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Russia Eyes Landmark Purchase Of French Warship

General Nikolai Makarov
ULAN BATOR (Reuters) -- Russia wants to buy from France an advanced warship which can launch amphibious assaults, a general has said.

The Kremlin has made re-equipping Russia's 1.1 million-strong armed forces a priority after last year's war with Georgia showed serious problems with outdated hardware and inadequate electronic equipment.

General Nikolai Makarov, the chief of the general staff, told reporters during a state visit to Mongolia that Moscow wanted to buy a 21,300-ton Mistral-class helicopter carrier and might jointly build several more with France.

The ship can be used to launch amphibious assaults or as a mobile command-and-control center. It would be Russia's biggest one-off purchase of weapons abroad.

"We are considering a possibility of buying such a ship in France, and arranging the joint output of vessels of the same class in the future," Makarov said.

"The talk at this stage is about one, but we want to launch joint production to make at least a series of four or five of these. We hope to agree on our contractual obligations by year-end."

Makarov declined to give the cost of the carrier -- an amphibious assault ship able to carry helicopters, personnel, armed vehicles, and tanks for thousands of miles overseas, but analysts estimated it at 300 million euros.

A Ship Russia 'Doesn't Need'

Some analysts questioned the purchase of a ship they said was too expensive for Russia's strained budget and unnecessary for its navy. The French Navy operates two of the ships and plans a third.

"Mistral is an expedition ship for colonial countries," said Konstantin Makiyenko from Centre for Strategy and Technology Analysis think tank. "This is a ship which Russia does not need and which will rob resources from other more useful projects,"

Makiyenko said Russia's biggest arms purchase abroad so far was buying drones from Israel in a deal totalling between $50 million and $100 million.

The five-day war with Georgia last August, launched to repel Tbilisi's attempt to retake the rebel province of South Ossetia, also presented Russia with the challenge of trying to control the Black Sea coast, where NATO warships appeared during the conflict.

Despite a peace deal mediated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, tensions remain high in the region, viewed by the West as a key energy transit route from the Caspian to Europe.

Tbilisi reacted calmly to Russia's plans to purchase a Mistral-class warship, which are marketed by French naval concern DCNS, a quarter owned by defense electronics group Thales.

"There is no country, whether that's a NATO member country or another country, that would be restricted in any way from having a business relationship with Russia," National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili told Reuters.

Makarov also said Russia could consider buying in France a small number of FELIN modular infantry combat suits combining weapons, communication, and positioning devices.

In 2004, Sagem Defense Systems won a contract to supply them for the French Army.

"In principle, it is in many respects better than our own [equipment]," he said.

Makarov said the purchase of FELINs should send a strong signal to domestic arms producers, who have failed to meet the needs of the armed forces.

"Our producers do not understand what we want from them," he said.