MOSCOW, Nov. 23 (UPI) -- A French amphibious assault ship -- of a type Russia hopes to buy -- has arrived in St. Petersburg, sparking unease among neighboring nations and the United States.
The port call signals thriving relations between Paris and Moscow, 15 months after Russia's offensive in neighboring Georgia and a with Paris to buy a Mistral-class ship.
The French helicopter carrier docked on the Neva River, about 6 miles from Russia's prized Hermitage Museum, as military officials considered the controversial purchase deal.
If clinched -- along with rights to construct several other vessels of the same class in Russia -- the deal would mark the most important transfer of military equipment to Russia by a NATO member country.
Designed to attack the shore from the sea, the Mistral class is viewed as an ideal weapon for Russia in intimidating its neighbors, most importantly Georgia.
The amphibious assault ship can carry 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters, dozens of tanks and more than 900 soldiers.
Russia owns only one Soviet-built aircraft carrier, which is much smaller than its U.S. counterparts, and is outdated.
Officially, the French Mistral vessel made a port call as part of an operation to patrol pirate-infested waters off Somalia.
Unofficially, though, experts concede the port call is a sales call to the Kremlin, which has been increasingly trying to reaffirm Russia's global reach and prestige in world affairs.
Russian military officials have not elaborated on the deal, but purchase of a Mistral-class ship is estimated to cost between $738 million and $886 million, local media have reported.
Military officials, including Russia's armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, have said that the deal reflects the Kremlin's efforts to intensify its military modernization.
But selling Russia Mistral-class ships during the economic slowdown may appear a deft diplomatic move, analysts say.
"Is Paris prepared not only to overlook but to reward aggression, ignore the shredding of a cease-fire crafted and signed by its president, accept the help of Georgia soldiers in Afghanistan but enforce an unacknowledged arms embargo against Georgia and meanwhile sell advanced arms to Russia?" questioned the Georgia Daily.
As a NATO member, France may be pressured by the United States to cancel any prospects of a deal in arms and technology that could be used against Georgia.
Estonia, meantime, has also warned that it may be forced to "take security measures" because Russia would have a "considerable advantage in the Baltic Sea," the Estonia Free Press reported.