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US endorses restart of top level NATO talks with Russia

Brussels — The United States endorsed Thursday a resumption of top-level NATO talks with Russia, setting the stage for an end to a seven-month freeze sparked by Moscow’s war on Georgia.

At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it was "time to move ahead" in ties with Russia, even though Washington remains a strong backer of Georgia.

"It is time to move ahead, not wait in place with the illusion that things will change on their own," she told the ministers, after NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had recommended that talks resume. "It is time for realism, as well as hope," she said, as ministers debated whether to return to top-level NATO-Russia Council talks that were frozen over Russia’s war with Georgia last August.

Clinton also stressed that renewing talks with Russia is not a reward.

"While some perceive the NATO-Russia Council as a reward or concession to Russia, it should be viewed as a mechanism for dialogue on issues where we disagree and a platform for cooperation that is in our interests," she said.

The United States has been a strong backer of Georgia’s efforts to join NATO, as well as the candidature of Ukraine, and has consistently demanded that Russia change tack before dialogue officially resumes.

NATO and Moscow resumed informal level talks in December.

Alliance diplomats said Wednesday that the first official meeting could take place at the level of ministers after NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in early April.

In an effort to ease the concerns of Georgia and Ukraine, both striving to join NATO in the face of Russian objections, the ministers were also set to meet Thursday with Georgian and Ukrainian representatives.

Scheffer said ties with Moscow had shown a marked improvement recently.

"My inclination is a positive one, so let’s hope that ministers agree with me," he told reporters. When asked when talks in the so-called NATO-Russia Council would resume formally, he said: "I hope sooner rather than later."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband agreed.

"I think it is important to re-establish the NRC (NATO-Russia Council),” he said ahead of the meeting that also focussed on NATO’s troubled mission in Afghanistan. “That gives us the opportunity to put our concerns directly to the Russians. It also allows us to engage on issues of mutual concern."

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 defreeze for months. Britain joined that position late last year.

On Tuesday, American 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.

"There are signals that most of the members of the alliance have the same position" on endorsing a resumption, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

However NATO takes its decisions unanimously and any of its 26 members could torpedo a deal, with some central European states like the Czech Republic as well as Canada, which has a big Georgian community, cool on such a move.

"It’s a bit premature to open the formal dialogue," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas. "I think we have to use this time before the summit and encourage Russia to be more cooperative."

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.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica