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French warship sale to Russia strains NATO

Moscow on the Seine spells trouble from Brussels to Washington.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy poses as he inaugurates "The Terrible", a new generation nuclear-armed submarine, in Cherbourg, western France on Mar. 21., 2008. (Christophe Ena/Reuters)

PARIS, France — It might have been the premise of a post-Cold War fictional thriller by author John Le Carre. Instead France’s decision to sell a Mistral-class warship to Russia is causing consternation among NATO allies, raising anxiety about future instability among Russia’s neighbors and drawing criticism from observers.

The sale, approved earlier this month by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would mark the first time an ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has sold modern military equipment to Russia. And although the move would represent a financial boon to France — one ship reportedly costs an estimated 400-500 million euros — it would be a diplomatic double-edged sword.

“We are arming a proven aggressor,” said former Ambassador David Smith, who is the director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi as well as a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, in Washington D.C.

Smith and others have acknowledged that the sale would mean more work for French shipyards during a difficult economy but he said France’s motivation seems to be based more on “currying favor with Russia” than anything else.

“You’re throwing this capability into the hands of a country that has proven to be aggressive,” Smith said, his voice over the phone rising with incredulity. Russia’s sole motivation in acquiring this kind of ship is to intimidate its neighbors, he said. “This is not going off to Hawaii,” he stressed, pointing out that the ship likely would be anchored in the Black Sea, in proximity to anxious former Soviet bloc countries.

Another vocal critic calling for France to reconsider the sale — along with the possibility of three other ships under consideration following a request by Moscow — is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilli, whose country engaged in a five-day war with Russia in August 2008. He pointed out that providing Russia with advanced arms “will make the situation tenser and will generate new conflicts,” according to an official statement from his office.

Mistral-class amphibious vessels can carry attack helicopters, armored tanks, soldiers and are equipped with a large-capacity hospital. One visited St. Petersburg last year as murmurs of the potential sale were becoming louder.

Saakashvilli criticized France in a recent speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London for its “very unusual and very risky” decision. Georgia has accused Moscow of violating the cease-fire agreement Sarkozy brokered to end the August conflict, saying Russia has maintained forces on Georgian soil at pre-war levels, which the Kremlin denies.

Smith said the sale “undermines France’s credibility on diplomacy,” in the region since Sarkozy has done very little to enforce the agreement he helped craft during his turn as European Union president.