In a closed-door meeting in February 2010, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged his French counterpart not to proceed with the sale of two amphibious assault ships to Russia because it “would send the wrong message to Russia and to our allies in Central and East Europe.”
The French official, Hervé Morin, acknowledged that each of the ships — so-called Mistral-class vessels built for the French Navy to carry troops, landing craft, and helicopters — was “indeed a warship for power projection,” according to a confidential diplomatic cable on the meeting, which was made public by WikiLeaks. But Mr. Morin “asked rhetorically how we can tell Russia we desire partnership but then not trust them,” the cable added.
With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and some 40,000 Russian troops deployed near Ukraine, Western officials are no longer putting their trust in Russia’s intentions. But despite American objections, the sale is still on track, and the first ship is scheduled for delivery late this year.
During a visit here on Tuesday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said his government would decide in October whether to proceed with the delivery of two of the ships, and asserted that France had struck the right balance between “dialogue and firmness” in its dealings with Moscow. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated in his meeting with Mr. Fabius that the sale was not helpful, seeking a way to prevent it, according to a State Department official. But Mr. Fabius later asserted to reporters that Mr. Kerry had not demanded that France cancel the sale.
To critics, the 1.2 billion euro, or more than $1.6 billion, deal that France struck with Russia has emerged as a classic instance in which a European nation has elevated its business dealings with Moscow over exhortations by the United States to take a firm line on Russian meddling in Ukraine.
But the cables obtained by WikiLeaks show that the United States had concerns about the way Russia was obtaining the ships since 2009. In an appearance before Congress last week, Victoria Nuland, the senior State Department official for European Affairs, said that the Obama administration had “consistently expressed our concerns about this sale.”
Yet the security relationship between the United States and France in recent years has generally been strong. As Mr. Fabius hastened to remind reporters this week, France was poised to participate in an American-led military strike on Syria last year in response to the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons, until Mr. Obama halted the military option in return for an agreement that Syria destroy its chemical arsenal.
The ships were on the back burner in discussions with the French government. But with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they re-emerged as a major issue.
If they are delivered, the ships would augment the Russian military’s capabilities against the very nations that now appear to be most vulnerable to the Kremlin’s pressure — namely the Black Sea states of Ukraine and Georgia and the Baltic states that belong to NATO.
“The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors,” said James G. Stavridis, the retired admiral who served as NATO’s top commander from 2009 to 2013.
“Russia has nothing like it, and without French help could not build it anytime soon,” said Stephen J. Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the American Foreign Policy Council.
“Since helicopters can also be armed with missiles, it can be a platform for a heliborne missile attack as well as what we in the States call an air assault or heliborne landings or amphibious landings,” Mr. Blank added.
The French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has played down the significance of the pending sale, saying that France would only be delivering unarmed “civilian hulls.”
But Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and three other lawmakers said in a recent letter to President Obama that each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers.
The Kremlin has joined the debate as well. Dmitri O. Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, recently suggested that a decision to derail the deal would hurt France more than Russia. “France is starting to undermine trust in itself as a reliable supplier,” he said on his Twitter account. “Probably our colleague is not aware of the number of jobs created in France thanks to our partnership.”
French officials first informed their Western counterparts in 2009 that Nicolas Sarkozy, who was president at the time, was interested in selling the warships to Russia. That December, a cable from the American Embassy in Paris outlined the economic logic behind the deal. The Russians, an embassy economic officer wrote, had little confidence in their own shipyards, and Mr. Sarkozy was interested in lining up new clients for France’s ailing shipbuilding industry.
Georgia, whose breakaway regions were occupied by Russian troops in 2008, was worried by the potential sale, especially after a Russian naval commander was quoted as saying Russia’s Black Sea Fleet could have carried out its mission during that conflict “in 40 minutes” if it had possessed a ship like the Mistral.
In a November 2009 cable, John R. Bass, the American ambassador to Georgia, described the deal as “the wrong ship from the wrong country at the wrong time.”
“Not only on the symbolic level is the sale problematic; this type of ship will give Russia a new capability to enforce, or threaten to enforce, its will in the Black Sea,” wrote Mr. Bass, who currently serves as a top aide to Mr. Kerry.
In a January 2010 meeting, William J. Burns, who was serving at the time as the third ranking State Department official, and Michèle A. Flournoy, then the senior Pentagon policy official, pressed the issue in a meeting in Paris with their French counterparts.
Michel Miraillet, a French defense official at the time, argued that the sale would be a “gesture of good will to Russia” as its navy was “in dire condition,” according to a cable describing the meeting. If France did not make the sale, he argued, the Netherlands or Spain would sell a similar ship.
But Ms. Flournoy responded that the sale would “fly in the face” of Mr. Sarkozy’s role in resolving the 2008 confrontation between Russia and Georgia and would send a “confusing signal” to Russian and European nations, the cable noted. If France wanted to engage Moscow it should “find a different confidence-building measure than a Mistral sale,” she added.
Nonetheless, in 2011 France went ahead and signed a contract with Russia for two ships. Russia is considering buying another two Mistral-class ships after the first two are delivered.
With more than 1,000 jobs at stake and President François Hollande of France vowing not to run for re-election if unemployment does not improve, there appears to be little interest within the French government in canceling the sale. One option, some Western diplomats say, might be for the French Navy to buy the ships, but that would add substantially to the French military budget in a time of austerity.
After the delivery to Russia of the first ship, which is named the Vladivostok, the second ship is to be handed over by 2016. In a paradoxical twist of history, that ship is named the Sevastopol, after the city in Crimea.