A Russian naval official says France will allow the sale of an advanced warship to Russia, the Interfax news agency reported on Saturday.
The agency quoted naval first deputy chief of staff Vice Adm. Oleg Burtsev as saying French President Nicolas Sarkozy has sanctioned the sale of a Mistral amphibious assault ship. There was no immediate confirmation from Paris.
The deal “is unlikely to happen in February or March this year, but work on the matter is continuing,” Vice Adm. Burtsev was quoted as saying. Russia has been looking at similar ships made in Spain and the Netherlands.
Possessing a Mistral would significantly increase the military’s capability to mount offensives. France sent a Mistral, which weight 23,700 tons (21,500 metric tons) and is 980 feet (299 meters) long, to visit St. Petersburg last year in a clear sign of interest in a potential sale, which would be the first arms deal between a NATO country and Russia.
However, the prospect has alarmed some ex-Soviet countries, particularly Georgia and Estonia, and some critics in Russia say the country should develop such a ship by itself.
Those concerns have raised doubts about whether France would ultimately authorize a Mistral sale, and whether Russia would actually buy one. Some observers have suggested the issue could be resolved in March, when President Dmitry Medvedev visits France.
An official with the Elysee presidential palace in Paris said on Saturday he could not confirm the Interfax report and that “discussions are still under way” between France and Russia on the matter. The official was speaking on condition of anonymity, in accordance with French presidential policy.
The Mistral can anchor in coastal waters and deploy troops on land, a capacity the Russian navy now lacks. Russia’s navy chief said last year that a ship like the Mistral would have allowed the Russian navy to mount a much more efficient action in the Black Sea during the Georgi-Russia war. He said the French ship would take just 40 minutes to do the job that the Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels did in 26 hours.
The Mistral can also carry about 16 helicopters.