NATO Moves to Repair Ties With Russia

BRUSSELS – Seven months after breaking ties with Russia over its invasion of Georgia, the NATO alliance moved Thursday toward resuming formal relations despite lingering concerns about Moscow’s approach to reasserting its regional influence.

NATO foreign ministers opened a one-day meeting Thursday and appeared likely to decide the time is right to warm up to Russia. Such a move could boost President Barack Obama’s efforts to build a stronger bond with the Russians after years of tensions during the Bush administration.

For U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived here Wednesday night, the NATO meeting will be her first. She is at the midpoint of a weeklong trip that began in Egypt and took her to Israel on Tuesday and the West Bank on Wednesday. After the NATO session she is due to travel to Geneva on Friday to meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and afterward she is to visit Ankara, Turkey.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Mrs. Clinton’s presence was widely welcomed.

“We can assume there will be a new breeze going through NATO and a new mood of cooperation,” he said. “We will need that because the challenges are not getting any easier.”

In his opening speech, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it was time to discuss “possible next steps” in NATO’s reengagement with Russia, including the revival of the NATO-Russia Council, a joint forum established several years ago.

“While not shying away from the serious differences of opinion that remain between NATO and Russia, in particular about Georgia, we also acknowledge that we have obvious common interests with Russia: Afghanistan is one, but counterterrorism and the fight against WMD proliferation are others,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters upon arrival at NATO headquarters that he would argue in favor of restoring relations with Moscow.

“I think it’s important to re-establish the NATO-Russia Council,” he said. “In many areas, such as Afghanistan, it is important that Russia and NATO work together.” Asked whether that means it will once again be business as usual with Moscow, Mr. Miliband replied, “Business was changed fundamentally since the Georgia crisis.”

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht told reporters after hosting a dinner with his fellow NATO ministers Wednesday night that despite some small differences, there appeared to be a majority in favor of restarting formal ties with Russia.

Mrs. Clinton is expected to update the ministers on the Obama administration’s review of its Afghan war strategy. The United States has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and the alliance has a similar number. Washington has pushed the Europeans for many months to increase their commitments in Afghanistan — military and civilian — but a troop shortage persists, according to U.S. commanders.

Obama has approved plans to send an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in coming months.

Mrs. Clinton declined Wednesday to discuss the status of the administration’s Afghanistan review, which is examining ways to improve not only the military aspect of the struggle but also the international economic and diplomatic aspects. Asked whether Iran might be brought in as a partner in helping to stabilize Afghanistan, Mrs. Clinton said, “That will be considered.”

Mrs. Clinton told reporters traveling with her Wednesday that the U.S. and NATO relationships with Russia are complicated.

“Just as with the conversation I will begin with Minister Lavrov on Friday, there’s an interest in exploring with Russia what kind of cooperation is possible — both with NATO and with the United States on a range of issues,” she said.

“In some areas, I think we’re going to find there is a great potential for cooperation. In others, we’re going to have differences and we will stand our ground and they will stand theirs and we’ll hope to find some accommodation, if possible. But there are some actions Russia has taken recently, as you know, over the last several years that are very troubling,” she added, referring at least in part to the Georgia war.

The five-day war erupted when Georgia launched an attack to regain control over South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian support since the early 1990s. Russian forces intervened, driving Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and surrounding areas and pushing deep into Georgia.

U.S. missile defenses are another source of tension with Moscow. The Russians are particularly angry about a Bush administration plan — now under review by the Obama administration — to install missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

Mrs. Clinton said Wednesday, without saying whether Obama would proceed with the plan, that the Russians should understand that the missile shield is not aimed at them.

“I think they are beginning to really believe it — that this is not about Russia,” she said.

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