The contract to built the ships was signed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011, long before Putin showed any signs of attacking Ukraine, annexing Crimea or encouraging secession by the predominantly Russian-speaking self-styled republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, well before a ground-to-air missile brought down a Malaysia Airlines plane in July. But Hollande has no wish to go back on a contract worth €1.2bn ($1.5bn). At the beginning of September, on the eve of the Nato summit in Wales, Hollande announced France could not go ahead with the Vladivostok’s delivery to Russia, citing Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine. However the partial ceasefire in mid-September meant the French permitted the ship to begin its sea trials.
At the Nato headquarters in Brussels, member states are flabbergasted that France should be selling warships to a country that is threatening their security. In Washington Barack Obama is furious too.
Only in Saint Nazaire, Brittany, do they seem happy about the presence of the “Sebass” and “Vladi”, nicknames that reflect the locals’ attachment to their cumbersome guests. Russian sailors arrived at the end of June. They boarded the Smolny, their training ship, at Kronstadt, and it remains moored near the lock gates. Prefabricated huts on the quayside serve as classrooms for the cadets. Nets have been strung along the port side of the Smolny, to stop divers coming too close to the old ship, built in Szczecin, Poland, in 1976. “That thing wouldn’t be seaworthy in a gale,” says a naval veteran on the port.
In town, the cadets stand out on account of their extreme youth, blond hair and unbranded T-shirts. They buy cigarettes, have a couple of beers in a bar, pick up a six-pack at the supermarket near the shipyard, but avoid anything stronger. “Vodka here is an outrageous price,” says Mykola, a Ukrainian boilermaker building a cruise liner. At Le Skipper, the nearest brasserie, the sailors go online and Skype their girlfriends back home. Krystof, the Polish proprietor, speaks Russian. He acts friendly but there is “never any mention of the boats”. Even over a drink the Sebass and the Vladi are no-go areas when talk in Saint Nazaire turns to politics. The priority is jobs. “Without the shipyard, Saint Nazaire would just be a dilapidated suburb of [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 quay at the stern of the Vladivostok, waving Ukrainian flags and sporting badges marked “#No Mistral for Putin”. They were led by Bernard Grua, a businessman from Nantes, who has been campaigning, almost single-handed, against the sale of the assault ships to Moscow. His supporters know the capabilities of the vessel off by heart. A Mistral can carry 750 soldiers, 16 helicopters, Leclerc tanks, amphibious assault and landing craft, they recite. With Google maps they explore, one by one, Ukraine’s strategic ports. “The Germans flattened your town,” says Grua, for the benefit of the people of Saint Nazaire. “But when the Mistrals attack Mariupol, with Made in France written all over them, the people who didn’t protest will count as collaborators.”