|US fears over Paris ship sale to Russia|
|December 03, 2010|
By James Blitz in London and Ben Hall in Paris
The full force of US objections to France’s plan to sell four Mistral class helicopter and troop carriers to Russia is revealed in cables published by WikiLeaks, in which senior American officials warn that the move could trigger an “arms race” between the Kremlin and Georgia.
France is in the final stages of selling the ships to Russia and senior US figures have until now publicly expressed their concerns in diplomatic language.
At a meeting in January, Michelle Flournoy, the US undersecretary of defence, warned senior French officials the “optics and policy behind the sale were perplexing” and would “fly in the face” of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s personal commitment to resolve the crisis following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
According to the cable, which was sent to Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, Ms Flournoy had asserted the sale of the ships “would send a confusing political signal to Russia as well as to other Europeans”.
The cable records that Ms Flournoy was backed at the meeting by William Burns, a leading state department official, who said the sale “would feed Georgia’s fears and could lead to an arms race, increasing the chance of miscalculation by one or both sides”.
Ms Flournoy said while the US understood France wanted to actively engage Russia, Washington “would prefer that France find a different confidence-building measure than a Mistral sale”.
The Elysée sees the Mistral sale as a way of building a privileged relationship with Moscow and of encouraging modernising forces in the Kremlin, including President Dmitry Medvedev.
But the cable notes a senior French official telling his US counterparts that “President Sarkozy had a ‘problem of confidence’ and did not fully trust Russia”.
But Hervé Morin, the French defence minister, said he was personally pushing through the sale, arguing “how can we tell Russia we desire partnership but then not trust them”?
France is hoping to sell the four Mistral class carriers to Russia, two of which would be built in French shipyards.
The completion of the sale may yet depend on what sort of weapons technology Paris is prepared to allow.
France says the ships will not be equipped with weapons or sophisticated communications equipment.
French officials privately play down the military value of the highly versatile Mistral.
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