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Russia-France arms deal raises concerns for neighbours

By Alla Lazareva
BBC Ukrainian Service, Paris

FS Mistral
The attack abilities of a Mistral-class ship have caused concern

A potential deal that would see France selling advanced military technology to Russia has been causing concern among former Soviet states.

Moscow is said to be getting closer to buying from the French a Mistral-class assault warship - capable of transporting and deploying up to 16 helicopters, 13 battle tanks and 450 troops - costing between $600m (£368m) and $750m.

But critics of the potential deal in nations neighbouring Russia - such as Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states - say it would dramatically increase the military threat from Russia, increasing tensions in some already difficult relations.

Nika Laliashvili, of the Georgian parliament's defence committee, has said that Georgia "strongly opposes" the sale.

Should Paris decide to go ahead with the sale, France would become the first Nato member to have chosen to sell advanced military technology to Moscow.

'Serious danger'

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin discussed the potential deal during a recent official visit to Paris.

"We are buyers, you are sellers," he told his hosts.

Nikolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin (right) stressed Russia would use the warship how it wished

"Whoever we buy it from, we will reserve the right to use it where and when we consider necessary."

And Russian generals have said that, had they had such a warship during the August 2008 conflict with Georgia, they would have been able to reach its shores within 40 minutes - rather than the 26 hours the country's navy took after setting off from their base in the Ukrainian Crimean port of Sevastopol.

But Mr Laliashvili said the deal would pose a "serious danger" to Georgia.

And his comments have been echoed by Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.

"Adding new military technology to the Black Sea... [would] not be a good idea," said Mr Paet.

Concerns have also been raised in France itself.

"If such a decision is made, we need to understand the long-term consequences it will have," Francoise Thom, an expert on the former Soviet Union at Sorbonne University in Paris, told the BBC's Ukrainian Service.

"It's obvious that such weaponry would allow Russia to mount aggression against its neighbours," she added.

"It looks like France is giving Russia a green light for new imperialistic wars."

Starved of funds

Meanwhile, Andre Glucksmann, a leading French writer and philosopher, said the deal raised the risk not only of attack, but also of blackmail by Russia.

"The countries of the Black Sea, Caspian and Baltic Sea regions are nervous," he said.

"Poland and the Baltic States should state their objections publicly, and Brussels should intervene to stop such a deal."

Retired Russian naval officers acknowledge that the Russian navy is in a very poor state.

Serhiy Blyznyukov
Rear Adm Blyznyukov says it is unclear how the ship will be deployed

The shipyard which produced the majority of Soviet aircraft carriers and missile cruisers is not even Russian; it is in Mykolayiv, in southern Ukraine.

What remains of the Russian navy is estimated to be 20 times smaller than that of the US.

Yet Russian manufacturers themselves oppose the potential purchase from France - suggesting Moscow would do better to invest the money in reinvigorating Russia's own military industrial complex, which they say has been starved of funds.

Ukrainian Rear Adm Serhiy Blyznyukov, an adviser to the Ukrainian defence minister, said it was not clear whether Russia would deploy a Mistral-class warship to the Black Sea.

The base at Sevastopol, he said, is lacking the required infrastructure - meaning Russia would have to station the warship at the base of its Northern or Pacific Fleets.

But he acknowledged that in the longer term Russia could upgrade and modernise its facilities in Sevastopol.

Another solution for Russia, he said, would be the creation of a new naval base at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, where Ukraine hopes the current Black Sea fleet will be based after Russia's lease in Crimea expires in 2017.

The Russian Defence Ministry said it was "continuing discussions" over whether to purchase a French warship. A decision is expected by the end of 2009.



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