Critics say proposed sale of French Mistral ship to Russia will harm region

The French navy advertised the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship in St. Petersburg in November. France hopes to sell a copy to Russia for about $750 million.
The French navy advertised the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship in St. Petersburg in November. France hopes to sell a copy to Russia for about $750 million. (Dmitry Lovetsky/associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

PARIS -- When the French navy's 23,700-ton Mistral-class amphibious assault ship dropped anchor in St. Petersburg's frigid harbor Nov. 23, it was doing more than paying a friendly visit to the Russians.

The boxy 600-foot vessel -- an advanced helicopter carrier, command center and hospital built for power projection and landing operations -- was also advertising its many high-tech virtues with an eye on selling a copy to the Russian navy for about $750 million.

Such a deal, which the French Defense Ministry said is under negotiation, would mark the Russian military's first major arms purchase abroad in modern history. It would also be a seminal moment for France and the West. The sale would be the largest and most sophisticated by a NATO country to Russia and would dramatize the evolving role of an alliance conceived to counter Soviet military power.

The Obama administration has remained silent on the matter, in public at least, as part of an effort to improve relations with Moscow. But six Republican senators, including John McCain (Ariz.), wrote a letter in December to the French ambassador in Washington, Pierre Vimont, complaining that the sale would be inappropriate because it would suggest that France approves of Russia's conduct, which the letter called increasingly aggressive and illegal.

In particular, the letter cited Russia's refusal to adhere to all the terms of a cease-fire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the summer of 2008 to end the brief war with Georgia. Despite promises to the contrary, some Russian troops have remained in territory recognized as Georgian by most nations.

Criticism in Georgia

Georgian officials have been at the forefront of those questioning the proposed sale. Eka Tkeshelashvili, head of Georgia's National Security Council, said Tuesday that her government has campaigned against the sale on grounds that it would signal Western acceptance of a Russian presence in Georgian territory and raise the specter of Russian military pressure on other surrounding nations.

The Russian navy's commander, Vladimir S. Vysotsky, said recently that Mistral ships would be a welcome addition to his aging fleet and that had they been available in 2008, the Russians would have defeated Georgia "within 40 minutes." Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and former president, added to the jitters, telling reporters during a visit to Paris in November: "I can assure you that if we purchase this armament, we will use it wherever deemed necessary."

"They're saying, 'If we have the ship, we will consider ourselves free to use it wherever we need to,' " Tkeshelashvili said in a telephone interview. "They don't see themselves restricted in any way."

She and other critics of the sale pointed to Russia's affirmation of a right to exercise influence in neighboring nations that once were under Moscow's thumb as part of the Soviet Union and now are aspiring NATO members. The Mistral-class ships, which can carry 16 helicopters, several dozen tanks and hundreds of troops, would be ideal for military actions to exert such influence, they contend.

France defends deal

Sarkozy's government said the proposed sale was a logical extension of NATO's repeated expressions of willingness to work with Russia as a partner, not an enemy. Prime Minister Fran├žois Fillon has been a particularly vigorous champion of the deal, framing it in a context of broadened economic and political relations with Russia, including participation in strategic oil-pipeline ventures and joint automobile manufacturing projects.

"It would be impossible to call for continental stability in partnership with Russia if we refuse to sell armaments to Russia," Fillon said during Putin's visit to Paris. "A refusal would amount to contradicting our own statements."

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was no less eloquent in his defense of the negotiations. "We do not want to be prisoners of the past," he said after a negotiating session with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow.

In addition to cultivating friendship with Russia, a big factor for Fillon's zeal has been the prospect of continuing contracts for the STX shipyards at Saint-Nazaire on France's Atlantic coast, where up to 1,000 jobs are at stake at a time of rising unemployment.

The French navy has put two Mistral-class vessels into service and has a third on order, expected to be delivered next year. Some defense officials have predicted that a fourth and final ship may be ordered later. Except for the prospect of sales to Russia, no other orders are on the horizon.

Russian officials suggested that they would like to buy several vessels, pointing out that their navy sails in several seas and noting President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to modernize the Russian fleet over the next decade. According to reports from Moscow, they proposed buying one Mistral in a deal that would convey the know-how to manufacture more such ships in Russia.

Seeking to calm critics, Sarkozy's government pledged that the Mistral's most advanced electronics will not be part of any deal and that Moscow's dream of manufacturing its own Mistral-class ships will not be fulfilled. Whether the Russians will still want to buy under those terms may become clear only when Medvedev visits Paris next month, officials suggested.

Correspondent Philip P. Pan in Moscow contributed to this report.

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