MOSCOW/PARIS Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin criticized France on Tuesday for saying it could consider cancelling a 1.2 billion euro ($1.67 billion) helicopter-carrier contract with Moscow if the Ukraine crisis continues.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius raised the possibility on Monday of scrapping the deal if further sanctions are announced against Moscow over its seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region.
"France is starting to undermine confidence in it as a reliable provider in the very sensitive sector of military and technical cooperation," Rogozin, who oversees Russia's defense industry, said on Twitter.
French officials have shied away from discussing whether the 2011 contract for two Mistral helicopter carriers with an option for two more with Russia could be suspended, a potentially awkward sacrifice to show French resolve.
Fabius said on Monday that if Putin pressed ahead, France would "consider cancelling the sales", but he appeared to be backtracking from saying the deal could be scrapped entirely.
"What's being considered is the suspension of these contracts," he told Europe 1 radio. "On the one hand we understand that we can't deliver military hardware given (Russia's) behavior, but on the other hand there is the reality of jobs and the economy."
The long-discussed purchase was Moscow's first major foreign arms purchase in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and the carriers can hold up to 16 helicopters, such as Russia's Ka-50/52 choppers.
Russia agreed to buy the Mistrals, giving it access to advanced technology. This alarmed some of France's NATO allies at the time, especially in the aftermath of Russia's 2008 war with Georgia.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy had hailed the signing of the Mistral contract as evidence the Cold War was over. The contract has created about 1,000 jobs in France.
The first carrier, the Vladivostok, is due to be delivered by the last quarter of 2014. The second one, named Sebastopol after Crimea's crucial seaport and illustrating its importance to Moscow, is supposed to be delivered by 2016.
Fabius insisted that no decision had been made and that it would only happen in a third round of European Union sanctions.
"It can only be envisaged in the framework of general sanctions. It cannot just simply be France," he said.
($1 = 0.7180 euros)
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and John Irish; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Louise Ireland)