. The French holding, which developed the UDC project, is the real beneficiary of the contract under which it is associated with Rosoboronexport. And those parts of the hull that were built in St. Petersburg were ordered by STX France from USC, which acted as a simple supplier of the French shipyard. In essence, Russia is paying DCNS, which transfers money to Saint-Nazaire. Note that, unlike civilian courts, payments for which are progressive in nature, military contracts are for the most part largely paid before delivery. It seems that the Russians to a large extent have advanced this contract. In addition, as is the case with most export contracts, this transaction is covered by a guarantee from the export agency Coface. A priori, French manufacturers should receive the full amount, regardless of the volume of the contract. However, if France cancels the contract, the state will in one way or another be forced to get into its pockets in order to pay Russia's funds. In addition, Russia may demand a penalty due to non-performance of the contract, except for a situation where the strengthening of economic sanctions may in itself be considered sufficient legal protection.
What could be the different fate of both ships?
Finally, when considering the option that both ships will not be delivered to Russia, the question arises, what will be their fate? Although the ships are adapted to certain requirements of the Russian side, for example, the possibility of using in low temperature conditions, the Vladivostok and Sevastopol are very close to the ships of the Mistral type that are part of the French fleet. Initially, the French Navy was supposed to have four such ships, but the latest edition of the White Paper on Defense and the armaments program reduced this number to three units due to budget cuts. Thus, it becomes possible to return to the original version. This decision is feared by some French sailors, since the inclusion in the French fleet of one or two UDC will be compensated by a reduction in funding for other programs. The ideal option would be to search for another customer, which, however, is not obvious, due to the presence of diplomatic questions: who would risk annoying Moscow by selling ships destined for the Russian Navy for sale? Another alternative may come from some European states, such as Germany, but also from the USA. They expect to transfer the UDC under NATO control in order to strengthen the capabilities of the alliance on the projection of force, and in particular the naval component of the NATO rapid reaction force. This idea looks attractive on paper, but along with it there are operational issues (NATO does not have a fleet, and thus a crew), financial (who pays?), Without missing the diplomatic aspect, since such a scenario will in any case become the highest degree of humiliation for the Kremlin.
Although rope dragging continues between the West and Russia, the UDC construction program for Russia, which at the very beginning was distinguished by very good commercial and political results, eventually became a real burden. If the case ends with the freezing of the contract, France will eventually have to find an opportunity not to shoulder all the responsibility and consequences. At a minimum, this decision should be made at the European level. Another pitfall for Paris could be the need to minimize the risks for the French defense industry in the international market. The defense industry does not rule out that this situation can be exploited by competitors who have been referring to this precedent for several months. If France does not hold its commitments to a country like Russia, why would it comply with them in relation to another country whose political decisions might not build France? The argument will be extremely dishonorable, but when it comes to selling guns, this does not stop sellers, especially when they are representatives of the Anglo-Saxon world.