NATO says to re-engage with Russian leaders

BRUSSELS Mon Jan 26, 2009 1:54pm EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO said on Monday it would resume next week top-level contacts with Russia frozen due to the Georgia war, and Russia said it saw no obstacle to restoring full ties as early as next month.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai, speaking after the first meeting between Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin and the 26 NATO ambassadors since Russia's August intervention in Georgia, said it had not dwelt on the past but looked to the future.

"There were no recriminations from any of the ambassadors and they are all looking forward to the next step, which is the secretary-general's engagement at the political level with the Russian leadership in coming weeks."

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he would meet the head of the Russian delegation to a February 6-8 security conference in Munich "to re-engage at a political level."

"We and Russia need to find our way to a new, more trusting and more rewarding relationship," he told a Brussels seminar. "The NATO-Russia relationship is too valuable to be stuck in never-changing arguments."

Russia's RIA Novosti news agency said the contact could be with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Rogozin told Reuters he saw no obstacle to the restoration of full ties with NATO as early as next month and there could be progress toward this at Munich.

"The prospect of a quick resumption of relations is now fully open ... I don't exclude that this would take place as early as the second half of February," he said.

The ambassador-level NATO-Russia Council, the main forum for cooperation, was suspended after NATO condemned Russia's actions during its war with Georgia as disproportionate.

NATO foreign ministers agreed last month on a gradual resumption of contacts, stressing areas of mutual interest, including cooperation in the fight against Islamist militancy.

AFGHAN COOPERATION

Appathurai said there had been particular focus on Monday on cooperation in Afghanistan. "It was a meeting with a very good, very positive spirit," he said. "It was not backward looking ... but focused on what can be done together in future."

Last week, Rogozin made an explicit link between restoration of ties and letting the alliance send supplies across Russia to Afghanistan, where a NATO-led force is fighting militants.

Alliance officials have said full normalization of ties will require a political decision by member states, who will meet at ministerial level in mid-February.

"Everything was very constructive," said Rogozin. "We discussed everything, including our points of disagreement, such as the reasons for and circumstances surrounding the conflict in the North Caucasus."

NATO has stressed it has not changed its view of Russian actions in Georgia and reaffirmed a pledge -- which had greatly angered Russia -- that former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine would one day join the alliance.

De Hoop Scheffer said no country had a veto on NATO enlargement and NATO's aim of consolidating Europe as an "undivided and democratic security space" was not negotiable.

NATO moved to restore ties with Moscow after the European Union resumed talks on a broad-ranging partnership pact with Russia, reflecting European acceptance that any attempt to isolate a key energy partner could damage European interests.

European concern was underlined by a gas supply crisis with Russia and transit state Ukraine at the turn of the year. The Bush administration had been reluctant to make an early move.

(Additional reporting by Simon Shuster in Moscow, editing by Tim Pearce)

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