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In A NATO First, France Agrees To Sell Warship To Russia

A French Navy Mistral amphibious assault ship docks on the Neva River in central St. Petersburg in November 2009.
(RFE/RL) -- French defense officials say France has agreed to sell Russia a technologically advanced battleship and is considering a request to sell Moscow three more.

If the sale is completed, it would be the first such arms sale between Russia and a member of NATO.

News of the sale has raised concern among other NATO members and some of Russia's neighbors, especially Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in 2008.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy approved the sale of the Mistral-class assault ship after months of discussions.

Jacques de Lajugie, of the French arms agency DGA, said Russian naval officials have now submitted a request for three more ships, and that the request is "being examined."

David Darchiashvili, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee for European Integration, said the planned sale is "a matter of concern for Russia's immediate neighbors and I think it should be a matter of concern more broadly, in the context of regional stability, balance, and security. And this has to be the subject of discussions for NATO and EU member states."

He added that he expects many countries in the region will object. "In Russia's hands this weapon is not just an ordinary one, as it would be in the case of any peaceful country that was concerned about its own security and defense," he said. "I expect that there will be a lot of objections to that [deal], and not just on our part."

Lithuania wrote to France in November asking for clarification of the situation and details of the ship's ammunition.

Offensive Capabilities

The Mistral is able to anchor in coastal waters and deploy troops on land, a capacity the aging Russian Navy lacks. The 200-meter-long ship can also carry 16 attack helicopters and dozens of armored vehicles.

Last year, Russia's naval chief said 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 Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels did in 26 hours.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin held a meeting in Paris with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates today and said that France hopes to contribute to European stability.

Morin said he "[understood] that for some Central and Eastern European countries...the wounds are still there," but added that France "[wants] to develop a relationship of trust with Russia."

Gates would only say that he and Morin had discussed the sale and had "a good and thorough exchange of views."

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said U.S. "friends and allies in Eastern Europe are clearly nervous about it, especially Georgia…with good reason." He added, "They fear these new warships would give Russia additional capabilities to once again threaten Georgia from the Black Sea."

France rejoined NATO's military command in 2009 after a 43-year absence. President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO's military structure in 1966, saying it undermined France's sovereignty.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report. With news agency material

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