By IRINA TITOVA
2009-11-23 09:50 PM
Russia's once-mighty navy was severely degraded after the fall of the Soviet Union and it currently has no big ship with the power to anchor in coastal waters and deploy troops onto land.
Russian officials announced this year that they were planning to make their first arms deal with a NATO country by buying a French vessel like the Mistral, a 23,700-ton (21,500-metric ton), 980-foot (299-meter) vessel able carry more than a dozen helicopters able to haul hundreds of troops directly onto enemy territory.
The head of the Russian navy has said that a Mistral-class vessel could put as many troops in Georgia in 40 minutes as the Russian Black Sea Fleet took 26 hours to land during the nations' August 2008 war. Moscow declared the Russian-allied breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia an independent nation after the war and sent thousands of troops there. Russia, Georgia and Ukraine all have Black Sea coastlines, as does Abkhazia.
The Mistral docked Monday on the Neva River, about half a mile (1 kilometer) from the Hermitage museum. Russian media reported that the French and Russian navies are planning joint exercises with the ship this week.
"We strongly oppose the sale of such ship to Russia," Nika Laliashvili, a member of the Georgian parliament's defense affairs committee, told The Associated Press. "It poses a serious danger to Georgia."
The Mistral, which was launched in 2006 and first saw service in a Lebanon refugee operation, is one of the two ships of that class in the French navy.
Bruno Daffix, a spokesman for the French Defense Ministry's export and sales agency, described the ship as a "Swiss army knife" of military ships _ able to carry helicopters, land forces, hospitals or refugees, among other things.
NATO officials in Brussels would not comment Monday on the possible French navy sale.
The Kremlin has increasingly sought in recent years to reaffirm Russia's global reach and prestige in world affairs. It has sent its warships to patrol pirate-infested waters off Somalia and dispatched a navy squadron to the Caribbean where it took part in joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy and made several port calls in 2008.
The Caribbean mission, aimed at flexing military muscles near the U.S. in the tense months after the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, was the most visible Russian navy deployment since Soviet times.
But despite the Kremlin's ambitions, the post-Soviet economic meltdown has left the Russian navy with only a handful of big ships in seaworthy condition and badly crippled the nation's shipbuilding industries.
Russia has only one Soviet-built aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is much smaller than the U.S. aircraft carriers and has been plagued by mechanical problems and accidents.
Russian shipbuilders have opposed the Mistral deal, saying the government should invest in domestic production instead. Navy officials have argued that license production of Mistral-class ships would help modernize Russia's aging industries.
The French Defense Ministry's arms acquisition and sales agency has reported that French exports rose 15 percent in 2008 to ⁈llion, thanks in part to sales of the French-Italian built FREMM multipurpose frigate to Morocco and the EC725 Cougar tactical transport helicopter to Brazil.
French military exports are expected to rise to ⁈llion this year.
Among France's recent big-ticket sales deals, Brazil has agreed to buy five French Scorpene submarines, one of them with nuclear propulsion, and 50 Cougar helicopters for about $12 billion. All would be assembled in Brazil.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.