Tuesday, November 24, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia | A French amphibious assault ship like the one Russia hopes to buy arrived Monday in St. Petersburg, fueling concern in Georgia and other former Soviet nations that Russia is upgrading its navy to intimidate its neighbors.

The Mistral military ship, which can carry more than a dozen helicopters along with dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles, would certainly be a modern way to project Russian power.

It docked Monday on the Neva River, about a half-mile from the Hermitage museum. Russian officials are considering buying a Mistral ship and a license to build several others - their first such purchase from a NATO country.

Media reports have said it would cost Russia up to $750 million to buy a Mistral-class ship.

The navy chief, Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky, has said a ship like Mistral would have allowed the Russian navy to mount a much more efficient operation in the Black Sea during the Russia-Georgia 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, apparently referring to amphibious landing operations.

NATO officials in Brussels would not comment Monday on the possible French navy sale.

The Kremlin increasingly has 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 United States 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 severely 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 beset 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.

Georgia was clearly worried about the possible deal.

“We strongly oppose the sale of such ship to Russia,” Nika Laliashvili of the Georgian Parliament’s defense affairs committee told the Associated Press. “It poses a serious danger to Georgia.”

Since the 2008 war, Russia has declared the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent nations. Abkhazia has a coastline along the Black Sea that is next to Russia’s coast.

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