Thursday, April 30, 2009

NATO, Russia resume formal political talks, differences remain

NATO and Russia resumed formal political talks on Wednesday with a meeting of the ambassadors of the 28 allies and Russian envoy Dmitry Rogozin after a freeze for eight months. NATO said there were positive signs from the Russian side, particularly on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. But Russia blasted the alliance for its planned military exercises in Georgia, which Russia briefly invaded in August 2008. The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting at ambassadorial level was the first formal one since August 2008 when NATO angrily suspended all high-level political contacts with Russia following the Russia-Georgia military conflict in the Caucasus.

"The meeting opened with a shared view that the NATO-Russia Council meeting was a very welcome one, that the time has come to take the next step," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero. "There was positive expectation of the future work of the NATO-Russia Council."
She said the council discussed ways to "make the most of the NRC," without going into details. The parties also discussed the upcoming NRC at ministerial level, which will be held in the second half of May, she said. Romero said there are positive signs on compromise between NATO and Russia on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. "Where there seems to be new energy is the CFE issue. There seems to be a positive spirit of compromise, including in the framework of the NRC," she said.

But Rogozin was more cautious. He told reporters after the meeting that serious discussions would be held elsewhere, most probably in Geneva, rather than in the NRC. "Let us just not run into that too early. We have not just yet started that discussion." Russia suspended its obligations under the CFE treaty in 2007, citing the fact that none of the NATO countries had ratified it. NATO has since tried to bring Moscow back to the treaty, which limits the quantity of tanks and other conventional weapons in Europe. NATO has said the CFE treaty was a corner stone for European security.

The council also touched upon Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposals for a new European security architecture. The majority of the countries in the NRC held that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would be the appropriate forum for discussion, although they did not rule out discussions within the NRC, said Romero.

Rogozin said, however, that this issue should also be discussed in the NRC because "the NRC is first of all concerned with hard security issues." Wednesday's NRC meeting comes at a time of uneasy relations between NATO and Russia over the alliance's military exercises in Georgia between May 6 and June 1.

Romero said the parties discussed the issue and that their positions did not change. Rogozin, however, lashed out at NATO, labelling the exercises as "totally out of place." He said he was not convinced by NATO allies' explanation that the exercises pose no threat to Russia's security.

"I insist that these exercises are totally out of place," he told reporters after the meeting. "Any muscle flexing along our borders is not acceptable at all." He noted that the exercises will be held against the background of parliamentary elections in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, the first such poll after Russia's recognition of independence of the region. "I cannot name it other than political blackmailing."

Rogozin said Russia is also worried by statements from high-ranking U.S. officials that the NATO exercises are meant to support Georgia's territorial integrity. He blamed NATO for its "political blindness" that refuses to recognize Russia's national interests. "In a sense, NATO reminds me of a blind rhinoceros."

NATO has said the two series of exercises were planned in January 2008, long before the August 2008 Russia-Georgia military conflict over South Ossetia. But Rogozin argued on Wednesday that the fact that they were planned long ago does not mean that they could not be postponed or even cancelled altogether. He said the exercises would mean that NATO is ready to do business as usual with Georgia after the conflict, but at the same time is pursuing a policy of no business as usual with Russia, referring to the freeze of political contacts. "At least this was some sort of interruption that we couldn't get an answer to," said Rogozin.

NATO has said Russia, as a Program for Peace partner of the alliance, was actually invited to the exercises but Moscow turned down the invitation. NATO said it would welcome Russian observers to the games to clear up misunderstanding. But Moscow has rejected the offer. Russia also called off a meeting with NATO chiefs of defense scheduled for May 7. Before the NRC meeting on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he was looking forward to the meeting. But that does not mean NATO and Russia would suddenly agree on everything.

"There are a number of issues where we should seriously work together. But we should not shy away from difficult issues where we fundamentally disagree," he told reporters after a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in the morning. "The NATO-Russia Council is not a fair weather body." De Hoop Scheffer said the two sides should work together in weapons non-proliferation, Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism. But they still have fundamental differences over issues such as the territorial integrity of Georgia and the CFE treaty.