The Washington Post

Putin accuses U.S. of blackmail over French warship deal

Russian sailors look through portholes as they arrive aboard the Smolniy on June 30 in Saint-Nazaire, western France. About 400 Russian sailors will be trained on the Vladivostok warship, a Mistral class LHD amphibious vessel ordered by Russia. (JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of blackmailing France over the French contract to sell Mistral-class warships to Russia.

Putin’s claim is a reference to the $8.9 billion fine levied against France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, which this week pleaded guilty to federal and New York state criminal charges that it had conducted business with countries under U.S. sanctions. The Russian president suggested the fines were a way of dissuading France from selling the ships.

“We know about the pressure which our U.S. partners are applying on France not to supply the Mistrals to Russia,” Putin told Russian diplomats Tuesday. “And we even know they hinted that if the French don’t deliver the Mistrals, they would quietly get rid of the sanctions against the bank, or at least minimize them.”

“What is that if not blackmail?” Putin said.

French President Francois Hollande had raised concerns with President Obama over the BNP case. Obama refused to intervene, but criticized France’s cooperation with Russia during Moscow’s invasion of Crimea and subsequent unrest in Eastern Ukraine.

“I have expressed some concerns — and I don’t think I’m alone in this — about continuing significant defense deals with Russia at a time when they have violated basic international law, and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their neighbors,” Obama said at a news conference in Brussels last month.

On Monday, 400 Russian sailors arrived in France to train on the ships, the first of which is supposed to be delivered by the end of the year.

The United States and the European Union have denounced the $1.6 billion dollar deal to sell the two amphibious assault ships in recent months, as the Russian-influenced violence in Eastern Ukraine continues unabated.

France has pushed back on the claim, stating that canceling the deal would damage France’s economy.

The two ships named, the Vladivostock and the Sebastopol, can hold an assortment of helicopters, troops and tanks. The deal to sell them, signed in 2011, was Moscow’s first large foreign arms purchase since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.

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