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NATO-Russia Council to hold landmark talks

Brussels — Envoys from NATO and Russia are set to hold top-level talks in January, marking an end to a four-month freeze the alliance imposed after Moscow sent troops into Georgia, Russia’s ambassador said last week.

"We agreed that in mid-January we will hold an informal NATO-Russia Council meeting at the level of ambassadors," Dmitry Rogozin told reporters after exploratory talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

His meeting with Scheffer came after NATO foreign ministers decided on December 2 "on a measured and phased approach" for resuming top-level talks with Russia.

"We are only at the beginning of our very difficult route toward restoring trust," Rogozin said after the talks with NATO’s top civilian official.

Russia has a bureau at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, just a few hundred meters (yards) from Scheffer’s office, but Friday’s meeting, which ran for almost two hours, was held at a hotel near the Belgian capital’s main airport.

"The vital thing is to restore trust, but with one meeting it’s impossible to do that," said Rogozin, before flying out to Geneva. However, he added, he felt cautiously optimistic after the talks with Scheffer.

A NATO spokeswoman said the atmosphere during the lunchtime meeting — attended only by the two men and one aide each — had been "excellent".

"The two men agreed to open up tracks for renewing contact," she confirmed.

Scheffer has been tasked with setting a date for the NATO-Russia Council, with January 14 a possible slot.

The war in Georgia in August brought tense NATO-Russia ties to a head.

Moscow’s subsequent decision to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has become a particularly sensitive issue.

Russia has been angered by NATO’s open-door policy in regard to former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine.

Alliance leaders have indicated the countries will eventually join the organization, even if they have for the moment ruled out a fast-track approach.

Russia — and Serbia — has also vehemently opposed international recognition of the declaration of independence from Kosovo, a former Serbian province. NATO heads up a peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Moscow has also threatened to counter the extension into Europe of a US missile shield by renewing its own missile program.

NATO allies, for their part, have expressed concern about Moscow’s decision to freeze a major Cold War arms treaty.

They also suspect that proposals by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for a new security pact in Europe are aimed at doing away with NATO, which Moscow fears is closing in on its borders.

Russia has called for a new, legally binding security pact to replace what it says are outdated Cold War-era arms control treaties and to help avoid crises such as the brief war in Georgia.

Rogozin regretted that the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) had been suspended in the first place, as Moscow believed the forum was needed more than ever during the short conflict in August.

"We were quite astonished that NRC was put aside," he said.

NATO’s European allies, led by France and Germany, are keen to resume contact with Russia, which is a major supplier of European natural gas and oil, but the United States refuses to reward Moscow for its actions in Georgia.