More than 400 Russian Navy sailors arrived in France on Monday for training to operate Russia’s two planned Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, according to several press reports.
Training ship Smolny arrived in the port Saint-Nazaire with two crews of 200 to start training to man the two ships the Russians bought in 2011 as part of a $1.53 billion deal between Russian defense exporting company Rosoboronexport and French shipbuilder DCNS.
The first ship — Vladivostok — is expected to deliver later this year. The second ship — Sevastopol — is slated to join the Russian fleet in 2015.
The 21,000-ton ships can field 20 helicopters and has a well deck to deploy landing craft. The ship can carry up to 450 troops for extended journeys and 900 for short trips.
The ships have been modified from the original French design to accommodate the larger Russian helicopters and for operations in the Arctic.
The arrival of the trainees comes as tensions between NATO member nations and Russia have been the highest in a generation over the forced annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine by the Russians.
Sanctions from the U.S. and European Union countries threatened to scuttle the deal, but earlier this month French President Francois Hollande said the deal would move forward.
The sale of the two amphibious ships was already controversial in the Black Sea region. Countries like Georgia — which went to war with Russia in 2008 — worried that the purchase of the ships were part of a plus up of forces in the Black Sea.
The Russians have said they don’t have any intentions to base the ship in the Black Sea.
“The Navy’s Command has made no changes to its original plans for the Mistral ships. Infrastructures for them are being built in Vladivostok. No amendments have been made,” a Russian Navy spokesperson said on Friday.