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Distrustful Russia wary of resuming NATO ties

Moscow — NATO plans to resume high-level contacts with Russia following its 60th anniversary summit this weekend, but it still needs to convince a distrustful Moscow that it has no hostile intentions.

The alliance decided on March 5 that meetings of the so-called NATO-Russia Council — frozen after last summer’s war in Georgia — should resume after the Friday-Saturday summit in Strasbourg, France and neighbouring Kehl, Germany.

Moscow however has indicated it will move cautiously on reviving cooperation with its former Cold War foe.

"I can say that Russia has not so far taken a decision to restore full-scale cooperation with NATO, above all in its military component," the Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said on Friday.

"The decision must be taken not only by the 26 member countries of NATO, but also by Russia," he said.

Behind Moscow’s coolness on restoring ties with NATO is a reluctance to give up a useful political scapegoat, said Yevgeny Volk, a Moscow-based political analyst with the US Heritage Foundation.

"Russia is not too interested in restarting them," Volk said.

After Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 "the Russian authorities chose to demonize NATO, denouncing the threat of the alliance’s enlargement to Russia’s borders," he said.

"This image of an external enemy allows them to deflect the people’s attention from internal problems and increase the military budget."

Russia has repeatedly lashed out at NATO moves to boost ties with its ex-Soviet neighbours Ukraine and Georgia, led by pro-Western governments that are eager to lead their countries into the alliance.

President Dmitry Medvedev warned about NATO expansion in a major speech last month in which he also pledged a broad re-armament of the Russian military.

"Attempts to expand the military infrastructure of NATO near the borders of our country are continuing," Medvedev said, despite signs that Ukraine and Georgia are less and less likely to join the alliance.

Western European governments have been reluctant to let Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, and the two countries lost a key ally in January with the departure of US president George W. Bush, who had strongly backed their NATO bids.

New US President Barack Obama has vowed to "reset" strained relations with Russia — but he also said last week that countries which aspired to join NATO had the right to do so.

"The Russians are waiting for the first Medvedev-Obama summit to define their policy," Volk said, referring to a meeting of the two presidents scheduled to take place in London on Wednesday.

Moscow and NATO never really gained a sense of mutual trust after the end of the Cold War, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

"After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia tried rapprochement with NATO, establishing institutional relations in creating the NATO-Russia Council, to try to conceal the lack of mutual confidence. But this did not work," he said.

The NATO-Russia Council was started in 2002 to discuss issues of mutual interest and to voice differences.

Analysts say Afghanistan is the one area where Russia and NATO may cooperate fruitfully. Russia has allowed the transit of non-lethal military goods across its territory to support the Western-led operation there.

Rogozin indicated that Russia was waiting for a signal from NATO before determining its position: "We will form our position based on the text which will be adopted with respect to Russia" at the April 3-4 summit, he said.

A meeting of Russia and NATO ambassadors is expected to take place April 20, while foreign ministers from Russia and the alliance are due to meet in late May or early June.

Victoria Loginova/AFP/Expatica