BRUSSELS -- With the administration of new U.S. President Barack Obama looking to "reset" relations with Russia, the NATO military alliance has announced it would restore full diplomatic relations with Moscow.
Six years of cooperation between the alliance and Moscow on the NATO-Russia Council was abruptly suspended in August 2008, when NATO foreign ministers announced Russia's war with Georgia made it impossible to "continue with business as usual."
Announcing the decision to restore ties, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer expressed strong disagreement with Moscow's actions in Georgia, but said Russia was too important to keep out of the NATO fold.
"Russia is an important player. Russia is a global player, and that means that not talking to them is not an option," de Hoop Scheffer said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her first appearance at NATO as the top U.S. diplomat, said it was time for the alliance to "move ahead" in relations with Russia.
"NATO today agreed to restart the NATO-Russia Council as a mechanism for dialogue on issues both where we disagree, such as in Georgia -- as the secretary-general noted -- and a platform for cooperation that is in our interest, like transit to Afghanistan or nonproliferation," Clinton said.
Russia immediately welcomed the move, with the country's RIA Novosti news agency quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman as calling the decision "a step in the right direction."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the NATO-Russia Council may resume talks shortly after the alliance's 60th-anniversary summit on April 3-4.
"The resumption of formal relations between NATO and Russia, including at the ministerial level, [is to take place] as soon as possible after the summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, and before the summer," Kouchner said.Eastern European Fears
The United States, whose delegation is led by Clinton, pushed hard for the decision to restore ties.
But not all alliance members were enthusiastic -- particularly Eastern European states who see Moscow as a menacing presence in the post-Soviet region.
The skeptics were led by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas, who was the only participant to publicly oppose the proposal.
"I think it is simply premature to open the formal dialogue. I think we have to use this time before the summit and encourage Russia to be more cooperative on these questions," Usackas said ahead of the meeting.
But U.S. officials were apparently successful in assuaging such concerns. Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told reporters at NATO the United States is not putting relations with Moscow ahead of ties with smaller countries in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the U.S. delegation
"We don't do deals with Russia over the heads of other countries, like Lithuania. The Yalta era is dead. Molotov-Ribbentrop belongs to the first half of the 20th century. It's dead, it's not coming back, not ever."
In the end, Usackas did not block the resumption of formal ties with Russia, a decision that required unanimity among the NATO foreign ministers.
But issues of contention remain -- among them, the membership bids of Georgia and Ukraine, which Russia strongly opposes. Clinton urged the alliance to leave open the door to membership for the two former Soviet republics.
"I reiterated again today in our meetings with Ukraine and Georgia the United States' firm commitment to each of those nations moving toward NATO membership and our equally strong commitment to work with them along with NATO to make clear that they should not be the subject of Russian intimidation or aggression," Clinton said.Iran Standoff
The U.S. push for better ties with Moscow reflects a growing sense in Washington that greater engagement with Russia could help the White House pursue some of its major foreign-policy aims.
Moscow's cooperation is seen as key to resolving the standoff over Iran's nuclear weapons program and the war in Afghanistan.
Clinton on March 5 briefed ministers on the U.S. strategy on Afghanistan. She said the Obama administration is pushing to convene this month a high-level meeting on Afghanistan that would include "key regional and strategic countries" -- including Iran.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden is expected in Brussels on March 10 for more detailed talks on Afghanistan.
After meetings with EU officials on March 6, Clinton will head to Geneva to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Talks may focus on plans for U.S. missile-defense components in Central Europe, a plan that is deeply resented in Moscow.
Clinton repeated past U.S. offers to cooperate with Moscow on missile defense, but stressed U.S. determination to protect itself and its allies against the "regimes and terrorist networks" that constitute the major security threats of the 21st century.
"We have long offered Russia the opportunity to work with us on missile defense. We actually think that missile defense is a very important tool in our defensive arsenal for the future, because there is unfortunately a great deal of proliferation of weapons of all kinds," Clinton said.
Press reports earlier this week revealed U.S. President Obama had sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting the United States might be willing to abandon its missile-defense plans if Moscow helps curb Iran's nuclear program.