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NATO Set To Normalize Relations With Russia

  • Ahto Lobjakas

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

NATO foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels on March 5, are set to restore the alliance's full diplomatic links with Russia.

Meetings of the NATO-Russia Council were suspended in August 2008 in protest over Russia's invasion of Georgia and after pressure from the United States, the largest member of the alliance.

The all-but-certain restoration of ties follows a policy change by President Barack Obama, whose global priorities require securing Moscow's collaboration.

Chief among Obama's goals are stabilizing Afghanistan, preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, and fighting global nuclear proliferation.

Securing Russian goodwill is crucial for progress in all three areas.

Recognizing this, the U.S. president has said since taking office in January that he wants to "reset" the relationship with Russia.

'Good Exchange'

Obama reiterated this aim on March 3, alluding to the intense diplomatic contacts which have taken place between Washington and Moscow in recent weeks.

"We've had a good exchange between ourselves and the Russians," Obama said. "I've said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there."

Obama insisted any normalization of relations with Russia will not be a quid pro quo, or a trade-off of interests.

But NATO's decision, which has been confirmed by officials in Brussels, will have upsides for some and downsides for others.

It will ease transit of supplies to Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia. The first train of nonmilitary NATO goods left Latvia last week and has reached Kazakhstan.

The United States will have removed another obstacle from the path of cooperation with Russia on Iran. The normalization of relations with Russia will also please NATO's Western European member states, most of which consider Russia a long-term strategic partner.

Georgia Loses

The greatest loser will be Georgia, to whose fate NATO's decision to freeze relations with Russia was explicitly linked.

"There can be no business as usual with Russia under present circumstances," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in Brussels on August 19.

He added that "the future of our relations will depend on the concrete actions Russia will take to honor the words of [Russian] President Medvedev to abide by the six-point peace plan [with Georgia]."

The peace plan says Russia must reduce its forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to prewar levels. This has not happened.

There are signs Georgia is looking for a way to mitigate the damage done by the NATO announcement. Both Prime Minister Nika Gilauri and Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze will be in Brussels on March 5. An "extraordinary session" of the NATO-Georgia Commission -- an institution which was called into being in the aftermath of the war in August -- will be convened at Tbilisi's request. The commission will meet in the margins of the NATO foreign ministers meeting.

Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi, Vashadze refused to reveal why Georgia had asked for the meeting. "You will guess, if you think about it," was all Vashadze would say.

Georgia is clearly keen to secure a signal of support from the NATO ministers to compensate for the reprieve handed to Russia. A NATO-Georgia Commission meeting will enable the alliance to discreetly underline its support to the country without risking alienating Russia. NATO sources suggest de Hoop Scheffer's traditional post-summit statement will be the most likely occasion for the allies to stress their continued commitment to Georgia.

A show of solidarity would also go some way toward assuaging the mixed feelings of NATO's Eastern European allies. Their deference to the United States is not in question. But the Georgian war was seen by them as a watershed event, signaling the resurgence of Russian expansionism -- against which the new members want NATO to maintain a firm stand.

Washington's faltering commitment to missile defense -- another element in the emerging global accommodation with Moscow -- also worries ex-communist allies.
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