NATO freezes Russian ties over Georgia

A037864915.jpgBRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO agreed after U.S. pressure on Tuesday to freeze regular contacts with Russia until Moscow had withdrawn its troops from Georgia in line with a peace deal.

The alliance also agreed to upgrade contacts with Tbilisi but stopped short of accelerating its efforts to join NATO, an ambition which had enraged Russia even before the two-week-old conflict over Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region.

“We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual,” the 26 NATO states said in a joint declaration issued after emergency talks in Brussels.

The statement did not explicitly refer to a U.S. demand to suspend contacts within the six-year-old NATO-Russia Council (NRC), but NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it was clear such contacts could not take place at present.

“As long as Russian forces are basically occupying a large part of Georgia I cannot see a NATO-Russia Council convening at whatever level,” he told a news conference.

“But I should add that we certainly do not have the intention to close all doors in our communication with Russia,” he said, after several European allies including Britain and Germany expressed doubts about cutting off links with Moscow.

The NATO statement drew sharp condemnation from Moscow, where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the alliance of bias and wanting to support a “criminal regime” in Tbilisi.

“Certainly there will be a lot of changes in our cooperation with NATO and we will have changes in the volume, the quality and the timeframe in our consultations and meetings,” Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said in Brussels.

“NO ISOLATION”

Months of tension between Georgia and Russia erupted on August 7, when Tbilisi sought to regain control of South Ossetia. Russia, which backs the separatists, launched a massive counter-offensive that extended well into Georgia.

A column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left the strategically important Georgian town of Gori on Tuesday, but Russian officials said the main withdrawal demanded by the West would not happen for three more days.

NATO’s statement did not specify how it could curtail steps to strengthen ties with Russia that started in the 1990s.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied Washington wanted to isolate Moscow and dismissed suggestions that tougher actions on Moscow had been blocked by European capitals, viewed by analysts as anxious not to upset a major energy supplier.

“The behavior of Russia in this most recent crisis is isolating Russia,” she told a news conference. “The United States got precisely what we sought in this statement.”

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, whose country has long backed Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO, said he believed Russia’s actions were sparking an “intellectual sea change” in the West over Moscow’s behavior in the region.

“It’s not every day that a sovereign country is invaded and wrecked … The events of the last few weeks should make us all realize that Russia means business,” he told Reuters.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner joined the call for Russia to withdraw but said he was starting to doubt Moscow would honor its pledge to pull back.

Georgia’s foreign minister called for international peacekeepers to replace Russian troops in South Ossetia.

“I think the next step after the withdrawal of the Russian forces… is effective international engagement which completely substitutes any Russian presence on the soil of Georgia,” Eka Tkeshelashvili told reporters in Brussels.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO and Russia have agreed modest cooperation in areas such as counter-terrorism and set up the NATO-Russia Council to manage a regular dialogue.

Backers of Tbilisi have said the conflict strengthened the argument for bringing Georgia into NATO as soon as possible but Rice told reporters on Monday there was no plan to accelerate NATO discussions on the matter that are set for December.

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