NATO set to green-light formal ties with Russia
A positive signal would give impetus to upcoming talks between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart as Washington seeks to "reboot" relations plagued by discord over Iran and missile defence.
Brussels -- NATO foreign ministers are set Thursday to green-light the resumption of formal high-level ties with Russia while reassuring Georgia and Ukraine they have a future in the military alliance.
NATO diplomats confirmed Wednesday an in-principle agreement to end the freeze, sparked by Russia's war with Georgia last August, in an effort to cement ties with Moscow despite lingering tensions.
A positive signal would give impetus to talks Friday between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart as Washington seeks to "reboot" relations plagued by discord over Iran and missile defence.
"The resumption of formal relations with Russia should be decided Thursday" at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, one diplomat told AFP.
"It is the basis of the political compromise that we have reached, there is an in-principle agreement," another diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.
Official high-level talks between NATO and Russia -- in the so-called NATO-Russia Council -- have been on hold since August, but resumed informally in December.
The first official meeting could take place at the level of ministers after NATO's 60th anniversary summit in early April, the diplomats said.
In an effort to ease the concerns of Georgia and Ukraine, both striving to join NATO in the face of Russian objections, the ministers will also meet Thursday with Georgian and Ukrainian representatives.
"The foreign ministers will meet with their Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts in the afternoon in the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia Commissions," the first diplomat explained.
Russia's envoy to NATO, Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin, welcomed the move on ties with Moscow.
"If the decision is taken tomorrow, we would be very satisfied. Our representatives could immediately discuss the concrete organisation of the next formal meeting," he told AFP.
But he said: "I am convinced that we can hold it before the summit."
Several nations have wanted to resume formal meetings of the NATO-Russia Council, which meets routinely among ambassadors, but also at ministerial and head of state and government level.
France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain maintain that the sanction against the key European energy supplier is counter-productive and have called for a de-freeze for months. Britain joined that position late last year.
On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama revealed that he sent a long letter to his Russian counterpart in a bid to join forces on thorny issues like Iran, nuclear arms and missile defence, in a sign of a new detente.
A senior US official said resuming the forum would let NATO air concerns like those over Georgia while working with Russia on common fronts in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy duties.
"We would see that as a vehicle both for seeking areas where we have common interests in working together but also for raising issues of difference, where we have some concerns," the official said Monday.
"We continue to have concerns about Russia's approach to Georgia," he said, but underlined that the NATO allies "need to seek a more constructive relationship with Russia."
However, NATO takes its decisions unanimously, and any of its 26 members could torpedo a deal, with some eastern European states like the Czech Republic as well as Canada, which has a big Georgian community, cool on such a move.
On December 2, the ministers tasked NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to explore whether official high-level ties could resume, and he will report back his findings on Thursday.
NATO-Russia ties have also been tense over independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo, where NATO leads a peacekeeping force, and Moscow has threatened to counter the extension into Europe of a US missile shield.