October 29, 2014 / 6:24 PM / 5 years ago

Russian minister says France ready to deliver controversial warships

MOSCOW/PARIS (Reuters) - Russia says it has received an invitation to take delivery of the first of two French warships, an arms deal that was cast into doubt by tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine that led the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow.

The invitation was sent for Russia to take delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carriers from France on Nov. 14, RIA news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying on Wednesday. RIA also quoted Rogozin as saying the second vessel would be put afloat the same day.

However, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday Paris would wait until next month to decide whether to deliver the first of the two vessels.

“Everything is going as planned in terms of the technical fulfillment of the contract, and we stick to that,” Rogozin was quoted as saying. “As for political decisions, we assume that France should protect its reputation as a reliable partner, including in the military and technical area.”

French President Francois Hollande for months resisted pressure from Washington and other allies concerned about Russia’s role in Ukraine to scrap the 1.2 billion euro ($1.58 billion) contract.

With as many as 1,000 defense jobs at stake in France, there is immediate concern at home. But more worrying for Paris is what impact the cancellation of the contract would have on future defense export deals and on a defense industry that employs 40,000 people.

Even so, Hollande chose in September to push back the original end-October delivery date. He also said that he would only hand over the first carrier if there was a lasting ceasefire and a political settlement in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Rogozin used his official Twitter account on Wednesday to tweet a letter dated Oct. 8 from the Mistral’s manufacturer, DCNS, inviting Russian officials to a delivery ceremony on Nov. 14 at the Saint Nazaire shipyard where the first carrier, the Vladivostok, is awaiting transfer.

DCNS said it could neither confirm or deny the information. The French state owns a 65 percent stake in DCNS, making it unlikely any letter would have been sent against the wishes of the French government.

Officials at the French presidency, defense and foreign ministries contacted by Reuters said that at this stage no decision had been made on the delivery dates.

“No decision has been taken with regard the Mistral delivery. The decision will be taken during November by the president,” a Defense Ministry official said.

Moscow, which expects delivery of a second carrier by the end of 2015, has said it will seek damages if the deliveries are canceled or suspended.

Russia’s Mistral purchases would give it access to advanced technology, alarming some of France’s NATO allies who consider Paris could be strengthening Moscow militarily.

Western officials on Monday hailed Sunday’s Ukraine election. Pro-Western parties are set to dominate parliament, handing President Petro Poroshenko a mandate to end a separatist conflict and to steer the country further away from Russia’s orbit towards mainstream Europe.

But after months of conflict he still faces huge problems. Russia opposes his plans to join the European Union, a ceasefire is barely holding between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the east, and the economy is in dire straits.

(1 US dollar = 0.7849 euro)

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow and John Irish and Marine Pennetier in Paris, Editing by Timothy Heritage, Larry King

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