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France calls off Mistral warship sale to Russia. Should EU buy it instead?

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Stephane Mahe/Reuters

(Read caption) The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok is docked at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, France. Under pressure, France has suspended the sale over Russia's actions in Ukraine.

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As France faces a financial hit for suspending its much-maligned sale of a Mistral warship to Russia, some observers have a suggestion to mitigate the pain: Let the European Union buy it.

“I would have liked to see the EU buy that warship instead of it going in some freezer compartment,” says Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, even as she acknowledged it would be an unlikely move. “It would have been nicer to see the EU take that step, when they are supposed to be strengthening their foreign and defense policy.”

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Such a move, she says, would have ensured the deal remains a done one. Otherwise, she says, “I’m sure at some point the Russians will get their hands on it.” 

The transaction, she notes, could have accomplished two goals with one move – at least for those who want to see the EU bolster its defense capabilities. That issue is front and center at the NATO summit in Wales, where both the amount and nature of NATO member spending are under intense debate.

French officials announced Wednesday that France would not deliver the Mistral-class ship, part of a $1.7 billion weapons deal, saying that the conditions "aren't right," despite a possible cease-fire in Ukraine. The statement left ambiguous whether the deal could move forward in the future and under what circumstances.

France was under intense pressure to scrap the deal, even though at home, many decried the loss of jobs and the hit the economy would take.

“It was simply extremely difficult to defend morally the contract,” says Paul Ivan, an expert on European sanctions also at the European Policy Center. And France had been facing the glare of other countries who have taken a bigger hit from EU sanctions imposed on Russia, and Russia's subsequent retaliation.

In other words, this evens the score, as much as one can when it comes to comparing bilateral trade relationships.

France's decision also sends an important message before the EU is expected to make a new announcement about toughening sanctions on Russia tomorrow.

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There are still deep divides across Europe about how to punish Russia, and who stands to lose what. But with the Mistral deal out of the way – for now – it takes one more blemish off the record.

“No other country had such a big defense contract,” says Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office of the French Institute of International Relations.  ”It was not small stuff. It was very, very visible, and very big.”