PARIS, September 13. /ITAR-TASS/. Russian sailors on Saturday went on their first training voyage aboard one of the two Mistral ships France is building for the Russian Navy.
The ship named Vladivostok is to return in ten days on September 22. Initially, the voyage was scheduled for Wednesday, September 10, but was postponed “for technical reasons”, not because of a possible suspension of the contract to deliver the ships to Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, sources at the Saint-Nazaire shipyard told ITAR-TASS.
About 400 Russian sailors arrived in Saint-Nazaire in late June for training in the use and operation of the new helicopter carrier which is under construction at the shipyard.
Their arrival in Saint-Nazaire was a big event, watched by journalists and local residents. “I don’t remember Saint-Nazaire receiving so many Russian sailors at once ever before. This is a big event for us,” military historian Bernard Prezelin, the author of the Combat Fleets of the World, told ITAR-TASS.
He said the contract signed by France in 2011 for the supply of two 1.12 billion euro Mistral ships to Russia had literally become a breath of fresh air for Saint-Nazaire’s shipyards which had run out of orders.
According to Prezelin, there was too much political ado about the deal, especially in the light of the latest developments in Ukraine. “The contract was signed several years ago. Russia fulfilled its obligations and France must do the same,” he said, recalling that Spain, Italy and the Republic of Korea had also competed for the contract with Russia.
It’s noteworthy that the people in Saint-Nazaire are sincerely glad to see the Russian sailors in their town. Laurent Dupont of the city union of entrepreneurs said a special advertising catalogue listing the services offered by local companies, published shortly before their arrival, had been translated into Russian specially for their sake.
Upon the end of the training, and if France honours the contract, they will return to St. Petersburg in early November aboard the ship, which after additional refitting will sail off to its homeport of Vladivostok.
French President Francois Hollande said France had not suspended or cancelled the deal with Russia, but the delivery of the ships would depend on how the situation developed in eastern Ukraine which has been gripped by violence and fighting between militias and government troops for months.
Hollande said these conditions were not currently in place there and if the situation deteriorated further, France would delay the delivery again.
He earlier assured Russia that his country would fulfill its obligations and hand over the first ship as scheduled but the work on the second one would depend on Moscow’s position on the Ukrainian crisis.
The president said there could be no question of failing to deliver. “Russia has paid,” he said, adding that otherwise France would have to pay a fine of 1.1 billion euros.
Russia warned that the refusal to implement the contact would adversely affect military-technical cooperation between the two countries.
In June, President Vladimir Putin said France would have to return the money paid for the ships if it refused to deliver them and this “will not allow us to develop military-technical relations” with Paris further.
Washington advised Paris to suspend the deal with Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama voiced his concern about it in Brussels and raised this issue again at a meeting with Hollande in Paris in early June and then at the NATO summit in Wales in September.
However Hollande said the contract signed in 2011 had not been revised and its implementation would be completed as scheduled.
Under the contract, each Mistral ship has to be built by France within 36 months. The first of them, the Vladivostok, is to arrive in St. Petersburg from Saint-Nazaire, France, in December 2014. In St. Petersburg it will be equipped with Russian weapons, military hardware and systems. After that and the crew training, the Vladivostok will sail off to its base in the Pacific Fleet.
The second ship, the Sevastopol, will arrive in St. Petersburg in November 2015 to make a voyage to the Pacific Fleet and join it in the second half of 2016.
The crews for the two ships (each consisting of 177 members) and 60 instructors, who will subsequently help the sailors operate the ships, are being trained by French specialists. The first stage of training began in February of this year … and continued until the end of May. The second stage will take place from June until October in Saint-Nazaire both onshore and onboard the Vladivostok. The cost of training is included in the contract.
Apart from these two ships, Russia has also purchased French technology for the combat information control and communications systems.
On Russia’s insistence, the design of the ships has been changed to make them capable of sailing in northern altitudes and ice-covered seas, increase their dimensions to carry large Ka-28 and Ka-52K helicopters, and to install additional weapons as such air defence systems, rapid-fire artillery guns and large-calibre automatic systems to repel attacks from sea. This will allow the ships to go on missions with fewer escort vessels in tow.
Two Mistral-type ships are now under construction at Saint-Nazaire, France, and St. Petersburg, Russia. A possible purchase by Russia of two more ships from France will be considered based on the performance results of the first two. The shipyard is to build 90% of each of the ships and then they will be floated off to be taken to Toulon for completion.
Russian enterprises are also involved in the project. The Baltic Shipyard laid down the keel of one of the two Mistral ships, named Vladivostok, in strict compliance with the approved schedule. A similar ceremony for the second ship named Sevastopol took place in May 2013.
Mistral landing helicopter carriers will perform four tasks at the same time: receive helicopters, land troops, act as a command post and a floating hospital.
Each ship will carry a group of 16 helicopters. Six of them can be deployed on the flight-deck at the same time. The cargo deck can accommodate more than 40 tanks or 70 motor vehicles.
Russia is buying the French helicopter carrier Mistral with French equipment, including combat navigation devices, but will arm it with its own weaponry. The Mistral ships will carry upgraded Russian Ka-32 Alligator attack helicopters.