France-Russia warship deal in troubled waters over sanctions against Putin | France

ANDAt the Saint Nazaire shipyard, the superstructure sticks out like a sore thumb, a great tower flanked by cranes and hoisting gear that signals to the city that a helicopter carrier is moored here in the oily waters of the naval yard. Looking through the barbed wire, you can see its name, Vladivostok, written in Cyrillic on its hull. A Russian Orthodox priest came to baptize this 200-meter monster. A little further away, in a dry dock, the Kremlin was promised its younger sister, Sebastopol. Two “gray” ships, as warships are called in the shipyard; two obstacles for European diplomacy, which is trying to tighten sanctions against Vladimir Putin, as well Vladivostok begins sea trials.

These two ships are technically Mistral class or batiment de projection et de commandment, projection and command ships. For the average person, these are assault ships capable of transporting and landing troops, armored vehicles and tanks. Carrying helicopters, they can serve as a base for airborne commando units. In the French Navy, they represent the largest tonnage after the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. If the Russian Black Sea Fleet had a Mistral-class warship in 2008, it could have ended war with Georgia in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours”, the head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, once boasted.

The shipbuilding contract was signed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011long before Putin showed any signs attacking Ukraineannexation Crimea or the encouragement of secession by largely Russian-speaking self-proclaimed republics Donetsk and Lugansklong before the surface-to-air missile shot down a Malaysian airline plane in July But Hollande doesn’t want to go back to contract worth EUR 1.2 billion ($1.5 billion). In early September, on the eve of the NATO summit in Wales, Hollande announced France could not continue the supply of Vladivostok to Russia, referring to Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine. However partial ceasefire in mid-September this meant that the French allowed the ship to begin sea trials.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, member states are stunned that France should sell warships to a country that threatens their security. in Washington Barack Obama is furious too.

Only in Saint Nazaire in Brittany do they seem to be content with the presence of “Sebass” and “Vladi”, nicknames that reflect the locals’ affection for their bulky visitors. Russian sailors arrived in late June. They boarded the Smolny, their training ship, in Kronstadt, which remains moored near the lock gate. Prefab huts on the waterfront serve as classrooms for the cadets. Along the port side of the Smolny, nets were stretched so that divers would not get too close to the old ship, built in Szczecin in 1976. harbor.

Demonstration at the STX shipyard in St Nazaire against the delivery of the controversial Vladivostok attack helicopter, made in France, ordered by Russia. The placard reads: “No sea tests for Putin’s killers.” Photo: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/Getty

In some strange way, the entire line-up is a reminder of revolutionary history. In 1921, sailors in the Baltic port of Kronstadt mutinied, but it was suppressed by the newly established Bolshevik regime. Szczecin with its shipyards was a bastion of Solidarity in the fight against Soviet domination. Smolny, as union faithful in the port of Saint Nazaire still remember, was “Lenin’s headquarters from which he directed the attack on the Winter Palace,” according to the old militant.

400 Russian sailors were ordered not to say anything. And few people in Saint Nazaire seem willing to discuss it. Laurent Castaing, CEO of the shipyard in which South Korean company STX currently has a majority stake, “will not comment on the matter.” “This story is no longer about our city,” says David Samzun, a recently elected socialist mayor. On August 26, according to protocol, a reception for the officers of “Smolny” was held and a list of sports facilities was given, but the sailors were not seen there. Apparently early risers spotted them on board boxing and bodybuilding.

“They have been asked to be discreet and spend most of their time below decks,” says a Russian nationalist from Donbass who now lives just outside Saint Nazaire. Traditionally, Russia celebrates Naval Day on July 27, but there was little sign of any festivities, just lots of flags. Some of the sailors danced with the wives of the officers who had come for the occasion, but none went beyond the quay. The next day, normal life resumed, walking around the city and swimming in the Loire Estuary.

In the city, the cadets are distinguished by their extreme youth, blond hair and unbranded T-shirts. They buy cigarettes, have a few beers at the bar, buy a six-pack at the supermarket near the shipyard, but avoid stronger things. “The vodka here is outrageous,” says Mykola, a Ukrainian cruise ship builder. At Le Skipper, the nearest brasserie, sailors go online and chat with their girlfriends at home via Skype. Krystof, the Polish owner, speaks Russian. He acts friendly but “there is never any mention of boats”. Even with a drink, Sebass and Vladi are off-limits when the conversation in Saint Nazaire turns to politics. Jobs are a priority. “Without the shipyard, Saint Nazaire would be just a ruined suburb [nearby seaside resort] La Baule,” says Jean Rolin, a local writer.

One Sunday in September, a small crowd of about 50 demonstrators gathered on the wharf at the stern of the Vladivostok, waving Ukrainian flags and sports badges with the word “Vladivostok”.#No Mistral for Putin“. They were commanded by Bernard Grua, a Nantes businessman who campaigned almost single-handedly against the sale of assault ships to Moscow. His supporters know the ship’s capabilities by heart. The Mistral can carry 750 troops, 16 helicopters, Leclerc tanks, amphibious and airborne units, they recite. Using Google maps, they explore Ukraine’s strategic ports one by one. “The Germans razed your city to the ground,” says Grua for the benefit of the people of Saint Nazaire. “But when the Mistrals attack Mariupol, with the inscription Made in France, people who did not protest will be considered collaborators.”

Meanwhile, in the bow of Vladivostok, at the urging Mistral Gagnon [winning with Mistral] campaign, another group met. The speaker was Jean-Claude Blanchard, a former welder and former member of the Trotskyist Workers’ Struggle Party and the General Confederation of the Labor Union. He currently heads the far-right faction of the National Front in the Saint Nazaire council. His career is symptomatic of Front National’s takeover of the docks. He is seconded by Christian Bouchet, party leader in Nantes. He recently published a French translation of a book by Alexander Dugin, the ultra-nationalist Russian thinker he purports to be source of inspiration for Putin.

Among the crowd of Mistral Gagnons we noticed a woman with the cross of St. George, a symbol of the defenders of Mother Russia. Lithuanian, Polish, and red-and-black Ukrainian nationalist flags hung at the other end of the ship. But there were also black and white Breton flags flying over both crowds. The stage seemed to be a symbol of conflicting regional identities that are increasingly visible at the local level but largely ignored in the political center.

But what can the mayor of Saint Nazaire do but follow Hollande’s hesitation and sail as close to the wind as he dares? Everyone here knows that if Vladivostok is not delivered by October 31, France will have to pay heavy fines. Even the local branch of the conservative opposition party scrapped plans for a demonstration when someone remembered that Alain Juppé, a likely candidate in a future presidential race, had signed the Mistral contract. Only one key public figure in Brittany, the owner of the local newspaper, West of Franceexpressed his hostility to the deal. “What will happen if a fully armed Vladivostok appears on the Black Sea in a few weeks?” asks François-Regis Hutin. “What if one day he turns against us?”

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which includes material from Le Monde

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