PARIS – France has agreed to sell Russia an advanced amphibious warship and is considering a Russian request for three more, French defense officials said Monday. It would be the first major arms deal between Russia and a NATO member.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy approved the sale of one Mistral assault ship after months of discussions, but then Russian naval officials submitted a request for three more, said Jacques de Lajugie, head of international development at the French arms agency DGA.
"We are in the process of examining" this request, de Lajugie said at a news conference, predicting a decision in the coming weeks. He said the new request came not at the "political level" but from the general staff of the Russian Navy.
No details about price were released.
The Mistral can anchor in coastal waters and deploy troops on land, a capacity the Russian navy now lacks. Russia's navy chief said last year that a ship like the Mistral would have allowed the Russian navy to mount a much more efficient action in the Black Sea during the Georgia-Russia war. He said the French ship would take just 40 minutes to do the job that the Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels did in 26 hours.
The deal is richly symbolic for Russia, seeking to modernize an aging navy reliant on Soviet-era technology and to project its power abroad more effectively — and more impressively. The sale has alarmed some of Russia's former Soviet bloc neighbors, including those now in NATO, especially after the Russia-Georgia war in 2008.
Possessing a Mistral, which can carry 16 attack helicopters and dozens of armored vehicles, would significantly increase the Russian military's capability to mount quick offensives. France sent a Mistral, which weighs 23,700 tons and is 980 feet long, to visit St. Petersburg last year in a clear sign of interest in a potential sale.
France's Defense Minister Herve Morin, meeting in Paris with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said Monday that France hopes to contribute to European stability.
"I understand that for some central and eastern European countries, that the wounds are still there. France wants a new relationship and that means it needs to go through new exchanges," he told reporters.
Gates said he and Morin discussed the French warship sale to Russia and had "a good and thorough exchange of views." He would not comment further.
NATO members and Russia have had some small, country-to-country technology deals in the past but this would be the first sale of a major piece of equipment by a NATO nation to Moscow.
"The Mistral is packed with electronics, it also serves as a command ship and a communications hub. That will allow the Russia to obtain modern naval technologies," Alexander Golts, an independent Russian military analyst, said in a telephone interview.
"The Mistral would offer a capability to project power to distant areas, something that both France and Russia like to have," Golts said.
Some other analysts have been skeptical that buying Mistral will help the Russian navy modernize because the ship sold to Russia may be stripped of its most sensitive and valuable systems.
"I believe that it's not a good idea to sell such ship to a country that has occupied another nation's territory," Temur Yakobashvili, a Georgian cabinet minister for reintegration who is in charge of issues related to separatist regions, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview after the French announcement.
Russian and NATO officials did not immediately comment Monday on the French announcement.
Among outstanding questions in the deal are where the Mistral would be built, de Lajugie said.
Russian officials have repeatedly said they want the technology, not just the ships. They emphasized that Russia wants to buy the first ship and build more under license, something France has reportedly been hesitant to allow.