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French warship sale to Russia strains NATO

Moscow on the Seine spells trouble from Brussels to Washington.

The French president has maintained that the deal is good for France, which wants to improve relations with Russia. “One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don't treat it as one,” Sarkozy said defending the sale.

To that argument Smith said, “Russia will be treated like a partner when it acts like a partner.”

Further underscoring their deepening ties, the two countries are celebrating a “cross year.” France declared 2010 the “Year of Russia” and Russia declared a “Year of France,” launching an engagement that will allow the two countries to highlight each other’s heritage through the arts and other cross-cultural exchanges.

The United States has also expressed a desire to strengthen ties with Russia but the sale places Washington in a delicate position given that Georgia is one of America’s strongest allies in the region and some of the other Baltic States expressing unease over the deal, such as Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are also NATO allies.

Although the U.S. raised its concerns in private discussions between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Herve Morin, the French defense minister, during a meeting here earlier this month, there has not been enough of an outcry, Smith said.

The major allies should have been more vocal earlier with their objections or at the very least requested a formal consultation on the matter. Smith also said it would be useful to put in place a policy for the region, and then he painted a worse case scenario: NATO allied troops being called upon to defend Russia’s neighbors from Russian aggression.

In response to a question about the arms sale, James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman said Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen “does not consider Russia a threat and he hopes Russians don't think of NATO as a threat.” But the spokesman acknowledged that “the anxieties of some allies are, of course, real and they are understandable for historical reasons, geographic reasons and so this is the context which has to be taken into account,” according to a transcript of the February 10 press briefing.

Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, who will likely seek to finalize the deal with Sarkozy on a visit to Paris, expressed concern over the “never-ending enlargement of NATO” in a wide-ranging interview with Paris Match magazine currently available on newsstands.

“NATO is a military alliance that is now on our borders,” Medvedev told the magazine, ahead of his visit, which will coincide with the second anniversary of his election to Russia’s presidency. “It’s not the Cold War,” but we must take this new situation into account.”

Ultimately though, Smith warned, the sale is going to be “a lasting thorn in the side of the alliance.”