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French officials said Wednesday that they will not deliver the first Mistral-class amphibious warship that Russia had ordered from Paris as part of a $1.7 billion weapons sale, a strong rebuke after months of aggressive actions by Russia in eastern Ukraine.
French officials said in statement that they assess the situation in Ukraine to be “serious,” and believe Russia’s actions undermine security in Europe. The statement did not say whether France will deliver the ship in the future, but said the conditions for it to do so at this time “have so far not been met,” despite the possibility of a cease-fire in Ukraine.
“The recent actions by Russia in eastern Ukraine are contrary to the basic notions of security in Europe,” the statement said.
The decision marks a turnaround for France, which signaled as recently as Monday that it intended to complete the sale. Pressure had been building on Paris to hold the ship back, however, especially after NATO said it had determined that Russia has sent troops and military equipment into Ukraine.
French officials have spent years defending the arms sale, in which France beat out rival nations like Germany and Spain to sell ships to the Russians. U.S. officials and nations in Eastern Europe had warned long before Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine that bolstering Russia’s navy was a bad idea, and the criticism reached a crescendo in recent days.
Nevertheless, the deal appeared to be progressing until Wednesday. In June, Russia sent several hundred sailors to France to train on the ship, the Vladivostok, and Paris had defended its right to complete the sale. Last month, French President Francois Hollande said the first ship would be delivered in October, and added that the delivery of a second French warship to Moscow would “depend on Russia’s attitude,” an allusion to its actions in Ukraine.
The deal in question dates to January 2011, and would have provided four of France’s Mistral warships to Russia, whose navy is relatively weak. The first two ships would be built by French contractor DCNS, while the second two would be built in Russia and then delivered to the Russian navy. The ships each carry about 160 troops, and can transport at least 16 military helicopters and landing craft, according to a U.S. Navy assessment.
Russian officials downplayed the significance of France’s decision on Wednesday.
“This is not a tragedy, though of course the news is unpleasant. It will not affect our armament plans,” said Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov in a statement to RT, a state-controlled news outlet. “We will act in accordance with international laws and the statutes of the contract.”
The European Union and the United States both have implemented a series of harsh economic sanctions on Russia this year as the crisis in Ukraine progressed. Despite France’s move to stop the Mistral delivery, however, a senior German official said Wednesday that the European Union may hold back from further sanctions if a truce is announced quickly by the negotiation team that plans to meet in Belarus on Friday.
“If the participants of the contact group, especially the OSCE, said ‘we have a deal,’ then I could imagine that one would say, okay, we’re suspending the discussions about further sanctions,” said the official, who spoke to reporters in Berlin under ground rules of anonymity ahead of the NATO summit that begins Thursday.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.