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Sale of French warships to Russia raises alarm in NATO

France is selling at least two warships to Russia in an unprecedented military deal that has angered the United States and other NATO countries.

The contract for the Mistral-class helicopter carriers, worth at least $1.3 billion, is Russia’s biggest military purchase since the end of the Cold War and the first between Moscow and a NATO country.

The French reaction to the sale was jubilation, with the presidential palace’s website declaring, “France’s naval industry has won.”

However, the deal also has provoked disquiet in some of Russia’s Eastern European neighbors.

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Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene criticized the decision to sell “extremely complex offensive weaponry to a third party, a country where the level of democracy is not one we can feel safe about.”

“It’s a big mistake,” she said.

The amphibious assault ships being sold to Russia — it may buy as many as four — can hold 16 helicopters, dozens of tanks, 70 armored vehicles and 450 troops for up to six months. For shorter periods, the number of troops rises to 700.

The vessels can also carry landing barges and hovercraft, allowing for the rapid deployment of vehicles, tanks and soldiers from ship to shore, enhancing Russia’s control over coastal regions and striking power in conflicts like the one with Georgia in 2008.

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There are a 69-bed hospital on board, two-bed cabins for the sailors and a fully equipped sports hall. When the French sent a Mistral to St. Petersburg in November 2009 to shop it to the Russians, Le Figaro newspaper reported that one French sailor described it as the “Rolls-Royce of warships.”

The vessels will be built by a French shipyard consortium in partnership with Russia’s state-run United Shipbuilding Corp. Building will begin at the Saint-Nazaire docks in western France in 2011, with the first ship to be delivered at the end of 2013 and the second a year later. It is estimated that each ship will cost about $655 million.

The French overcame competition from Spanish, Dutch and South Korean firms. A major attraction of the French bid was that it was free of American components, licenses or technology, Russian officials said.

The deal was struck after tortuous negotiations lasting 18 months between Paris and Moscow. Serious talks began in 2009 shortly after France rejoined NATO’s military network; French President Charles de Gaulle had withdrawn the country’s forces from the alliance’s command in 1966.

A sticking point in the negotiations had been France’s initial refusal to agree to the ships to be fitted with state-of-the-art command-and-control technology.

The Russians told journalists that their “interests in this area had been satisfied” and that Russia would receive the technology to produce the Mistral’s command-and-control system itself.

In an interview with the Izvestia newspaper on Monday, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov acknowledged that Russia has “some need for foreign technology because, in certain areas of armament, we unfortunately lag behind. Our military equipment does not correspond to the demands of our age.”

He added that Russia doesn’t have a history of manufacturing Mistral-type ships and that “to catch up now would be pointless.”

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North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries along the Baltic Sea are said to be worried, notably Poland and the Baltic states. An unnamed diplomat from one of these countries told Le Monde newspaper: “The damage to France’s image is considerable. The capital of political sympathy that Nicolas Sarkozy has garnered since 2007 in these regions has disappeared with this Mistral business.”

Attempting to allay such fears, Nikolai Makarov, head of Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff, told the Moscow Times that the ships would be deployed in the Pacific to defend the Kuril Islands, whose ownership is fiercely disputed by Japan.

Washington has also expressed disapproval of the deal. Le Monde said an American diplomatic telegram given to WikiLeaks showed that President Obama’s administration viewed the sale as a “bad political signal [which] detracted from President Sarkozy’s personal engagement to resolve the Georgian crisis of 2008.”

Sarkozy claimed credit for brokering a cease-fire and a Russian withdrawal from Georgia after Moscow sent troops deep into the country during a five-day war in August 2008.

Willsher is a special correspondent.


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