Nato expected to resume ties with Russians

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Seven months after breaking ties with Russia over its invasion of Georgia, the Nato alliance moved today toward resuming formal relations despite lingering concerns about Moscow's approach to reasserting its regional influence.

Nato foreign ministers opened a one-day meeting in Brussels today and appeared likely to decide the time is right to forge ties Russia. Such a move could boost President Barack Obama's efforts to build a stronger bond with the Russians after years of tensions during the Bush administration.

For US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived here last night, the Nato meeting will be her first. She is at the midpoint of a week-long trip that began in Egypt and took her to Israel on Tuesday and the West Bank yesterday. After the Nato session she is due to travel to Geneva tomorrow to meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and afterward she is to visit Ankara, Turkey.

As the ministers gathered at Nato headquarters on the outskirts of the Belgian capital, Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was asked by a reporter whether he expected a formal go-ahead to revive the Nato-Russia Council, a forum established several years ago — amid Russian concerns about the alliance expanding eastward — to discuss a range of regional issues.

"My inclination is positive. Let's hope the ministers agree with me," he said.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters upon arrival at Nato headquarters that he would argue in favour.

"I think it's important to re-establish the Nato-Russia Council," he said. "In many areas, such as Afghanistan, it is important that Russia and Nato work together." Asked whether that means it will once again be business as usual with Moscow, Miliband replied, "Business was changed fundamentally since the Georgia crisis."

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht told reporters after hosting a dinner with his fellow Nato ministers last night that despite some small differences, there appeared to be a majority in favour of restarting formal ties with Russia.

Clinton is expected to update the ministers on the Obama administration's review of its Afghan war strategy. The United States has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and the alliance has a similar number. Washington has pushed European allies for many months to increase their commitments in Afghanistan — military and civilian — but a troop shortage persists, according to US commanders.

Obama has approved plans to send an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan in coming months.

Clinton declined yesterday to discuss the status of the administration's Afghanistan review, which is examining ways to improve not only the military aspect of the struggle but also the international economic and diplomatic aspects. Asked whether Iran might be brought in as a partner in helping to stabilise Afghanistan, Clinton told reporters, "That will be considered."

Clinton told reporters travelling with her yesterday that the US and Nato relationships with Russia are complicated.

"Just as with the conversation I will begin with Minister Lavrov on Friday, there's an interest in exploring with Russia what kind of cooperation is possible — both with Nato and with the United States on a range of issues," she said.

"In some areas, I think we're going to find there is a great potential for cooperation. In others, we're going to have differences and we will stand our ground and they will stand theirs and we'll hope to find some accommodation, if possible. But there are some actions Russia has taken recently, as you know, over the last several years that are very troubling," she added, referring at least in part to the Georgia war.

The five-day war erupted when Georgia launched an attack to regain control over South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs with Russian support since the early 1990s. Russian forces intervened, driving Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and surrounding areas and pushing deep into Georgia.

US missile defences are another source of tension with Moscow. The Russians are particularly angry about a Bush administration plan — now under review by the Obama administration — to install missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

Clinton said yesterday, without saying whether Obama would proceed with the plan, that the Russians should understand that the missile shield is not aimed at them.

"I think they are beginning to really believe it — that this is not about Russia," she said.