8-20-14 – Russian Navy Making Waves in France 

By John J. Metzler

ST. NAZAIRE, France—Far from the sputtering conflict, the war of words,  and the diplomatic jousting between Russia and the West over the future  sovereignty of Ukraine, there’s a lucrative business deal unfolding in the  French Atlantic port of St. Nazaire. There amid the construction cranes and buzzing machine shops of one of France’s largest naval shipbuilders, two new steel grey ships are taking form; both being amphibious assault ships for the  Russian navy.  

Looming menacingly, both on the horizon as well as in relations between  France and many of her Western allies,  the  Vladivostok presents a quiet testament to the proverbial bottom line in business relations between France and Russia—business as usual despite the political problems du jour.    

A few years ago, France contracted to build two Mistral class  navy helicopter ships in the port of St. Nazaire.  The business deal between the South Korean owned- STX shipbuilder and the Russian navy exceeds $1 billion for each vessel and plans are to deliver the first of the ships probably later this year, politics permitting. 

For Moscow, the deal represents the first major weapons import since the fall of the former Soviet Union. 
But for France, the deal has caused political waves with many of its closest allies. 

While Washington and London have pressured Paris to scrap or slow down the sale, the French Socialist government, facing near nil economic growth, and fearful of further job cuts, still support the sale which sustains an economically endangered shipbuilding industry. 

Though the British government has pressured France not to pursue the sale given the international actions of Vladimir Putin,  Francois Hollande has lashed out at London over “its hypocrisy” in hosting so very many wealthy Russian oligarchs.  

The Vladivostok’s steel grey frame is taking form. Over 400 sailors are already stationed on the ship, learning the ropes so to speak, before its returns to Russia for active military service as a helicopter carrier enabling rapid intervention and deployment likely as the flagship of a new Mediterranean squadron.  Each ship will be fitted with 16 K-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters. 

Ironically viewing the steel grey behemoth has become a kind of spectator sport in the port town.  Curiosity being what it is, locals and tourists come to visit the docks to see the vessel, watch the sailors on drill,  and often watch the crews on leave in town hovering near cell phone shops to pick up free wifi signals.  

A bit of history. Situated on the Bay of Biscay, St. Nazaire remains one of France’s greatest ports; its shipbuilders constructed such iconic trans-Atlantic ocean liners as the Normandie in the 1930’s, the France in 1961, and Cunard’s new flagship the Queen Mary 2 just a decade ago.  The modern shipyard routinely  constructs many of the cruise ships which ply Caribbean waters.  On a darker side, during WWII and the German occupation of France, the port hosted one of the largest U-boat bases, the fifteen near-intact submarine pens from that era still stand as a silent testament to the past. 

When Moscow slapped economic sanctions on the USA and European Union, in response to earlier Western sanctions on Russia, the French agricultural sector felt the financial pinch. French exports to Russia last year totaled $10 billion. Of that sum approximately one billion dollars is formed by agricultural products such as meat, vegetables, and wines.  France’s long pampered and protected farming sector feels the pinch.  The Socialist government thus rationalizes  the military sale as necessary.

Both the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol, when delivered will be based in the Black Sea port in  Crimea, annexed by Russia earlier this year to the backdrop of world outrage.  The Mistral class vessels  allow for an enhanced and potent amphibious assault capacity. 

Given growing European political and military concerns over Moscow’s policies, there’s a quiet nervousness among the French over the ship deal, despite the economic benefits.  As a former shipyard worker told me sarcastically, “Sure it’s good for business, but they (the Russians) are not going to throw it back at us, are they?”  One wonders.

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John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China. (2014).

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