BRUSSELS -- Today's meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), the first since Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, marked an important psychological landmark. But the talks failed to make headway on any of the issues dividing Russia and NATO -- such as the future of European security, Georgia, or NATO's own expansion.
After the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen struck a conciliatory note, praising its "solid results" and saying it represents a "fresh start" for the NATO-Russia relationship.
Rasmussen highlighted three agreements signed by NATO and Russia today, most significant of which, he said, is a pledge to jointly review "21st century security challenges."
"We have agreed to launch a joint review of the 21st century common threats and challenges,” Rasmussen said. “The aim is to agree on the real threats all 29 nations face today, a list which I am confident will not include each other."
NATO and Russia also agreed to review the functions of the NATO-Russia Council, with the aim of making the body -- which brings together all 28 NATO countries plus Russia -- more effective.
Finally, NATO and Russia agreed a joint action plan for 2010, which envisages direct military collaboration, cooperation on fighting terrorism and piracy, and joint action on Afghanistan.
Eyes On The SCO
However, speaking after the NRC meeting today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down Russia's role in helping carry out the military strategy on Afghanistan announced by U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this week.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking on December 3 in Rome, appeared to offer Russian support for the plan by providing unspecified help to the Afghan economy, military, and police forces.
But Lavrov today said NATO should lay out a broad political and economic strategy for the country that involves not only alliance members but all of Afghanistan's neighbors. Virtually all of the country's neighbors, Lavrov noted, are members of or observers at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, which comprises Russia, China, and most of the Central Asian nations.
For its part, NATO appeared to rebuff Russia's attempts to engage it directly in talks about President Dmitry Medvedev's pan-European security plans. Rasmussen said today that the Russian president's recent proposal merits study, but made it clear that OSCE must be the forum to handle them.
NATO “ministers made it clear they are open to discuss it, but that the OSCE remains the primary forum for that discussion."
Medvedev first floated the idea for an alternative European security strategy over a year ago. But a concrete proposal was put forward for the first time only on November 29, when the Kremlin published the text on its website. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, briefly threatened to boycott the NATO-Russia Council meeting if Medvedev's security proposal was not on the agenda. Ultimately, however, it remained off the table.
Rasmussen was among those who said he had not yet had time to review the proposal. But he said NATO will "remain our framework for Euro-Atlantic security," in a reference to suspicions that Russia's proposals are an attempt by Moscow to gain a veto over the alliance's expansion plans.
NATO diplomats say that allies also reject direct talks on Medvedev's proposal out of a desire to ensure countries like Ukraine and Georgia are not sidelined.
Lavrov said Russia wanted all of Europe's security organizations, including the OSCE, to participate in the discussion.
He said Russia's main goal boils down to a wish to acquire a legally binding commitment that no country or alliance in the Euro-Atlantic region may extend its security "at the expense of another."
Lavrov said that in Russia's view, the existing security arrangements in Europe are out of date and inadequate.
"We are convinced that the principle of the indivisibility of security, which was addressed by a number of political declarations adopted in the 1990s, must be reinforced," Lavrov said. "Until now, it hasn't always fully worked -- to put it mildly."
In their separate press conferences, Rasmussen and Lavrov made it clear that there is as yet no meeting of minds on any of the three of the most acute security problems affecting the NATO-Russian relationship -- NATO's expansion plans, the territorial integrity of Georgia, and the future of the conventional arms regime in Europe.