NATO Agrees to Re-engage Russia

APDe Hoop Scheffer, left, speaking with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller at NATO talks in Brussels on Tuesday.
BRUSSELS — NATO on Tuesday agreed to gradually resume contacts with Russia that were suspended after Moscow's military intervention in Georgia, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.

"Allies agreed on what I would qualify as a conditional and graduated re-engagement with Russia," de Hoop Scheffer said at a news conference after a meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers.

De Hoop Scheffer said operational meetings of the NATO-Russia Council, a forum that manages the relationship, would resume informally. But he said this did not mean that NATO had changed its view that Russia had used "disproportionate" force in invading Georgia in August or that it was acceptable for Russia to threaten to station missiles near NATO borders.

The 26 NATO allies reaffirmed a pledge — which has angered Russia — that Georgia and Ukraine would one day join the alliance and agreed that they would assist them in that process, de Hoop Scheffer said.

The decision came hours after the 27-member European Union resumed talks on a broad-ranging partnership pact with Moscow, reflecting a general acceptance that any attempt to isolate a key trade and energy partner would damage European interests.

The EU agreed last month that Russia had complied sufficiently with the terms of a Georgia cease-fire to permit this, while keeping the relationship under review.

Before de Hoop Scheffer's announcement, several NATO foreign ministers were explicit in their desire to re-engage Russia.

"I think the time has come to resume," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, proposing a start with ambassadorial contacts and a full resumption of the stalled NATO-Russia Council by a NATO summit next April.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said contacts were needed with Moscow at all levels. "I fail to see that we gain anything by limiting channels of communication," he said.

But Washington has been reluctant to make any early moves. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said before the meeting that she did not oppose "in principle" reviving contacts with Russia via the NATO-Russia Council. But referring to Russian troops still in Georgia's breakaway regions, she said NATO should be very cautious about any move on military-to-military cooperation.

At the NATO meeting, Germany led resistance to U.S. moves to advance the membership aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia.

Concern about Russia's reaction prompted Germany and France to block a U.S. push at an April NATO summit in Bucharest to give Ukraine and Georgia formal routes to join the alliance known as Membership Action Plans, or MAPs. That summit gave Georgia and Ukraine vague promises of eventual NATO entry and agreed to review their MAP requests by the year's end.

Germany insisted on Tuesday that there were no grounds at the moment for NATO to deepen ties with Ukraine and Georgia.

"I hope we will agree to stick with the agreement from Bucharest. I see no reason to go beyond that for now," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.