By Gleb Stolyarov and Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia denied on Monday that state-run United Aviation Corporation planned to bid for a $50 billion contract to replace the U.S. Air Force's fleet of air tankers, rivaling Boeing and Europe's EADS.
John Kirkland, a Los Angeles-based attorney, had told various news media over the weekend that UAC would announce a joint venture with a U.S. defense contractor on Monday to enter the bidding for the tanker deal.
UAC denied it was working on any such bid, and the Russian government said no such topic had been discussed at talks last week in Moscow between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"We do not know who this person John Kirkland is," UAC vice-president Alexander Tulyakov told Reuters.
"John Kirkland is not a UAC representative and we have had no communications with him" about the tender.
"We have had no discussions whatsoever with any party about the possibility of producing air tankers for the U.S. air force," Tulyakov said.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not discuss the issue with Clinton at talks last week, a spokesman for Putin said. "It was not a topic at the talks," said Dmitry Peskov.
The U.S. Air Force has been trying for nearly a decade to replace its fleet of Boeing-built KC-135 tankers, which are close to 50 years old.
EADS, the parent company of Airbus, won a deal in 2008 to build an initial 179 tankers, only to have it canceled after U.S. auditors found that the Air Force had failed to follow its own judging rules.
The Pentagon said last week that EADS had expressed possible interest in continuing to compete for the contract.
EADS North America Chief Executive Sean O'Keefe told reporters in Mobile, Alabama on Monday that EADS expected to hear back from the Pentagon within the next few days about its request for a 90-day extension to the Pentagon's May 10 deadline for tanker bids.
Kirkland told Reuters on Monday that he was told about the bid by a man named Alexander Ivanovich, who he believed was an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.
"Alexander Ivanovich is his name but all the Russian names sound the same to me," Kirkland said. He said he would have to check to find a surname as Ivanovich is a Russian patronymic.
Kirkland sent Reuters copies of letters on what appeared to be UAC letterheads saying that high-level Russian approval of a bid was imminent.
The letters from "OOO UAC" contained several grammatical mistakes in Russian and confused Vladimir V. Putin's middle initial.
"It is very important for me that people know I am not just making shit up. I have (in my possession) written letters from UAC on UAC letterheads with UAC control numbers," Kirkland told Reuters.
Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps LLP, Kirkland's law firm, issued a statement saying he had been engaged several months ago to negotiate a joint venture with UAC.
"Documented conversations and written communications received from UAC stated that the joint venture was approved, and that an agreement would be executed shortly," the firm said. "If and when an agreement is signed, an appropriate press release will be issued by the parties."
Richard Berkshire, another U.S.-based attorney mentioned in some of the documents sent by Kirkland, told Reuters that Kirkland had done everything "by the book."
"Our people are telling us that a deal is imminent," said Berkshire. "At this point we are hopeful this joint venture agreement gets signed... it is really all in the hands of the Russians."
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
Sergei Ivanov, the Russian deputy prime minister who is board chairman of UAC, dismissed the reports as "a canard." A spokesman for Ivanov declined to comment further.
When asked who was paying his legal bills, Kirkland said: "The American side." When asked who that was, he said: "I am not going to disclose that -- it is a public company."
"It is a defense contractor," Kirkland said.
Kirkland had said Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed a UAC bid for the tanker contract at a meeting with Clinton.
But Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the topic was never discussed at the talks.
Kirkland last week quoted Alexander Shishkin, who he said worked for the Russian Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation, as saying the U.S.-Russian joint venture for the bid would be announced at UAC headquarters on Monday morning.
There was no such announcement on Monday in Moscow.
Shishkin, contacted by Reuters on Monday, said he could not say anything. He would not even confirm he worked for the Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation. "I cannot say anything until the bosses decide something," he said.
An official at the agency said nobody called Alexander Shishkin was listed as working there.
Kirkland said that a Russian bid would be based on a wide-bodied version of UAC's Ilyushin-96 aircraft, which he said would be called the Ilyushin-98.
"There are some internal discussions within the UAC, but very preliminary ones, about the production of an air tanker based on the Il-96. But to talk about Russian air tankers refueling U.S. military planes -- it is from the realms of fantasy," said a UAC source, who asked not to be named.
Fewer than 30 Ilyushin-96 aircraft have been produced and the plane is considered technically inferior to Western rivals.
Russian news media reported last year that production of the passenger variant had been canceled, though a cargo version is still in limited production.
Russian media have made no mention of a new version of the Il-96 called the Il-98.
(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya and Conor Sweeney, and Dan Margolies in Washington and Matthew Goldstein in New York; editing by Tim Pearce, Ted Kerr and Tim Dobbyn)