STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Here's another report on the destination of high technology. It involves Russia and NATO, the Atlantic alliance that Russia once faced. The Cold War ended two decades ago but no NATO ally has ever sold advanced military equipment to Russia, which may be about to change. The French might sell a warship to Russia. Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on a visit to Paris this month when France announced that it might sell one of its Mistral- class assault ships to Russia, followed possibly by three more. After meeting his French counterpart, Gates made it pretty clear - if not in words, then at least in tone - how the U.S. feels about the deal.
ROBERT GATES: We had a good and thorough exchange of views on it. And I'll just leave it at that.
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BEARDSLEY: French Defense Minister Herve Morin defended the sale, saying it was part of a new French attitude toward Russia.
HERVE MORIN: (Through translator) France wants a new relationship with Russia. We can't, on one hand, claim to be partners with the new Russia, and on the other hand, treat it like it was the old Soviet Union.
BEARDSLEY: Indeed, the Mistral is only one part of a much broader French charm offensive toward Russia, say officials. Mindful of every closer ties between Berlin and Moscow, Paris is playing on its long history of cultural and intellectual relations with Russia to win more business.
Arnaud Dubien with the Institute of Strategic International Relations says the Mistral sale is a business, not a military deal. He says the sale of the ship does not amount to a serious transfer of technology.
ARNAUD DUBIEN: (Through translator) But it's an important symbol, a message that Russia is not an enemy. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we can do more than just buy natural gas. It's the end of a taboo, for the West and for Russia, because it's the first time the Russian military is buying major armaments from a NATO country.
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BEARDSLEY: This is the shipyard at St. Nazaire on the Atlantic coast of France, birthplace of some of the world's most famous ocean liners, including the Normandy and the Queen Mary. Today, the finishing touches are being put on a mammoth 17-story cruise ship. The Mistral would be built here as well, providing jobs and boosting an economy dependent on ship building.
Charles Nicol, the mayor's spokesman, says St. Nazaire needs the Mistral contracts to keep it from going the way of most big European shipyards.
CHARLES NICOL: At the moment, everybody is speaking about this terrible future, and we can't believe it. Nobody wants to see the shipyards finishing its life.
BEARDSLEY: Back in Paris, French President Nikolas Sarkozy is said to be receiving conflicting advice on the wisdom of going ahead with the sale of the Mistral to Russia. If it is sold, French officials say it will be without its advanced electronic systems.
But even so, says Pierre Tran of Defense News, the Mistral-class ship would be an impressive piece of military hardware.
PIERRE TRAN: The French official view is that it is designed and built along commercial ship standards. But the fact is, it is equipped for swift landing and reception of armored vehicles, helicopters and troops.
BEARDSLEY: The Mistral deal has upset other NATO members like Estonia and Romania, and other countries on Russia's periphery. The issue is particularly sensitive for Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008. A Russian admiral recently commented that having the French ship would have allowed them to invade Georgia in 40 minutes instead of two days.
MAMUKA KUDAVA: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The Georgian ambassador in Paris, Mamuka Kudava, is trying to stop the sale.
KUDAVA: The Russians themselves very publicly stated they will use this highly sophisticated Mistral ship for whatever reasons they might need it for. That means that in the Black Sea area, Moscow will have even larger and higher capacity of conducting military operations.
BEARDSLEY: Kudava says if Russia gets the Mistral, the balance of power in Europe will be altered. But the French prime minister, Francois Fillon, is eager to create jobs and win export contracts to stimulate the French economy. Fillon hopes to cement the Mistral deal in early March when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits Paris.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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