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U.S. Wary Of Chances For Normal NATO-Russia Ties

Daniel Fried
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- The United States has raised doubts about the prospect of a fast return to normal ties between NATO and Russia after the Georgian war, despite a European Union move to restart partnership talks with Moscow.

The 26-nation military alliance scaled back its cooperation with Russia after the August conflict over Georgia's rebel South Ossetia, declaring that "business as usual" was impossible after a Russian incursion condemned by the West as disproportionate.

Despite differences on the extent to which Russia has complied with a cease-fire accord in Georgia, European nations -- most of them NATO members -- have agreed to relaunch talks on an EU-Russia political and economic pact on December 2.

"We understand there is a lot of interest in NATO in resuming dialogue and contacts with Russia and that is important and we support that," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried told a briefing in Brussels.

"It is difficult for us to go back to business as usual since the Russian military did actually attack another country," he said. "It's hard when you also have Russian troops in another country against its will."

'Modest Progress'

Fried acknowledged "modest progress" at talks between Russian and Georgian officials in Geneva this week, but said Moscow had not fully complied with the cease-fire. He also raised concerns that European and other observers were not getting proper access to South Ossetia.

He said he hoped the European Union would raise issues on Russia's energy policy and concerns over democracy in its talks.

"We hope that the EU effectively addresses some of our larger concerns about Russia, about its use of energy to push around some of its neighbors," he said.

NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels in two weeks to review the decision to suspend high-level meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), the main forum for their ties.

U.S. NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker, an architect of the NRC, was wary on prospects of relaunching the forum, which in the past has yielded modest cooperation pacts in areas from counterterrorism to the Afghanistan conflict.

"The NATO-Russia Council was based on the idea that we had shared principles and values...So that's why we don't want to just go back to where we were," he told the briefing.

Both Fried and Volker stressed that the United States did not rule out all contacts with Russia, which NATO officials say have been taking place at low levels since the Georgia war.

Russian troops pushed government troops back in August after they tried to retake the pro-Moscow region of South Ossetia.

Tbilisi's drive to join NATO has long exacerbated tensions with Moscow. The United States has backed a push to put Georgia and Ukraine on a formal path toward possible membership. European capitals such as Germany have resisted this.

NATO foreign ministers are due to review the issue at the December meeting, but neither Fried nor Volker would forecast the outcome of the talks.