Russia Mistral: France halts delivery indefinitely

Vladivostok in dock near Saint-Nazaire Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Vladivostok was due to be handed over earlier in November as part of a 1.2bn euro contract

France has suspended "until further notice" the controversial delivery of a helicopter carrier to the Russian navy.

President Francois Hollande blamed continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine, where Russia is accused of backing separatists in their fight against the government in Kiev.

The Vladivostok warship was due to be handed over last month as part of a two-ship deal.

Russia says it will stick to the terms of the contract.

Under the agreement, signed during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency in 2011, Russia ordered two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in a contract worth 1.2bn euros ($1.6bn; £0.95bn).

The first ship, the Vladivostok, was to be handed over in mid-November; the second, the Sevastopol, is due for delivery late next year.

France eventually halted the delivery of the first ship in September, under pressure from its Western allies, saying the conditions were "not right".

European Union leaders had warned the ship could be used to threaten its neighbours. The 21,300-tonne Mistral-class ship can carry up to 16 helicopters and a third of a mechanised regiment.

Since March, the EU and US have been imposing sanctions on Russian individuals and companies because of the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the subsequent outbreak of conflict in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

However, France had been reluctant to put the deal on ice because of the legal cost of breaching the contract.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The second Mistral-class carrier, the Sevastopol, is due for delivery next year

Since the end of June, 400 Russian sailors have been stationed in Saint-Nazaire, where the Vladivostok is docked.

And late last month, a leading Kremlin official said an invitation had been sent out by the manufacturer for a ceremony marking the handover of the ship.

In his statement on Tuesday, President Hollande said the "current situation in eastern Ukraine still does not allow for the delivery of the first" warship.

Last month, he said that respect for the 5 September ceasefire was an essential condition for the handover to take place. But since the nominal truce came into force, more than 1,000 people have been killed, out of a total of more than 4,300 since April.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio that "on the Russian side, there is an unacceptable direct or indirect presence on the side of the separatists".

But he also criticised Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's remarks on Monday, in which he said he wanted a referendum on joining Nato.

Image caption In a tweet, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the conditions for delivery "have not been met"

Although Russia had earlier warned France against suspending the delivery of the Vladivostok, Deputy Defence Minister Yury Borisov told Ria Novosti that the navy would observe the terms of the contract: "We are satisfied, it is the French who are not satisfied, and we are going to patiently wait," he said.

However, he gave a sterner assessment of Russia's position to Tass news agency: "If they don't hand it over, we will go to court and impose punitive sanctions."

In theory, France could have to pay a fine and return the deposit paid by Russia, French reports say.

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