MOSCOW Russia's new military doctrine does not identify NATO as its major threat but Moscow is disturbed by the alliance's "endless enlargement", President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview published on Thursday.
Russia has made future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics, a 'red line' in its relations with the West. It said in the new doctrine, published on February 5, that one of the "main external threats of war" came from the alliance's eastward expansion to Russia's borders.
"NATO is not seen as the main military threat (to Russia) in the military doctrine," Medvedev said in an interview with French weekly magazine Paris Match.
"The issue is that NATO's endless enlargement, by absorbing countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, or who are our immediate neighbors, is of course creating problems because NATO is after all, a military bloc," he said.
Medvedev's comments clarify the stance toward NATO set out in the military doctrine, which reiterated Moscow's long-standing fears of encirclement by the alliance.
Medvedev, who will travel to Paris next month, warned that Russia would not remain indifferent if NATO continued to expand and reconfigure missiles near its borders, according to a transcript published in Russian on the Kremlin.ru website.
"This can't but disturb us," Medvedev said, adding that it did not mean Russia was returning to the thinking of the Cold War, when NATO was the Soviet Union's biggest foe.
Eighteen months after Russia's brief war with pro-Western Georgia, Moscow's relations with the alliance remain tense. NATO members have shown little enthusiasm for Medvedev's call to create a new, umbrella European security treaty.
FRENCH SHIP DEAL
Medvedev confirmed Moscow's interest in buying advanced warships from NATO members such as France, when asked if he was planning to negotiate the purchase of a Mistral-class helicopter carrier during his visit to Paris.
Paris has said it is ready to sell a Mistral warship to Moscow, despite the concerns of Georgia and the Baltic states, which split from the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. The potential sale is expected to come up when Medvedev meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin on Thursday defended the plan, saying Russia should not be looked at as if it were the Soviet Union. "Russia has changed and we have to change the way we look at Russia," Morin told a news briefing.
Sarkozy sent his European affairs minister, Pierre Lellouche, to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia this week to calm their nerves over any Mistral deal. Lithuania said on Wednesday Lellouche had given assurances that if it went ahead, the ship would be stripped of military technology.
The Mistral is marketed by French naval firm DCNS and estimated to cost 300-500 million euros ($404.3 million to $673.8 million). It is able to carry helicopters, troops, armored vehicles and tanks.
(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer, editing by Mark Trevelyan)