The Russians training on a Mistral-class warship have left the French shipyard of Saint-Nazaire without the vessel, after months of speculation over whether Paris would deliver the helicopter carrier to Moscow in the face of intense NATO pressure.
A ship carrying approximately 400 sailors who have been training for months on the French-built Mistral were seen leaving the western port on Thursday, French media reported.
It remains unclear if France will ever fulfill its contract with Russia.
Their ship, the Smolny, headed out to sea shortly after 12 noon, and was presumably headed back to Russia. The sailors were spotted stocking up at local retailers this week.
The sailors have been training since June on board the “Vladivostok”, one of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers adapted for the Russian navy according to the terms of a €1.2 billion ($1.58 billion) deal signed in 2011.
The deal has been subject to months of intense deliberation, with Paris coming under intense pressure from its NATO allies to scrap delivery of the ships due to Russia’s alleged involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.
President François Hollande suspended the delivery of the first of the two ships “until further notice” last month citing lack of progress in Ukraine, where Russia is accused of arming pro-Moscow rebels in the country’s east.
His defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, later said the ships might “never be delivered”.
Russia has warned Paris of "serious" consequences if France reneges on the deal.
Last month, Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov told the ITAR-TASS news agency that if France ultimately fails to fulfil its side of the deal, Russia will “go to court and impose fines”.
France’s naval industry considers the Mistral one of its engineering jewels, with the navy dubbing the ship the “Swiss army knife”.
It is designed to carry as many as a dozen assault helicopters, sixty armoured vehicles, and a dozen tanks. It can also host up to 700 troops and a full hospital.