Image: Sarkozy and Medvedev
Eric Feferberg  /  AFP-Getty Images
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hold a press conference Monday at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
updated 3/1/2010 4:17:22 PM ET 2010-03-01T21:17:22

Russia and France took a big step toward tighter relations Monday, entering talks about the possible sale of four French warships to Moscow as Russia toughened its stance against nuclear-minded Iran.

The burgeoning courtship between Paris and Moscow came as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid a pomp-filled state visit to France, clearly mindful of the big economic and political payoffs at stake.

Paris is angling to sell Moscow a massive warship and secure stakes in pipelines pumping Russian gas to western Europe, and make Russia a strategic partner in geopolitical challenges like Iran's nuclear program.

With Western impatience growing over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Medvedev appeared to move closer to their stance, saying his country is ready to consider targeted new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

"Russia is ready, with other partners, to consider sanctions," he told reporters at a news conference with President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace. "It would be desirable to avoid sanctions," and any should not harm the Iranian population, he added.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and designed to generate electricity. Countries like France and the U.S. have called for new sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council where Russia is also a permanent and veto-wielding member.

Sarkozy and Medvedev also said their two countries have started exclusive talks toward a possible sale of four French warships — the Mistral-class tank and helicopter carrier.

Such an arms sale would be the biggest ever by a NATO country to Russia. Such a ship, which could carry up to 16 attack helicopters, would allow Russia to land hundreds of troops quickly on foreign soil. The possibility has alarmed Georgia as well as the three Baltic countries in NATO — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The sale would amount to "a symbol of trust between our countries," Medvedev said, and would give Russia the chance "to receive the material we lack."

Iran and weapons sale
Sarkozy's government has sought to diffuse any controversy over the sale.

"I want someone to tell me, how can we tell Russian leaders, 'we don't need you to make peace, we need you to resolve a certain number of crises in the world — notably the Iranian crisis ... but we don't trust you?" Sarkozy said.

"Can we say to President Medvedev in the morning, 'ah, I trust you, vote with us at the Security Council, work with us on the same resolution,' then in the afternoon, tell him, 'no no, excuse us, as we don't trust you and we don't work together — we won't send you the Mistral'?" he added.

"We want to turn the page on the Cold War," Sarkozy said.

Medvedev arrived in the French capital by helicopter, landing on the vast esplanade in front of the Invalides museum, where Emperor Napoleon is buried. Scores of golden-helmeted Republican Guards on horseback led his limousine across the Alexandre III bridge, named for the second-to-last czar.

At the presidential Palace, Medvedev strolled down the red carpet — Republican Guards leading a drum roll and blaring trumpets — to a smiling greeting from Sarkozy.

Medvedev's trip appears less about breaking new ground than about tightening ties and expanding on energy and manufacturing contracts firmed up by his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in France last November.

France is eager to make a good impression on the Russians. Sarkozy is hoping for a larger chunk of trade with Moscow, despite diplomatic concerns about Russia's sway over its smaller neighbors in eastern Europe.

Natural gas, rail deals
The head of Russia's Gazprom, Alexei Miller, signed a memorandum with French natural gas company GDF Suez's CEO Gerard Mestrallet on Monday for the French company to buy a 9-percent stake in the North Stream AG natural gas pipeline planned to pipe gas from Russia under the Baltic Sea and to western Europe.

France's Alstom signed a deal for 25 percent of Russian railway builder Transmashholding.

Russian and French officials would not provide a value for either deal.

GDF Suez and state-controlled Gazprom also said earlier they have begun talks to supply the GDF Suez with up to an additional 1.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year from 2015.

French investments in Russia last year outstripped those of the U.S. for the first time, Medvedev said. Russian news agencies put the French figure at $10.4 billion.

Just before Medvedev arrived for his three-day visit, French carmaker Renault SA announced it had doubled capacity at its Moscow plant, to help take advantage of Russia's cash-for-clunkers program starting next week.

Also in Paris on Monday, the top immigration officials from each country signed a protocol on immigration that both presidents called a step toward visa-free travel between Russia and Europe.

Culture is expected to be a centerpiece of Medvedev's Paris sojourn: The Louvre Museum is unveiling a sweeping exhibit of Russian art from the dawn of the Russian Orthodox Church more than a millennium ago to western-gazing canvases painted under 18th century leader Peter the Great. Medvedev and Sarkozy will inaugurate the exhibit Tuesday.

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