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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water ...

A French decision this week to sell Russia an entire class of helicopter assault warships will raise some interesting questions about NATO's relationship, on the one hand, to its Eastern European members, and on the other, to Moscow.

But it also tells us interesting things about Russia's navy, once second only to the U.S. Navy, and now largely rusting at its moorings at cold water ports from Vladivostok to Sevastapol to Murmansk.

The most obvious question has come from the Baltic states and Scandanavia, along with NATO-hopeful (perhaps hopeless) Georgia. The question might be best summed up for GlobalPost's audience as "WTF?"

At a time when official Russian military doctrine publicly identifies NATO — and specifically, NATO expansion — as the country's primary adversary, the sale of these relatively capable warships by a major NATO power to the Russian Navy has to be questioned. An additional incongruity lay in the fact that, only last week, as reported by GlobalPost, NATO finally agreed to start drawing up contingency plans to defend its Baltic member states in case some, as yet unnamed large former occupying power should ever move against them.

Marko Mihkelson, an Estonian member of the European parliament's defense committee, said last week that "the picture has not changed much since the Cold War as Russia doesn't see NATO as a partner but a threat. ... The question is not only how security will be affected near Russia in the Baltic and the Black Sea. In the event Russia obtains four French warships it will also mean a serious security risk for NATO itself."

The French dismiss such concerns as paranoia. "One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don't treat it as one," French President Sarkozy told Russian reporters, answering a question about criticism of the deal from his NATO allies, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Then again, you can't expect Russia to throw its weight around like a great power without a capable navy, either. As many have pointed out, Russia's war in Georgia in 2008 was seriously hampered by its inability to control the Black Sea — at the time filled with U.S. and other NATO warships.

Ships like the "Mistral," while no match for the U.S. Sixth Fleet's aircraft carriers and guided missile cruisers, would turn the Black Sea into what Russian leaders have intended it to be for centuries: a Russian lake. It makes any future U.S. effort to engaged in gunboat diplomacy in that region far more difficult.

Still, the idea that Russia would spend this much money to threaten countries with which it shares a land border is a bit hard to swallow. Clearly, something else is afoot. Putin, known to regret the breakup of the Soviet Union, may well want to try and regain prestige globally — to ward off the impression that Russia today is no more than a creaky, oil-fueled basketcase that happens to have inherited a lot of nuclear weapons. As would-be global players for centuries have known, there's nothing like a shiny new warship flying your flag appearing off a distant shoreline to make that point.

Russia's official explanation — to the extent that it deigns to provide one — is that such ships are vital resources for relief operations. While this may be disingenuous, it has, as Henry Kissinger once said, the additional advantage of being true.

Mistral-class ships — and their larger, more numerous American counterparts (LHAs, LDPs, LPDs and yes, inevitably — LSDs) are the most important ships afloat when nature ravages humanity. The "big deck" carriers of the Nimitz and other classes — the ships that launched warplanes that pummeled Iraq in 1991 and 2003, for instance, are ill-suited for relief work. As a result, amphibious ships become the workhorses of relief missions because they can approach the shoreline, deploy thousands of troops quickly and haul enormous amounts of supplies and equipment.

Several — both French and American — are now the backbone of the relief operations in Haiti, and U.S. amphibious ships invariably turn up wherever such problems exist. In recent years these ships were command posts for earthquake relief in Pakistan and West Sumatra, typhoons off Myanmar and Taiwan, hurricanes in Belize and El Salvador.

During the 2002 tsunami, several Indonesian cities had their water purified for weeks by such vessels moored offshore. (China's large fleet of such ships — designed to give it the ability to invade Taiwan — never left port following the tsunami, to its enduring shame).