France, Russia agree unprecedented warship deal
France finalised an unprecedented deal Thursday to sell four powerful modern warships to Russia, in a move that will worry some East European and post-Soviet nations.
Meeting at the windswept French seaside resort of Deauville ahead of the G8 summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev said the protracted contract negotiations were all but over.
"All talks have been completed. The contract will be signed shortly," a visibly pleased Medvedev told reporters after bilateral talks with his host.
"The elements of the signing have been resolved. The signature will take place within a fortnight," Sarkozy confirmed.
Under the plan, two Mistral-class ships -- helicopter carriers designed to act as command vessels -- will be built in France and two in Russia to the French design, the two leaders said without giving further details.
Mistral-class vessels are 30,000-tonne amphibious assault ships capable of carrying up to 16 helicopters, four landing craft, up to 59 armoured vehicles and a unit of 450 marine commandos.
Negotiations over the purchase began in 2009 but repeatedly stalled over price and technology transfer amid concerns among France's NATO allies about arming Russia with modern Western weaponry.
The former Soviet nation of Georgia, which fought a brief but bloody war with Russia in 2008, has expressed fears that Russia could use the powerful ships against it, saying the sale would send the wrong signal.
The deal is also likely to come under scrutiny from the United States, as naval ships built in France and other NATO states often contain potentially sensitive US-designed technology.
Earlier this year, the two sides were reportedly unable to agree on the contract price, as Russia insisted on paying no more than $980 million while France insisted on a contract of at least $1.15 billion.
In the Tsarist and Soviet eras prior to World War II, and notably during Stalin's modernisation drive in the 1930s, Russia routinely made substantial weapons purchases from suppliers in the West.
But the Mistral purchase from France is unprecedented both in terms of scale and in breaching the block imposed by post-war Russia's insistence on producing all military hardware for its own use and export.
The deal will also be seen as a major coup for both leaders and will likely boost their standings as political negotiators as Russia and France head into presidential elections next year.
Brushing off any possible concerns from his NATO allies, Sarkozy reiterated that Russia was a trusted partner and the Cold War epoch was over. Medvedev for his part said the two countries enjoyed "superb ties."
"This is an unprecedented deal for the navy," said Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy head of an independent defence think-tank, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
"This is also a sign that Russia is no longer alone in terms of defence strategy -- that a NATO member country no longer perceives it as an adversary but looks at it as a partner," he told AFP.
The exact details of the deal remain unclear but Makiyenko said that if structured in the right way, it could also turn out to be profitable for the Russian shipbuilding industry.
"Sixty to eighty percent of the third and fourth ships would be built in Russia," he said.
In a further sign of improving ties, the leaders said France would invest in a multi-million dollar Russian plan to develop ski resorts in the volatile north Caucasus, where the Kremlin is battling an Islamist insurgency.
© 2011 AFP