France defended on Monday its negotiations to sell Russia up to four amphibious assault ships, despite US doubts about the deal and protests from Moscow's nervous Baltic neighbours.
Having initially approached France to discuss the sale of one Mistral-class helicopter carrier, Russia has now said it wants four of the modern 21,000-tonne vessels, a senior French defence ministry official said.
Jacques de Lajugie, head of the international division of the ministry's arms production wing, said France was examining the request from Russian command and no decision had yet been made at a political level.
If the deal goes ahead, it would be the first such transfer of large-scale military technology from a NATO member to Moscow. But Defence Minister Herve Morin defended the principle behind the planned sale.
At a joint news conference with his US counterpart Robert Gates, Morin said the talks showed that Russia was now considered a partner in European security.
"We want to build a relationship of confidence and a new relationship with Russia," said Morin. "We cannot on the one hand enlist Russia in building this security and at the same time consider that Russia has not profoundly changed since 1991," when the Soviet Union collapsed, he said.
The minister argued that refusing the sale would amount to "pursuing trade relations and exchanges with Russia as if it were the Russia of pre-1991." During Monday's meeting in Paris, Morin discussed the deal with Gates, who commented tersely: "I would just say that we had a good and thorough exchange of views on it. I'll just leave it at that." Gates later brought up the sale in talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to officials.
"This cooperation with Russia, the terms of which have not yet been defined, appears natural," Sarkozy told him, according to his office.
"We can't expect Russia to behave like a partner, and not ourselves behave like one," he said. According to a French account of the meeting, Gates said that Washington's concerns were more about the political signal such a sale would send to Moscow than about any military threat the warships might pose to US allies.
Ex-Soviet Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania expressed concern that France is contemplating a deal that would strengthen Russia's ability to intervene in the countries of its region, as it did in its 2008 war with Georgia.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Kersti Luha said Estonia had been pressing France for an explanation since plans for the deal were revealed in November.
"We raised the issue with France of Russia's desire to buy a French warship. We wished to find out what exactly would be sold to Russia and we plan to continue to ask for more information about the deal," Luha said.
"This trend deepens our concern. We're watching this agreement carefully," Lithuanian Defence Minister Rasa Jukneviciene told AFP.
She noted that she raised the issue at a NATO meeting last week in Istanbul. "The French said the warship would be sold without armaments. What's clear now is that Russia's military industry lags far behind NATO's. If they sold it, it would be unprecedented," she added. The Moscow daily Moskovski Komsomolets reported Monday that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has decided to buy one Mistral from France for between 500 and 600 million euros (up to S$1166 million).
The Mistral, the second largest warship in the French fleet, is a 200-metre (650-foot) amphibious assault vessel that can carry heavy-lift helicopters, landing craft, tanks and up to 900 commandos. In December, six US senators expressed their concern over the proposed sale, which they said would send the message that France supports what they called Russia's "increasingly bellicose and lawless behaviour".