The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Seizing Sevastopol: What to do with Russia’s French Warships?

23rd July 2014

Professor Julian Lindley-French on Russia and the EU

Alphen, Netherlands. 23 July. Predictably the EU fell apart yesterday over what to do about Russia. Naturally, they all pretended otherwise but the only winner yesterday was President Putin. There was a motley extension to the motley collection of asset freezes and travel bans and some talk of future sanctions covering the energy, financial services and defence sectors. Britain and France fell out (again). France accused Britain of hypocrisy over London’s demand that Paris halt the €1.2bn sale of two state-of-the-art French warships to Russia. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius not unreasonably pointed out that Britain has been far too “no questions asked” about the London money of Russian oligarchs close to President Putin. The French were too polite to point out that Britain still has some 252 active arms export licenses worth some £132m for the sale of weapons to Russia. For all that it is inconceivable that in the current situation France would help Russia create an entirely new expeditionary military capability.

These are not any old new warships. Weighing in at 21500 tons the Mistral-class ships are state-of-the-art marine amphibious command and assault ships that for the first time ever will give Russia the ability to launch from the sea 450 special and specialised forces supported by helicopters and tanks. The first of the ships is due to be handed over to the Russia Navy in October. France says that Russia has promised not to use them in its ‘near abroad’. Nonsense. These two ships could be deployed anywhere around Europe from the High North to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

France must stop talking contracts and start thinking strategy. That means seizing the ships. There is a precedent. One hundred years ago in August 1914 the British seized a brand new battleship they had been building first for the Brazilians and then when that deal fell through for the Turks. Winston Churchill personally insisted the ship be taken into British custody. She was a state-of-the art Super-Dreadnought battleship with 14 12 inch guns, displacing 30,000 tons and capable of 22 knots.

The problem of course with seizure (apart from a seriously peeved Putin) would be what to do with the ships. The French Navy has neither the personnel nor the budget needed to crew two new ships of this size. However, there are three alternative, very non-Russian options that Paris may wish to consider: 1. create a new Anglo-French strike force; 2. make the ships NATO common assets paid for by NATO Europe; or 3. make the ships the first EU-owned assets at the core of a new maritime amphibious Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF).

There is one other option; one hundred years on from Entente Cordiale France could generously give one of the ships to the Royal Navy. The Russians had intended to name one of the ships Vladivostok and the other somewhat provocatively Sevastopol. Again there is a precedent for such name changes. In 1914 the British christened the new battleship HMS Agincourt (of course). In 2014 the British could offer the French a choice; HMS Crecy, HMS Waterloo or how about HMS Trafalgar?

Just a thought.

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