France agrees to arm Russia with assault ships

France's agreement to sell amphibious assault ships to Russia raises concerns from the US and former Soviet satellites, including Georgia.

Russia has agreed to buy four French Mistral amphibious assault ships, like the one seen here on an official visit to St. Petersburg, Russia in November 2009, for its Navy.

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France is defending its approval of warship sales to Russia, amid concerns from the US and former Soviet republics.

If completed, the deal would be the first major military sale by a NATO member to Russia, and would significantly boost the Russian Navy's capabilities. (Click here for a graphic on Russian naval bases from the French magazine Le Figaro).

One Russian military official last year publicly noted that warships like France's Mistral would have helped the Russian military deploy more quickly during its August 2008 invasion of Georgia. Russia's quest for a beefed-up military began soon after that invasion revealed internal deficiencies, the Monitor has reported.

News reports Monday said that France had agreed to sell at least one, and possibly four, Mistral amphibious assault ships worth up to $680 million each.

Reuters reported that other NATO members and former Soviet republics, such as Lithuania and Georgia, have expressed concern about the deal. The assault ships are able to carry helicopters, troops, armored vehicles, and tanks. This advanced technology could potentially be used against NATO members or small, non-NATO Russian neighbors such as Georgia.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told his French counterpart in Paris on Monday that the US was concerned about the ship sale, reports The New York Times, although there is reportedly little, if anything, the US can do to block the deal.

President Nicolas Sarkozy defended the deal in his conversations with Gates, reported Russian news agency Ria Novosti. "One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don't treat it as one," Mr. Sarkozy was quoted saying.

The Washington Times called the French announcement a "diplomatic slap" to Gates, and noted that US senators, including former Republican presidential nominee John McCain, have publicly opposed the deal.

Some in Russia have also criticized the deal, complaining that Russia should build its own warships instead of relying on foreign purchases. The Russian daily Pravda ran a commentary last November titled, "Russia Has No Reason To Buy Cumbersome and Useless French Warship." See here for the original in Russian.

A blogger for the Economist, writing under the column "Charlemagne," said that French doubts about the deal were "overcome by the 'necessity' of finding work for the French naval shipyards of Saint-Nazaire." The Russians have lately stuck to the line that the ships are for peacekeeping missions.

Defense budgets have been soaring since former Russian president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power, the Monitor has reported. But in this purchase of warships, some analysts foresee a permanent sticking point. "Buying battle ship is not like buying basket of apples," one Russian analyst says in this video from Russia Today:

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