PARIS - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his French counterpart Hervé Morin discussed Russia's interest in buying four Mistral-class command and projection ships, but the American official declined to be drawn on the talks.
"Yes, we did discuss it. We had a good and thorough exchange of views. I will leave it at that." Gates told a joint press conference Feb. 8.
The ministerial discussions took place as it emerged that Russia has asked to buy four Mistral-class helicopter carriers, instead of just one.
In a separate press conference, the head of the international development department at the Direction Générale pour l'Armement (DGA) procurement office, Jacques Lajugie, said Russia has shown informal interest in buying four Mistral vessels.
In response to Moscow's initial request made some months ago to buy one Mistral, the answer was "yes," Lajugie said.
Since then, Russian officials have come back with a request for four ships, he said.
"We are in the process of studying the new framework of this request," he said, adding that the official nature of the request has yet to be established. "I think the response will come in the next few weeks."
The Mistral was designed and built on civil lines, he said. If Russia were to buy the Mistral, France would expect at least the first two units to be built in French yards, Lajugie said.
A sale of the Mistral is politically sensitive in the light of Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Morin said Russia has expressed interest in buying a Mistral class ship from other European countries besides France.
"We want to build relations of confidence, an open relationship with Russia," he said. "We want, like the Russians, the European continent be one of peace and stability. We have to undertake new relations with Russia and the Russian authorities. We can't have a discourse that says we are partners and continue to maintain commercial relations and trade with a Russia that existed before 1991."
Privately, U.S. officials here said a sale of the Mistral to the Russian Navy did not pose a major problem. They point out the Mistral's design and construction is largely that of a commercial ship, is lightly armed and lacks survivability features - such as armoring, redundant systems, and more extensive compartmentalization - found in purpose-built warships.
The Russian authorities were unlikely to order Western electronics, as they would be incompatible with domestic systems, a U.S. official said. Russia is understood to have approached Spain and the Netherlands about buying a helicopter carrier,
The remarks of a Russian commander that if Russia had had the Mistral, the invasion of Georgia would have taken 40 minutes instead of three days, has fueled deep concern especially among countries in the Baltics and Central Europe.
The Mistral is capable of handling 16 helicopters, accommodating 450 troops and landing craft. The ship also has a fully equipped hospital and can serve as a command headquarters for combined forces.
Col. Gen. Nikolai Makarov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said Aug. 26 the military would negotiate with the French Defense Ministry and an unnamed French shipbuilding company to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier. If the deal went through Russian shipyards would build three or four more carriers with French help.
Gates was due to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner later in the day.
The visit by Gates follows that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here on Jan. 29.