ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- An assault ship of NATO member France arrived Tuesday in St. Petersburg's harbor, but Russians need not fear: The helicopter carrier Mistral has sailed to Russia to convince the Kremlin to agree to what would be the largest arms deal ever signed with a Western country.
St. Petersburg, the hometown of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is used to seeing big ships -- it was home to the Soviet shipbuilding industry. Yet even here, people are stunned by the enormous French-made Mistral carrier.
"It's such an enormous ship, I can't begin to comprehend how it even squeezed into here," one onlooker told TV station Russia Today.
The 650-foot Mistral is capable of transporting and deploying 16 helicopters, up to 70 vehicles and 450 soldiers, although troop numbers can be doubled for short-term deployment.
Russia is eager to buy three or four Mistral carriers together with a license to build more of the ships itself.
"There are certain issues still to be resolved between our ministries but we can definitely say that we are interested in buying not one, but several vessels," Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said on Russian TV.
Russian navy officials began calling for the vessel earlier this year, frustrated with the time it took their Black Sea fleet to carry out amphibious landing operations in the war with Georgia.
The French-made vessel, which has an estimated price tag of around $750 million, can deploy four landing barges at great speed. France would love to strike a deal with Russia, which has never purchased a foreign-made military vessel.
Paris sent the Mistral to St. Petersburg so that Russian officials can inspect and evaluate the ship. It will leave later this week.
The Mistral is armed with two Simbad missile launchers and four 12.7mm M2-HB Browning machine guns. Equipped with a 69-bed hospital, the Mistral carriers are integrated into the NATO Response Force and have completed U.N. and EU-led peacekeeping missions.
Critics say the Mistral is too expensive and does not fit Russia's military profile.
"The ship was designed for distant oversees operation," Ivan Konovalov, an analyst at the Center for Analysis of Strategy and Technology, told Russia Today. "For France, it's justifiable. The U.S. Navy has similar vessels. It's necessary for nations which have interests overseas. Russia doesn't have that. Our geopolitical interests lie within the post-Soviet area."