Secretary of State John Kerry has urged France to rethink its sale of two warships to Russia, The New York Times reported
, citing a State Department official it didn't identify.
Kerry met with French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Washington earlier this week and told him that the deal was "not helpful" and urged him to find ways to prevent the sale, the State Department official said, according to the Times.
But Fabius later insisted that Kerry had not actually demanded that France cancel the $1.6 billion deal, while adding that his government would decide in October whether to deliver the amphibious assault ships to the Russians.
The clash between the United States and France over the vessels began in 2010, long before Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and placed 40,000 troops on the eastern borders of Ukraine, leading to U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed his French counterpart, Herve Morin, not to continue with the sale of the ships to Russia because it "would send the wrong message to Russia and to our allies in Central and East Europe," the Times reported.
But Morin reportedly brushed him off, by asking "rhetorically how we can tell Russia we desire partnership but then not trust them," according to a confidential cable made public by WikiLeaks.
The confrontation over the Mistral-class vessels was pushed aside, however, until Russian troops stormed into Ukraine’s Crimea and now it’s become a major issue, the Times said.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and three other lawmakers recently warned President Barack Obama that the ships can carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and as many as 700 soldiers, the newspaper reported.
"Russia has nothing like it, and without French help could not build it anytime soon," said Stephen Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the American Foreign Policy Council, according to the Times.
Blank added, "Since helicopters can also be armed with missiles, it can be a platform for a heliborne missile attack as well as what we in the States call an air assault or heliborne landings or amphibious landings."
The Times said that the ships could end up being used to threaten Russia’s vulnerable Black Sea neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Baltic states which are part of NATO.
"The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors," James Stavridis, a retired admiral who served as NATO’s top commander from 2009 to 2013, told the Times.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, is fighting back, with Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin issuing a veiled threat that pulling the plug on the deal might hurt France more than Russia.
"France is starting to undermine trust in itself as a reliable supplier," he said on his Twitter account, according to the Times. "Probably our colleague is not aware of the number of jobs created in France thanks to our partnership."
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