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France is selling Vladimir Putin’s warships…to Egypt

Vive le Sevastop-- ah, ehm...vive le President al-Sisi!JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD AFP/Getty Images

France has found a new buyer for two advanced warships that were intended for Russia until Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea last year.

The Elysée palace announced Wednesday that it will sell the two Mistral-class helicopter carrying assault ships to Egypt instead, in a move that will ease the pressure on France’s public finances but raise eyebrows among its allies.

France had agreed to reimburse Russia some €950 million for the two ships after western sanctions against the Kremlin forced it to break their contract.

The Elysée didn’t say how much or when France would be paid for the ships. Nor did it mention whether there were any clauses in the new contract restricting the possible resale of the ships to Russia at a later date.

Egypt’s ruler, President (formerly General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is a controversial figure who has been roundly criticised by human rights watchdogs and neighbors after an aggressive crackdown on supporters of his Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Mursi.

But in a carefully-timed move that will improve his image in the West as he heads to the U.N.’s General Assembly in New York, the President agreed Wednesday to pardon 100 prisoners including three television journalists with the Qatar-based channel Al-Jazeera.

The U.S. had suspended arms sales to Egypt after al-Sisi’s coup d’état against Mursi in 2013. President Barack Obama lifted the suspension in March, with the administration having come round to the view that al-Sisi had “restored democracy” and stopped the country’s descent into chaos.

After the coup, Mursi was tried and sentenced to death on charges of espionage, terrorism and other offenses in a trial widely criticized as rigged. The sentence has not yet been carried out. Egypt’s courts have handed down hundreds more death sentences to Mursi’s followers in the Muslim Brotherhood in what has been seen as an effort to intimidate any budding opposition (although many of them have been commuted).

Once delivered, the two ships will be by far the most powerful ships in the Egyptian fleet, the world’s seventh-largest, and will supersede the obsolete Soviet-built assault ships it currently uses. The Egyptian navy’s focus has generally been on defending the approaches to the Suez Canal, but regional conflicts in Yemen and Libya have expanded the challenges it faces.