Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

French Warship to Russia: Risky Precedent or a Cruise Ship Painted Gray?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

French Warship to Russia: Risky Precedent or a Cruise Ship Painted Gray?

Article excerpt

The US and other NATO allies worry that the French sale of a $750 million Mistral warship to Russia will set an arms-trading precedent. But analysts say the ship does not yet represent the transfer of cutting-edge technology to Russia.

The sale in principle of a French assault ship to the Russian navy brought a stir this week - as the first military deal by a NATO member to Moscow, one that helps Russia's ailing fleet, and one that may involve the sale of three more ships.

A deal for the French Mistral, a modern $750 million craft that carries helicopters and up to 900 commandos, took place more abruptly than expected by other NATO members - at a time when European security policy on Russia remains in flux.

A Russian admiral has said the Mistral would have cut the 2008 war in Georgia "to 45 minutes." US defense chief Robert Gates in Paris this week expressed displeasure with the sale. But Jacques de Lajugie, head of international development at the French arms agency DGA, said it may be the beginnings of a beautiful friendship: "It is no longer one command ship, but four" sought by Moscow.

Yet while NATO defense analysts hope the sale doesn't set a precedent, they also argue that the military attributes of the Mistral are not significant. Much of the Mistral was built in the Saint-Nazaire yard, where luxury cruise liners and ocean vessels like the Queen Elizabeth 2 are put to sea. Moreover, while the Mistral, named for a sharp and chilly Mediterranean wind, has conjured images of a bristling attack boat - it has little armor and does not include the state-of-the-art defense or fire-fighting equipment typical on a warship.

A NATO weapons specialist calls it "basically a big boat that goes from one place to the other ... it is like a cruise ship painted gray." The specialist, who requested anonymity, said that "Russia sank most of the Georgian fleet in 15 minutes. I don't think the Mistral would have mattered in that conflict."

Nor will the Mistral be built and delivered sooner than "years" say analysts, who argue it represents more a political effort by France to improve relations with Russia than an immediate military threat. …

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