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Putin visits France to talk warships, energy

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday kicked off a visit to France expected to focus on a sensitive contract for warships and energy ties between the two powers.

The sale of the Mistral warships is widely seen as France’s most ambitious bid yet to reach out to Russia, but negotiations have stumbled, notably over Moscow’s demands for a transfer of technology.

“The problem of the Mistral is a commercial problem. There is no politics involved, only business,” Russian Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko told AFP on Friday, accompanying Putin on his visit to Paris.

“For us the most important thing is to buy technology. That is the future.”

The warship deal was expected to figure prominently in talks during a lunch between Putin and President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday.

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 Russian leader met with his former French counterpart, Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac, first thing on Friday and was due to have talks later with the head of French oil giant Total, Christophe de Margerie.

Two other major French energy companies are involved in Russian-led projects to bring gas to Europe: EDF in the South Stream gas pipeline and GDF in another known as North Stream.

The prime minister is leading a delegation of top businessmen from Russian aerospace, energy and transport who will be assessing the 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 this week against Iran over its suspect nuclear programme.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Friday said Russia will comply strictly with the sanctions, but did not make clear whether a controversial planned sale of S-300 air defence missiles to Iran would go ahead.

The sale to France of the Mistral warships, which can carry 16 helicopters and a 750-strong landing force, have stumbled on the transfer of technology and Moscow’s insistence that three of the four warships be built in Russia.

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.

Also on Friday, Putin was due to 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, as part of a year-long Franco-Russian festival.