- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dealing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates a diplomatic slap, France announced Monday it will sell at least one amphibious assault warship to Russia.

The sale, the first by a NATO member to Russia, comes despite objections from U.S. and other NATO members and was disclosed while Mr. Gates was visiting Paris.

The French sale will help Moscow to begin modernizing its aging armed forces at a time when its own military industry is not capable of meeting world standards for advanced weaponry, diplomats and defense analysts said.

It was not clear if French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government intended to make the announcement, which alarmed the United States, Georgia and the Baltic states, during Mr. Gates’ trip. Nonetheless, the issue came up during a press conference with Mr. Gates and French Defense Minister Herve Morin.

“I understand that, for some Central and Eastern European countries, the wounds are still there. France wants a new relationship, and that means it needs to go through new exchanges,” Mr. Morin said. “We cannot, on the one hand, enlist Russia in building this security, and at the same time consider that Russia has not profoundly changed since 1991.”

Mr. Gates declined to comment on the deal beyond saying, “We had a good and thorough exchange of views on it. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell later said that the secretary had “made our concerns clear” to Mr. Morin.

NATO has tried various forms of cooperation with Moscow since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but the 2008 Russian-Georgian war marked the lowest point in their relations since the end of the Cold War.

It was the 2008 conflict that exposed Russia’s outdated military equipment and sent it shopping for advanced technology around Europe. Russian military leaders have said that having the 21,300-ton Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France would have made a significant difference in Georgia.

“Everything that we did in the space of 26 hours at the time, this ship will do within 40 minutes,” Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky, chief of the Russian navy, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency in September.

Those comments and Paris’ interest in a deal prompted officials in the former Soviet republics Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — now NATO members — to raise serious concerns.

U.S. diplomats and analysts said that such sales to Russia would make sense at some point, but the NATO-Russia relationship is not at that level yet.

“France should have held off, and its decision should have been part of a wider process to defuse political tensions with Russia,” said Robert E. Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and a senior adviser at the RAND Corp.

Mr. Hunter said the Obama administration warned France against the deal but was ignored.

In December, six Republican senators expressed serious concern about the potential sale, which they said would send the message that France supports Russia’s “increasingly bellicose and lawless behavior.” The group included Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, Sam Brownback of Kansas, James E. Risch of Idaho, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Jacques de Lajugie, head of international sales at the French Defense Ministry, said that another NATO member would have sold a similar ship if France had not. Spain’s Navantia shipyard had emerged as a serious rival to DCNS. In addition, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop said last year that the Russians had approached Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding in the Netherlands.

The French Defense Ministry said Russia has requested three additional ships but a decision on a larger deal has not been made.

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