- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

PARIS — France says recent joint maneuvers in which Russian and French pilots flew each other’s aircraft were not an effort to help Russia join NATO or the European Union, but simply “in the interest of world peace and cooperation.”

In two significant steps of military cooperation last week, French and Russian warships maneuvered together off Norway and pilots from the two nations flew each other’s jets in another exercise over Belarus.

Russian Sukhoi 27s and French Mirage 2000s took off from Russia’s Lipetsk Air Base near the Belarus border.

Both exercises coincided with the visit to Moscow of three senior French officials. The developments have led some diplomats to call the warming of relations “the Paris-Moscow axis,” and some consider it part of a larger plan for Europe.

French officials say Paris is merely establishing new links with Russia for world peace.

Nonetheless, members of the governing center-right expressed reservations about the still-unclear design for a “greater Europe” pursued by the government of Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin and strongly backed by President Jacques Chirac.

Almost immediately after the announcement of various forms of French-Russian military and trade cooperation, Alain Juppe, a former prime minister and now secretary-general of Mr. Chirac’s Union for the Presidential Majority, rejected the idea of Russia as a significant partner of the European Union.

“The idea of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals has been overtaken,” he said while on a visit to Moscow last week.

The concept of strong French links with Russia clashes with Moscow’s ambition to become a political center of influence similar to that of the European Union, Mr. Juppe said.

“Anyway,” he added, “any form of partnership with Russia cannot exclude dialogue with other influential policy centers, such as the United States and China.”

Some diplomats point out that in its desire to humor Russia, French policy-makers seem to ignore such negative aspects as state control of the Russian media, the war in Chechnya, the uncontrolled business transactions and the assassination of parliament members.

“The picture projected by the Quai d’Orsay [the seat of the French Foreign Ministry] is that Russia is a democracy,” one diplomat said. “It seems as if negative cables from Moscow are simply dropped into wastepaper baskets.”

Commenting on military cooperation with Moscow, the French military described the recent maneuvers as measuring “operational capability.” Alain Lebougre, an official of the Paris Le Bourget air show, said the two countries have decided to cooperate in air and space matters for peaceful reasons.

In addition to the sale by France of 18 Airbus airliners to Russia, the two partners have decided to jointly develop a new fighter plane dubbed the MiG-AT.

According to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, “This proves a high degree of confidence between the two countries.”

During the recent Iraq war, Russia joined France and Germany in opposing any U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A period of tension between Paris and Washington brought France closer to Russia. Expanded trade between the two countries and limited joint military ventures followed.

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