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Former Soviet states jittery as Russia eyes French warship

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-11-30

Russian PM Vladimir Putin heads to France for a visit aimed at improving economic ties. But his trip sparked some concern amid reports of plans by Moscow to buy a French warship that would significantly boost Russia’s military capabilities.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin heads to France on Thursday for a two-day visit aimed at improving bilateral cooperation in the auto and energy industries. But his trip has set off alarm bells in some parts of Europe amid reports that Moscow also has plans to purchase a French-made warship that would significantly boost Russia’s military capabilities. 

Russian and French officials have confirmed that the two nations are negotiating the purchase of a Mistral warship and a licence to produce at least four others in an unprecedented transfer of military technology from a NATO power. Moscow has long remained the sole producer of its military hardware.

The 'Swiss-army knife' of warships

The Mistral, which can carry 15 helicopters, a thousand troops, landing craft and tanks, is designed to transport an amphibious assault force to an area of conflict quickly.

“It’s nicknamed the Swiss-army knife because it has so many different functions,” FRANCE 24’s international editor, Armen Georgian, says of the warship.

The commander of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Vyssotski, has said that if the military had used the Mistral during its August 2008 conflict with Georgia, the Black Sea fleet could have deployed their troops in 40 minutes instead of the 26 hours it took to do so.

French daily Le Figaro quotes Alex Rondell, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that the Mistral purchase is merely Moscow’s latest attempt to regain its status as a superpower and reassert control over its former Soviet satellites. He, for one, has no doubts as to Russia’s plans for the warship.

“The Mistral is a formidable assault ship for attacking Georgia or the Baltic countries,” he said, adding that the potential deal was like France “giving a gun to a bandit”.

“This is why we are afraid,” Rondell said.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told journalists on Tuesday that his country wanted to know if the potential sale would include “top military technology". Lithuanian foreign ministry spokesman Rolandas Kacinskas on Wednesday told AFP that Vilnius was also seeking clarification from France, on "exactly what kind of equipment it plans to sell and what it can be used for".

Arms for arbitration? 

Georgian says France is trying to calm these fears by emphasising that it is not selling a fully weaponised, battle-ready warship. But the negotiations do show that Paris is building an unprecedented strategic partnership with Russia on many levels.

Le Figaro quotes one French official close to the talks as saying that certain concessions must be made if France, and the rest of the world, want the Kremlin’s cooperation on some thorny global issues.

The unnamed official said that Europe cannot hope to build a stable continent in partnership with Moscow and expect its help on the big questions, like dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and yet refuse to sell Russia arms.
“That would be a contradiction,” he said.


Date created : 2009-11-26