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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Presses Putin Over Georgia

NATO's chief on Thursday urged President Vladimir Putin to lift sanctions on Georgia and tried to narrow the gap with Moscow over NATO expansion and arms control.

But Putin and other senior officials refused to budge an inch -- at least publicly.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he had sought to defuse tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi and had asked Putin to restore transportation and trade links that had been cut after Georgia arrested four purported Russian spies early this month.

"I hope that in this framework it will also be possible that some of the measures that had been taken in this conflict by the Russian Federation could be lifted," de Hoop Scheffer said at a news conference.

He said he also had asked Putin to resolve peacefully a standoff over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow claims Tbilisi is planning to reclaim by force.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who attended the same news conference, showed no sign that Russia might back down on Georgia. He said he "felt and saw" that Georgia was preparing to send soldiers into Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some commentators have linked the tensions with Georgia's desire to enter NATO, saying Tbilisi arrested the Russians in an attempt to get Moscow to retaliate and thus strengthen its case for NATO membership.

Georgia, which is seeking to enter NATO in 2008, released the Russians quickly, but Russia still imposed the sanctions and started deporting illegal Georgian immigrants.

A day before Scheffer's visit, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said NATO's decision to intensify talks with Tbilisi "had been interpreted by Georgian authorities as an incentive to pursue a confrontational policy toward Russia," Interfax reported.

But Putin offered a different explanation when asked Wednesday about what had caused the recent rift. It is "the militarization of Georgia ... [that] caused the deterioration of Russian-Georgian ties in the first place," Putin said during his annual call-in show.

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili will fly to Moscow for consultations next week. He will be the first senior Georgian official to visit since the beginning of this month's standoff.

Putin made no reference of Georgia during the public part of his Kremlin meeting with de Hoop Scheffer on Thursday, trumpeting instead cooperation between NATO and Moscow in the global struggle against terrorism, the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan, and naval patrols in the Mediterranean Sea.

"We believe that our cooperation is developing successfully," Putin said.

De Hoop Scheffer also avoided references to Georgia at the public part of the Kremlin meeting, but he hinted that NATO acknowledges Russia's role in peacekeeping in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "Russia's active participation for the solution of many conflicts is essential," he said.

The public part of de Hoop Scheffer's meeting with Ivanov was less cordial. The defense minister, who traditionally takes a more hawkish stance, said Russia was concerned about NATO expansion.

De Hoop Scheffer has said several times that a NATO summit in Riga in November would send a signal on NATO's enlargement plans, but he has not specified which countries might be offered membership or put on membership track.

Ivanov also warned that Russia would amend its military strategy if the United States deployed elements of its National Missile Defense in eastern Europe.

"It is the plan of the United States, which is a NATO member, to deploy a third positioning unit of the global anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe," he said.

"We wouldn't want one to get the impression that this is something we really fear, but this will require certain changes in our plan for military construction and will simply require that Russia take certain precautionary measures, " he said,

De Hoop Scheffer told reporters that he had agreed to disagree with Russian officials on a number of issues.

De Hoop Scheffer also met Security Council chief Igor Ivanov and senior federal legislators. He pressed parliament to ratify the NATO Partnership for Peace Program's Status of Forces Agreement, which would ease the organization of Partnership for Peace exercises in Russia and the transit of NATO troops over Russian soil.

The Russian side was also expected to express concern to de Hoop Scheffer over NATO member states' refusal to ratify the amended Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

Moscow signed a partnership agreement with NATO in 2002 and has played an important role in facilitating the transit of NATO troops and hardware to Afghanistan. Moscow has also shared intelligence on Afghanistan.

Russian and NATO troops train together regularly, and the Russian Navy participated in NATO's recent counter-terrorist Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean.

At the same time, Moscow views NATO expansion as a threat to its dominance in the post-Soviet neighborhood and has been busy building military and security alliances, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to counterbalance the expansion.

Russia would dramatically downscale cooperation with NATO if Georgia and Ukraine are invited to join, but it would not sever all ties, said Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

Alexander Pikayev, an independent military expert, pointed to the United States as the central force behind the drive to get Georgia and Ukraine admitted. He said Washington seeks to secure better control of energy transit routes in the Caspian and Black Sea basins. Russia opposes expansion because it also wants control of the routes, he said.