The Projection and Command vessel Mistral in Brest, France.
The Projection and Command vessel Mistral in Brest, France.
Nicolas Tenzer

Defying U.S. and NATO pressure to cancel its $1.6 billion sale of two Mistral warships to Russia, French President François Hollande has said that the first will be delivered in October, while the delivery of the second would "depend on Russia's attitude."

-OpEd-

PARIS — France simply cannot deliver two Mistral warships to Russia. Doing that would be like our country selling cannons to 1936 or 1938 Nazi Germany.

Selling warships to Russian President Vladimir Putin would be in stark contrast with President François Hollande's Russian stance since his election in May 2012, long before Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. This deal would be a violation of our principles, of our values and of the consistency of our foreign policy.

Someone needs to say this and sweep away any arguments to the contrary.

Some people claim that we are bound by the letter of a standing contract. Raising questions about the deal, they say, would undermine the state's basic credibility. Can we take this argument seriously when Russia violates international law? The current context also requires us to question it, because armament contracts should never be considered as regular ones.

These people, then, talk about penalties if the deal falls through. Can we really point out this financial argument, while our values — as well as people's lives — are on the line? This would simply be pathetic.

They claim we should keep the best interests of our shipyards at heart and not drive workers to despair. Again, this argument doesn't hold up. After making the necessary changes, we could very well deliver the warships to our own navy, or work on finding other purchasers seduced by the operational quality of our helicopter carriers. These new partners should be NATO forces in the first place. It is always better to cancel a contract than to relinquish your soul.

Setting the standard

The third argument often expressed in favor of this French-Russian deal is the following: Why should France suffer from the sanctions policy when the U.S., Britain and Germany are trying to avoid its consequences, under the influenced of powerful lobbies?

Of course, we must condemn the hypocrisy of others and push for these sanctions to be shared fairly among EU countries and the U.S. But we also we need to remain a model, an example to follow. We need to show a united front, particularly in Europe. The European Union's collective credibility is at stake, along with its dignity and efficiency against a dangerous regime.

Pressure from the U.S. and other countries is unacceptable. We shouldn't obey their decree, which isn't disinterested. These pressures are clumsy, to say the least. Yet these positions were very clear as soon as negotiations started between Moscow and Paris regarding the sale of these Mistrals.

Considering the Georgian precedent, this deal should have never happened. But there is a strong competition on arms sales between France and the U.S., a rivalry that isn't always fair. We must talk about it openly with our American allies.

Given the current state of affairs, the sale takes on a specific dimension. There used to be a ban on weaponry sales to Soviet Russia. When Putin threatens security and freedom in Europe, when troops he helped arm slaughter citizens from allied countries and freedom fighters, we must enact this ban again.

Delivering these helicopter carriers would also go against the urgent necessity to reinforce NATO, which must be a framework in which we can openly and frankly discuss weaponry contracts.

Rational about Russia

Other supporters of the deal claim that, at this point, we should keep it as a means to pressure Russia to adopt a more cooperative attitude. This would be particularly short-sighted. Can we realistically think that Russia will radically change its foreign policy by October? Imagining that such a shift is possible in two months is nothing more than false naivety.

Finally, the last argument — and also the most strategic — suggests that we must spare our mid-term and long-term relationship with Russia and not exclude ourselves from a necessary dialogue with Moscow. Sure, we would like a conciliatory Russia. But let's be rational. It's an isolated country and it needs the EU even more to face China"s pressure on its southeastern front and the instability of the Caucasian Republics southwest of its borders.

For economic, demographic, institutional and intellectual reasons, Russia will become a second-rate power in a few decades. Putin's nationalist policy is a doomed-to-fail attempt to erase this reality, both at home and abroad.

What's worse is that this policy is tragic for the future of Russian people. Capitals and elites are fleeing the country. Civil society would never understand it if we were too lenient with an entire nation's oppressor, just to spare an uncertain future. We would be forgetting the memory of Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, and so many other martyrs who fought for freedom.

Russia now represents the biggest threat to Europe's security. The time has come for us, French and Europeans, to say "stop."

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