LISBON, Portugal — France‘s decision on Wednesday to halt the delivery of an advanced helicopter assault ship to Russia even at the risk of jeopardizing a $1.6 billion contract shows just how exasperated Western countries are becoming by the chaos Vladimir Putin’s followers are sowing in Ukraine.
«Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine contravene the fundamental principles of security in Europe,» said a statement Wednesday from the office of French President Francois Hollande. That meant the conditions for the ship’s delivery had not been meet, it said.
France had long resisted urging from other NATO nations to halt the sale, insisting it was contractually bound to supply the high-tech warship on schedule by November.
Some 400 Russian military personnel are already in the French port of Saint-Nazaire training on the near-completed Vladivostok, the first of two such ships — designed to carry attack helicopters, tank landing craft and anti-aircraft missiles — that France has been building for the Russian navy.
Hollande’s decision is highly controversial in France because of its potential impact on jobs in the shipbuilding and defense sectors at a time when the country is suffering economic stagnation and record unemployment.
“The French will now be expecting other European countries to make potentially painful choices.”
However, with NATO leaders gathering for a summit in Wales this week warning that Russia now poses a military threat in Europe, and with the European Union poised to introduce new economic sanctions against Moscow, there was enormous pressure on Paris to suspend the warship sale.
The French will now be expecting other European countries to make potentially painful choices because of the sanctions the EU is scheduled to adopt by Friday.
Options under discussion include Moscow’s further isolation from international financial markets, cuts in technology transfers, and a break in cultural and sporting ties.
Meanwhile, NATO’s two-day summit starting Thursday outside the Welsh city of Newport will approve an upgrade of rapid response forces and other measures designed to deter Russia from aggression against the eastern members of the alliance.
«At the summit, we will ensure that the alliance remains ready, able and willing to defend all allies against any attack,» NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday.
«Any potential aggressor knows that if they even started to think about attacking a NATO ally they would meet not only national troops from that specific NATO ally but they would meet NATO,» he told a news conference in Brussels.
NATO’s revived focus on territorial defense is providing some comfort to exposed members of the alliance such as Estonia, which received a visit from US President Barack Obama on Wednesday ahead of the summit.
He urged NATO to help strengthen Ukraine’s military, saying the alliance must hold the door open to new members to resist what he called Russian aggression.
«NATO must make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces,” he said. “We must do more to help other NATO partners, including Georgia and Moldova, strengthen their defenses as well.”
But that does little to help Ukraine in the short term.
France and Germany blocked Ukraine’s bid to join NATO in 2008 under pressure from Putin. An announcement last week that Kyiv wants to renew its application met a less-than-enthusiastic response from the West.
For now, Ukraine lies outside the alliance’s all-for-one, one-for-all security umbrella.
The government’s appeals for military support have been limited so far to a few nations supplying non-lethal equipment, such as helmets and first-aid kits, and offers to treat wounded soldiers.
Nevertheless, the heightening of military action by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine has engendered some degree of unity among NATO allies who for months remained divided over how to respond.
There’s agreement on the need to concentrate on the core collective territorial defense functions of the 65-year-old alliance after its post-Cold War focus on far-flung operations in Afghanistan, in airspace over Libya and along the Somali coastline.
Allies who had been wary of further provoking Russia have now been won over by the call to bolster NATO’s eastern defenses.
«The duty to provide mutual support — is not something that just exists on paper, but is also something which must be given real life,» German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month on a visit to Latvia. «Everything must be done so that we have the infrastructure in the Baltic states to react quickly.»
In concrete terms, the NATO summit is expected to sign off on a «Readiness Action Plan» drawn up by the alliance’s top commander in Europe, US Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove.
That includes increasing the readiness of the elite NATO Response Force, which currently comprises around 13,000 troops, and creating a spearhead unit of around 5,000 within the NRF that could deploy within hours to deal with threats to Eastern European allies.
Germany and others have balked at deploying NATO troops permanently to bases in Eastern Europe, fearing that would infringe a 1990s agreement with Russia that more hawkish allies complain has already been effectively torn up by Putin.
Instead, command and logistics units, weapons, ammunition and other equipment will be pre-positioned in the east. That, says Fogh Rasmussen, will allow vanguard forces to «travel light and strike hard.»
Breedlove says the sort of unconventional tactics that Russia has exploited in Ukraine, such as undercover agitators and military in unmarked uniforms, will trigger a NATO military response if used in the Baltic states or other allied countries.
NATO will also increase the frequency of large-scale exercises in eastern members, like the Steadfast Javelin II maneuvers which began Tuesday and involve 2,000 allied troops in Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Fogh Rasmussen will have more trouble persuading the 28 allies to back the other plank of the plan to re-energize NATO — reversing years of decline in military spending.
Last year, only Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US met the alliance’s agreed target of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on NATO defense. Overall, the US accounts for almost three-quarters of all NATO defense expenditure.
While NATO spending has shrunk, Putin has been pumping money into modernizing the Russian military — the defense budget is estimated to have risen by up to 50 percent over the past five years.
Although some allies — Poland, the Baltic states, Norway, Romania and the Czech Republic — have said they will boost spending, others are reluctant to divert scarce budgetary resources away from health, education and social security.
Fear of the economic impact has also limited the scope of Europe’s sanctions against Moscow, but the Russian incursions into southern Ukraine provoked European Union leaders to agree Saturday to step up putative measures.
Experts are working on the details of the new sanctions package expected to be adopted by Friday. Among the measures under consideration are bans on technology to Russia’s vital gas sector, excluding Russian government bonds from European markets, and ejecting Russian banks from the SWIFT international transaction system.
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A ban on sporting ties, including a boycott of the World Cup, has also been under discussion.
Exclusion from SWIFT, put forward by Britain, could be extremely disruptive to Russian business and mark a significant escalation of the sanctions. Several EU members have been unwilling to go that far thanks to fear of Russian retaliation.
Moscow has already cautioned that it could respond to more sanctions by cutting off the gas supplies on which many EU countries depend as winter approaches, banning more European products or increasing its military action on the ground.
Putin reportedly boasted his troops could be in Kyiv in two weeks during a conversation with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Moscow has already announced a review of its military doctrine to counter NATO’s measures.
So far, Putin has been prepared to raise the stakes every time the West has taken steps against Russia. In NATO’s most important summit for years, Western leaders this week will have to ask how far they are prepared to go to match him.