Putin in France to celebrate ties amid warship row
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin begins a visit to France on Thursday for talks with leaders and to open a big exhibition, but a row over a warship sale could put a damper on the fete.
Putin told AFP in an interview on the eve of his visit that a deal on the Mistral-class assault ship, now under negotiation for more than five months, is possible only if the vessel comes equipped with cutting-edge technology.
France has said it will not lump sophisticated radar systems and other sensitive technology into the deal, which would be the first sale of advanced military hardware by a NATO member to Russia.
"For us, this deal is interesting only if it is accomplished with a parallel transfer of technology," Putin told AFP.
The warship deal is expected to figure prominently in talks during a working dinner later Thursday between Putin and Prime Minister Francois Fillon and with President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday.
Also on Friday, Putin will inaugurate a five-day exhibition showcasing cultural and economic ties between France and Russia at the Grand Palais, a prime venue off the Champs Elysees.
The giant fair will display Russian industrial and technological clout, such as the latest Sukhoi fighter jets and prototypes of new Avtovaz cars, and caps a year-long Franco-Russian festival.
The prime minister is leading a delegation of top businessmen from Russian aerospace, energy and transport who will be sounding out prospects for new partnerships during a series of round-table discussions.
Putin last held talks in France in November and President Dmitry Medvedev was warmly received during a state visit in March that yielded a string of deals in energy, transport, aeronautics and aerospace.
The countries also cooperated in pushing through fresh sanctions against Iran over its suspect nuclear programme.
The sale of the warship capable of carrying 16 helicopters and a 750-strong landing force is widely seen as France's most ambitious bid yet to reach out to Russia.
Negotiations have stumbled over the transfer of technology and also Moscow's insistence that three of the four warships be built in Russian shipyards, leaving only one to be built in France which is starved for jobs.
Russia's neighbours in the Baltics and Georgia, along with the United States, have raised objections over the sale but France has countered that Russia must be treated like a partner and not a threat in Europe.
In the interview with AFP and another French media organisation, Putin rejected concern that the warship could be used by Russia against its neighbours, despite lingering anxieties following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
"France has such helicopter-carrying ships. So who is France preparing to attack? Why do people automatically assume that Russia will of course have to use this to attack someone?" he said.
Russia's military chief of staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said in Moscow this week that the vessel could be used to patrol waters near Pacific islands that are the subject of a long-running dispute with Japan.
France showed off one of its own Mistrals, the second largest vessel in its fleet, in Saint Petersburg in November while Putin made a visit to Paris, in part to launch discussions on the deal.
© 2010 AFP