WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama discussed relations with Russia and other key issues with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in a 45-minute meeting at the White House.
Nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War, relations between Russia and the West are less than robust. Some blame Russia, accusing it of aggressively working to reestablish its old sphere of influence in the region. But others blame the United States and NATO for quickly absorbing ex-Soviet states and other former communist nations into the military alliance.
In recent weeks, Obama's administration has been saying it wants to "reset" the relationship with Russia.
But in talks with de Hoop Scheffer, Obama made it clear that such a "reset" would be done only within the context of NATO.
Obama also made it clear that no country in Europe, regardless of its past relationship with Moscow, will be given NATO membership unless it is politically and militarily prepared to join.
"My administration is seeking a reset of the relationship with Russia, but in a way that's consistent with NATO membership and consistent with the need to send a clear signal throughout Europe that we are going to continue to abide by the central belief that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO," Obama said. 'Russia Needs NATO'
Sitting beside Obama in the Oval Office, de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged the differences between NATO and Russia, but also stressed the importance of reconciliation.
"We have many things on which [NATO and Russia] disagree, but NATO needs Russia, and Russia needs NATO, so let's work on the things we agree on," de Hoop Scheffer said. "And let's not hide our disagreements, and let us realize that also this relationship can and, in my opinion, should be strengthened."
The careful words about Russia by both Obama and de Hoop Scheffer came a day after U.S. Army General John Craddock, NATO's outgoing supreme allied commander, spoke skeptically of Russia's intentions regarding its neighbors, particularly Georgia, a former Soviet republic.
Testifying on March 24 before the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee in Washington, Craddock pointed to last August's war between Georgia and Russia as evidence that Moscow may be reverting to its old ways.
"The events of last August in Georgia essentially changed the assumption that we made 15 years ago or more," Craddock said. "And the assumption after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was that there were no borders that were under threat of invasion in Europe, in Eurasia -- that that would not be the case. So we moved ahead on that assumption. I think that assumption has now been proven false."
In comments to the "Financial Times,"
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed a U.S. review of relations with Moscow, but reiterated hostility toward NATO expanding into the former Soviet Union.Strategic Review
At the White House, Obama and de Hoop Scheffer also discussed the Obama administration's review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The results of that study are expected on March 27, in plenty of time to be a focus of discussion at the two-day NATO summit being held in Strasbourg and Kehl, Germany, starting April 3.
"We are confident that we can create a process whereby NATO, which is already strong, becomes stronger; where we become even more effective in coordinating our efforts in Afghanistan," Obama said. "As many of you know, we're in the process, this administration, of going through an evaluation, a strategic review of our approach to Afghanistan. And we expect to share that with our NATO counterparts."
De Hoop Scheffer agreed, saying other NATO members will welcome Washington's new evaluation of the goals in Afghanistan, which he called the alliance's "most important operational priority."
Next month's NATO summit will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of NATO. Both Obama and de Hoop Scheffer said they look forward to the celebration.
The NATO chief added that it will give the members of the alliance an opportunity not only to look back over its brief history, but also ahead to new challenges, especially in Afghanistan.
"Celebrating your 60th anniversary should not only be back to look at your successes, but also look ahead. And in Afghanistan, there are still major challenges," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Many things are going right, but many things are not going right."