Russia has agreed to buy at least two French assault ships in a deal that would boost Moscow’s deployment abilities — shrugging off opposition from the US and some of Russia’s neighbors.
It’s one of the largest, if not the largest, military deal between a NATO country and Moscow and a key part of Russia’s efforts to modernize its military. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is mindful of the economic and strategic payoffs in closer ties with Russia, despite diplomatic concern about Russia’s intentions.
The Kremlin said in a statement on Friday that it “has made its choice” to buy two Mistral-class ships, which cost about 400 million euros (US$525 million) to 500 million euros each. Sarkozy issued his own statement celebrating the deal.
France and Russia have been in talks about the sale for months, but negotiations had dragged on amid disputes about how many ships would be built and where, and how much of the sensitive technology France would share.
The Mistral, which could carry as many as 16 helicopters and dozens of armored vehicles, would allow Russia to land hundreds of troops quickly on foreign soil.
The prospect has alarmed human rights activists and Georgia, which fought a brief war against Russia in 2008, as well as the ex-Soviet Baltic nations in NATO, worried about Russia’s sway over its neighbors.
US diplomatic cables leaked this month on the WikiLeaks Web site reveal tensions that the warship deal provoked between Washington and Paris.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised concern that it would send the wrong message to US allies in central and eastern Europe.
During talks in February with French Defense Minister Herve Morin, Gates “observed that Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services,” according to one cable.
Morin countered that the West needed to trust Russia more and that “this single ship would not make any difference with respect to Russian capabilities, as Russia’s naval production ability was severely degraded.”
France was seen as the leading contender for the contract, though Russian officials said they were also looking at similar ships built by Spain and the Netherlands.
Russian news reports said a key disputed issue in the talks with France on selling the ship had been Russia’s demand that it be fitted with the proprietary state-of-the art command and control system more advanced than the technology the Russian navy has.
The deal announced on Friday probably means the countries will build two ships in France and then two more in Russia.
French companies DCNS and STX and Russia’s OSK will build the first two ships, and the agreement “should be extended by the construction of two additional units,” Sarkozy’s statement said.
The deal represents 1,000 jobs over four years in France, it said.
France has said it was considering a request to build additional warships under license in Russian shipyards.