France Nears Big Warship Sale to Russia

The Russian navy has its eyes on a new helicopter-carrying warship. The impressive model that they want to buy could have let Russia drive Georgian forces from the north Caucausus last year in a flash,says Admiral Vladimir Vysotski, the navy chief.

And who makes this great vessel ? France. In Moscow yesterday, two ministers --  Bernard Kouchner of Foreign Affairs and HervĂ© Morin of Defence -- settled the outline of a deal to sell a 700 million euro Mistral-class helicopter-carrier to the Russians.This would be the first sale of a major western weapon to Russia since World War Two, so President Sarkozy will have some explaining to do with Washington and the Nato allies.

Paris is optimistic. Kouchner, a lifelong human rights activist, waxed enthusiastic about the imminent sale. "This political agreement should be reached, I think, but it's not up to me to decide ... concerning this wonderful warship," he told Moscow Echo radio station.

Moscow is aiming to order one or two Mistrals from the French naval dockyards, plus the technology to put together their own versions. The ship, which is France's second biggest after the Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered carrier, is capable of carrying more than a dozen helicopters and 470 infantry along with dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles.

Moscow wants the ship to supplement its antique surface-fleet. It is just the thing to project Russian power around the world -- and close to home. Russia's Black Sea neighbours are appalled and Admiral Vysotski helpfully spelt out why. Talking about Russia's ejection of Georgian troops from the rebel province of South Ossetia last August, he said that a Mistral "would have meant that our Black Sea Fleet could have accomplished its mission in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours by road."

France, you may recall, claims credit for stopping that conflict. Sarkozy flew to Moscow and Tbilisi and brokered a ceasefire after three days of fighting in August last year.

Dutch and Spanish firms are also bidding for the Russian deal but the French are confident that they have it sewn up. But there are obvious hurdles. The United States jealously guards the export of its technology, especially of a military kind. It is pretty likely that despite French expertise, the Mistral class carries a load of US patents. So if France is determined to go ahead, Washington will become involved.

The Obama administration would have to decide whether it will accept what would in Cold War times have been an unthinkable deal in the interest of the famous US-Russian reset button. Washington is unlikely to be happy about a western ally giving a helping hand to the Kremlin to flex Russian muscles on the high seas. Whatever happens, Moscow has a good chance of driving a wedge into the Nato alliance over the affair.

The sale would be a nice boost to the French arms business after last month's provisional agreement by Brazil to buy 36 Rafale fighters plus the technology to build them.

But before everyone piles in against French "merchants of death", here is last year's  table of suppliers. The USA was top with 49 percent of the world military export market. Britain was second with a 15 percent share. Russia scored eight percent and France seven percent.


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