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Medvedev To Visit Paris, Talk Energy

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaking to the French weekly Paris Match.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaking to the French weekly Paris Match.

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Talks on buying a French-made helicopter carrier, energy tie-ups and Iran will be amongst the priorities when President Dmitry Medvedev travels to France for a three-day state visit this week, a Kremlin official said.

In a visit that begins on March 1, Medvedev will be hosted at the Elysee Palace by his French counterpart Nikolas Sarkozy, one of the most vocal Western advocates of tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Moscow has so far been less enthusiastic.

Sarkozy has sought to improve ties with Moscow and Washington while retaining his country's strong influence in the European Union. The French president brokered a ceasefire deal that ended Georgia's five-day 2008 war with Russia, which erupted months after Medvedev was sworn in as President.

The two presidents will discuss Russia's interest in buying a 21,300-ton amphibious assault ship from France -- a sale which has alarmed Washington and NATO's East European allies.

A senior Kremlin official said no final agreement on a purchase of a Mistral-class warship - the first big arms sale by a NATO country to Russia - should be expected during the trip.

"Military-technical cooperation will be discussed, including the possible supply of a Mistral amphibious assault ship. But no document will (be signed) - we did not set such a goal," the official said, talking on condition of anonymity.

Regional Alarm

The Mistral is marketed by French naval firm DCNS and estimated to cost 300-500 million euros ($404.3 million to $673.8 million). It can carry helicopters, troops, armored vehicles and tanks and Georgia fears Moscow could deploy such a vessel against it in a future conflict.

The head of Russia's navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, said in September that with a Mistral, Russia could have reached its military goal against Georgia in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.

Military experts say much depends on how much advanced technology France might include in the ship and the Kremlin official identified this as one of the key points of discussion.

"We'd like to buy this kind of (helicopter carrier) and maybe continue cooperating with the French on technology," the Kremlin official said. Russia would also like to build another three Mistrals itself under licence, he added.

The Baltic states, which split from the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the NATO military alliance, are also worried about the Mistral sale and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has raised the issue with his French counterpart Herve Morin.

Lithuania last week said it was assured by Paris that any warships sold would be stripped of military technology but without the technology the ship may not interest the Russians.

Iran Talks

On Iran, the Kremlin official said he did not expect the two presidents to "delve into the details" of any sanctions package but would discuss cooperation at the U.N. Security Council.

Russia, which does significant trade with Iran, said last week it would not accept "crippling" sanctions against Tehran but has not said what form it might support.

Warmer relations between Paris and Moscow under Sarkozy have helped business between the two nations. Further agreements on energy cooperation under which Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom will increase its exports to France will be inked during the visit, the Kremlin official added.

Medvedev signaled in an interview with French weekly magazine Paris Match that he would also revisit his plan for a new, binding security treaty for Europe to supplant NATO.

The proposal, which he first aired in Germany in 2008, has generated little interest from European states, some of whom say it is a rehash of Soviet-era attempts to draw Europe from the United States and give Moscow veto power in its security.