Interview

The Warship Controversy

On 14 July, the French embassy in Kiev became the centre point of a global protest connected to the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine.

Dozens of Ukrainians took to the streets in 22 countries to express their opposition to the French sale of Mistral warships to Russia. The contract was signed between the former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin back in 2011 before the Ukrainian crisis has erupted. The protest coincided with the  the Bastille Day devoted to the French Revolution and the struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity, highlighting how European rhetoric and actions move further apart.

Ukrainians protesting near the French embassy against a controversial Mistral deal
Ukrainians protesting near the French embassy against a controversial Mistral deal

The Nose talked to Alya Shandra, a Ukrainian activist and the organiser of “No Mistrals for Putin” about her motivations to organise a protest.

Why did you decide to protest against the French sale of warships now?

As you know, Ukraine is engaged in war in the east of the country with groups of pro-Russian rebels. There is numerous evidence that point to the Russian involvement in supporting these insurgents with weapons and money, as well as  reports that many pro-Russian rebels have actually come from Russia. This is a sign of a disguised military aggression. We went to protest against the French sale of Mistral warships because this kind of vessel is designed as a strategic weapon. Once Russia acquires them, it is very likely it will continue to build up its military base independently that can be used for actions similar to the recent land grab of Crimea. It just shows how European rhetoric and threats of sanctions are far from reality; the leading EU member continues to trade arms with Russia.

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The protest happened simultaneously in 22 countries. Is this your first experience in coordinating such a wide network of protests?

No. We organised an international protest called “Funeral Wreaths for Heroes” on 21 June to honour the soldiers who had died in Eastern Ukraine. This was our first experience of coordinating Ukrainian diaspora communities and we have managed to engage 10 cities. This time 22 countries have got involved, ranging from Canada and the United States to France, Germany and the UK. The reason why we thought about doing an international protest was to raise awareness amongst more people of Europe’s failure to impose sanctions on Russia, as well as to attract greater media attention. It paid off and the protest was covered by Ukrainian and international websites. We really hope that it will shift opinions in France regarding this controversial deal.

The contract was signed in 2011 when the situation in Ukraine was calm. Do you think that it should be revised now even if France do not have other customers for the two warships?

Well, firstly, France’s sale to Russia is highly controversial because it is violating the European Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, namely “the respect of human rights in the country of final destination”, “preservation of regional peace, security and stability” and “respect for international law”. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and allegations of supporting the rebels in Eastern Ukraine cast a shadow on France’s trading status as well.

Also, it is not true that there are no alternative buyers for Mistral warships. Claudia Major and Christian Mölling of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs have suggested that the European Union can buy them. American and Canadian senators, too, urged their countries and NATO to act as a client. It is mainly an issue of political will and whether France and the EU actually adheres to its principles of supporting peace and democracy. Selling high-tech warships to a country suspected in being involved in the current crisis in Ukraine is far from these notions.

***

The French-Russian deal resembles another controversial episode in the relationship of the two countries that came 3 years before the Mistral contract was signed – the Russian-Georgian War. Despite President’s Sarkozy efforts to mediate the conflict, Russia’s de facto annexation of the two Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is still unsolved. The sale of Mistral warships can come as another inconvenient truth about how much value the European countries give to human rights over mercantile pragmatism today.

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