Rabu, Februari 10, 2010

Russia Wants 4 Amphibs From France: French Ministry

PARIS - France has agreed to sell a first amphibious assault warship to Moscow in a deal the French defense minister said Feb. 8 that highlighted Europe's new relationship with a new Russia.

The sale of the ultra-modern Mistral-class helicopter carrier had worried Russia's neighbor Georgia and raised eyebrows among France's allies as the first sale by a NATO member of such advanced technology to Moscow.

At a joint news conference with his U.S. counterpart Robert Gates, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said the sale of the Mistral showed that Russia was now considered a partner in European security.

"We want to build a relationship of confidence and a new relationship with Russia," said Morin.

"We cannot on the one hand enlist Russia in building this security and at the same time consider that Russia has not profoundly changed since 1991," when the Soviet Union collapsed, he said.

The French defense minister argued that refusing the sale would have amounted to "pursuing trade relations and exchanges with Russia as if it were the Russia of pre-1991."

During their meeting in Paris, Morin discussed the deal with Gates, who commented tersely: "I would just say that we had a good and thorough exchange of views on it. I'll just leave it at that."

Having initially tendered for one, Russia now wants to buy up to four Mistral-class ships, a French defense ministry official said, adding that a decision on the other three would be made in the coming weeks.

The Moscow daily Moskovski Komsomolets reported Feb. 8 that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has decided to buy one Mistral from France for between 500 and 600 million euros (up to $820 million).

The Mistral, the second largest warship in the French fleet, is a 21,000-ton, 200-meter (650-foot) amphibious assault vessel that can carry heavy-lift helicopters, landing craft, tanks and up to 900 commandos.

In December, six U.S. senators expressed their concern over the proposed sale, which they said would send the message that France supports what they called Russia's "increasingly bellicose and lawless behavior".

The group included senators Jon Kyl, the number two Republican; John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Sam Brownback; James Risch; Roger Wicker; and Tom Coburn.

The senators pointed to a Russian naval commander's boast that the ship would have allowed Russian forces battling Georgia's military in August 2008 to land troops ashore in 40 minutes, against the 26 hours it took them to do so.

Ex-Soviet NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia also expressed concerns in November.

Jacques de Lajugie, head of international sales at the French defense ministry, said France faced competition for the Russian warship order from other countries.

Last year, a source close to the negotiations told AFP that Moscow was also in talks with the Damen Schelde shipyard in the Netherlands and with the Spanish shipbuilder Navantia about buying amphibious assault ships.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner last year said he was in favour of a warship sale "with precautions" to Moscow.

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