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French Sale of Warships to Russia Sparks Controversy


France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, listen to a worker during a visit at the Saint Nazaire naval plant, in Saint Nazaire, western France (File)

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, listen to a worker during a visit at the Saint Nazaire naval plant, in Saint Nazaire, western France (File)

An announcement that France will sell two warships to Russia has sparked concern by some eastern European countries. The agreement is the first major defense sale by a NATO member to Russia.

The deal to sell two Mistral warships to Moscow came after months of negotiations. The ships are helicopter carriers, each costing several million dollars.

"France wins," the French government has written on the presidential palace website. The deal amounts to hundreds of local jobs and an economic boost for the French shipyards of Saint Nazaire, where the two Mistrals will be built. Another two will be built in Russia.

But Baltic States and Washington have long expressed reservations about the sale. It is the first major weapons deal by a NATO member to Russia. France has also agreed to supply needed technology for the Mistrals, although the details are unclear.

On Monday, Lithuania's defense minister described the sale as a "big mistake," and warned it could establish a precedent. Georgia, an aspiring NATO member that fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, is also concerned.

Paris-based defense expert Pierre Conesa suggests these states are looking to the past - not the future.

"Their past and ours are quite different. They have been occupied by the Soviet Union, or in the case of Georgia, in conflicts with Russia. But the best way to stabilize and establish peaceful relations with Russia is probably to treat Moscow as a partner," Conesa said.

Conesa says it is important to look at the current context of the sales. NATO's relationship with Russia has improved markedly. During the NATO summit in Lisbon last month, NATO invited Russia to collaborate on a missile defense shield.

"You must pay attention to the fact that on an anti-missile defense system, the cooperation will be deeper and probably more sensitive technologically than on a Mistral system," he said.

Conesa also notes the Mistral is expected to be deployed in the Pacific - far from the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic States are not the only ones concerned about the Mistral. France's CFDT labor union warns the technology transfer under the ship deal could create competition.

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