France Plan To Sell Warship To Russia Fuels Concern

France is considering the sale of a Mistral-class warship to Russia. If the deal goes through, it would be the first time a NATO member has sold advanced military equipment to Russia. The proposed sale has France's NATO allies and Russia's neighbors worried.

France is on the verge of selling a warship to Russia. If the deal goes through, it would be the first time a NATO country has sold advanced military equipment to Russia.

The possible sale of the Mistral-class ship, which is designed to anchor in coastal waters and deploy troops on land, is making waves within the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

The ships, which cost an estimated $547 million to $684 million, can carry 16 attack helicopters and dozens of armored vehicles.

The U.S. stance on the potential sale of the ship — and Russia's request for three more — was evident after a meeting in Paris earlier this month of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and French officials. Gates' tone and terse statement about the deal reflected Washington's displeasure.

"We had a good and thorough exchange of views on it. And I'll just leave it at that," Gates told reporters.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin defended the sale, saying it was part of a new French attitude toward Russia.

"France wants a new relationship with Russia," Morin said. "We can't on one hand claim to be partners with the new Russia, and on the other hand treat it like it was the old Soviet Union."

Officials say French President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval in principle to sell Moscow a ship is only one part of a much broader French charm offensive toward Russia.

Mindful of ever-closer ties between Berlin and Moscow, Paris is playing on its long history of cultural and intellectual relations with Russia to win more business.

Just Business

And that's just what the Mistral-class ship sale is — a business deal, says Arnaud Dubien of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

"It's also an important symbol," Dubien said. "It's a message that Russia is not an enemy. Twenty years after the Cold War, we can do more than just buy their natural gas."

Dubien believes the sale will mark the end of a taboo for the West — and for Russia — because it's the first time the Russian military is buying major armaments from a NATO country.

In the St. Nazaire shipyard on the Atlantic coast of France, the deafening sounds of drills and sandblasters fill the air as workers put the finishing touches on a mammoth, 17-story cruise ship.

Some of the world's most famous ocean liners, including the Normandy and the Queen Mary, have been built in St. Nazaire's historic shipyard. This is also where the Russian-bound Mistral-class ship would be built.

A spokesman for the town's mayor, Charles Nicol, says St. Nazaire needs contracts like the one with Russia to keep it from going the way of most big European shipyards.

"At the moment, everybody is speaking about this terrible future. And we can't believe it. Nobody wants to see the shipyards finishing his life," Nicol said.

Expanding Russia's Arsenal

In Paris, Sarkozy is reportedly receiving conflicting advice from within his government on whether to go ahead with the sale of the ship to Russia. If it is sold, French officials say it would be without its advanced electronic systems.

But even without the extras, the Mistral-class ship would be an impressive piece of military hardware for the Russians, says Pierre Tran, a reporter with Defense News.

"The French official view is that it is designed and built on commercial ship standards," Tran said. "But the fact is it is equipped for swift landing and reception of armored vehicles, helicopters and troops."

The deal has upset NATO members like Estonia and Romania, and other countries on Russia's periphery. The issue is particularly sensitive for Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008 after a conflict erupted over the territory of South Ossetia.

A Russian admiral recently commented that having the French-built ship would have allowed Russia's forces to invade Georgia in 40 minutes instead of two days.

The Georgian ambassador to France, Mamuka Kudava, is trying to stop the sale.

"The Russians themselves very publicly stated they will use this highly sophisticated Mistral ship for whatever reasons they might need it for," Kudava said. "That means that in the Black Sea area, Moscow will have even larger and higher capacity of conducting military operations."

Kudava says if Russia does get the Mistral-class ship, the balance of power in Europe will be altered.

But French Prime Minister Francois Fillon is eager to create jobs and win export contracts to stimulate the French economy. Fillon hopes to cement the ship deal in early March when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits Paris. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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