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Published: Tuesday June 3, 2014 MYT 9:25:02 PM
Updated: Tuesday June 3, 2014 MYT 9:25:02 PM

Poland says France should pull back from Russian navy deal

PARIS (Reuters) - Poland's foreign minister urged France on Tuesday to cancel a 1.2 billion euro (976.8 million pounds) contract to sell Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia, saying these would be used to threaten east European nations.

The United States and some European partners have been urging Paris to reconsider its supply of high-tech military hardware to Moscow following Russian action in Ukraine, including its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March. Asked if France should deliver the two vessels, Radoslaw Sikorski told Le Monde newspaper: "No, because Russian generals have already said what these ships will be used for: to threaten Russia's neighbours in the Black Sea and that means Europe's partners. I don't think France would want to be in the position of supplying efficient weapons to an aggressor."

France has so far rebuffed those calls, saying that cancelling the deal would do more damage to Paris than Moscow and illustrating the limitations of European Union sanctions meant to punish Russia.

French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters there was no change in his government's position and that Polish authorities were fully aware of that.

"There is no reason (for them) to be concerned," he said.

The first carrier, the Vladivostok, is due to be delivered by the last quarter of 2014.

Sikorski was speaking ahead of French President Francois Hollande's visit to Poland on Wednesday.

The Polish criticism comes amid concerns within the French defence industry that the intransigence over the Mistral deal is having an impact on potential contracts there.

"It is getting tense. Poland blames France for an insufficient response in defending Ukraine," said an executive from a French firm negotiating a military contract in Poland.

U.S. PRESSURE

U.S. President Barack Obama is due in Paris for bilateral talks with Hollande on Thursday, and U.S. officials have said he will bring up the Mistral sale, piling pressure on Paris. U.S. lawmakers urged France on May 29 to cancel the sale of the carriers and suggested that NATO buy or lease them instead.

Nadal reiterated France's position that there was no need for Paris to review the contract until the European Union opted a further round of sanctions against Russia and said that other countries, including Britain, would also have to consider measures in the energy and financial sectors.

"We previously mentioned that if the Russians blocked the May and June elections, we (the EU) would move to a third level of sanctions," he said. "At that point the problem would be raised for all countries like Russian investments in Britain or for this or that country that buys gas from Russia. That's not the order of the day for now."

Underscoring the difficulties for Paris, the Russian defence ministry has warned that France would have to repay the cost of the contract and additional penalties if it cancelled the deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also due to meet Hollande after the French leader holds talks with Obama.

The long-discussed French sale was Moscow's first major foreign arms purchase in the two decades since the demise of the Soviet Union. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the signing of the Mistral contract as evidence the Cold War was over. It has created about 1,000 jobs in France.

(Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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