BRUSSELS NATO agreed on Thursday to resume formal ties with Russia, suspended after Moscow's war with Georgia, in the hope of winning greater Russian support for its struggle to stabilize Afghanistan.
"We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest, including helping the people of Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Russia immediately welcomed the move agreed at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
"This decision is positive," its ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told a news conference, calling it "promising in terms of stability and security in Afghanistan."
But he regretted that ties would only be formally resumed after an April 3-4 NATO summit.
"Russia is in no hurry on Afghanistan but NATO indeed should be hurrying and we are just surprised that this issue of the resuming of practical work is postponed for another month."
Before the NATO meeting, Russia had said it would allow transit of non-lethal U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan. With its supply lines under pressure from militant attacks, NATO hopes that in future such help could be extended to air transit, air lift and routes for lethal aid.
It also hopes to see Russian cooperation in encouraging Central Asian states to allow the passage of NATO supplies, and in keeping open bases used by NATO forces, one of which is about to be closed down by Kyrgyzstan.
Alliance member Lithuania had blocked quick agreement to resume cooperation with Moscow through the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), the body that directs dialogue between the two sides on security issues, but later dropped its objections.
NATO had suspended cooperation in protest at Russia's war last August with Georgia, an aspiring member of the alliance.
NEED TO TALK
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said ministers agreed to resume formal NRC sessions, including at ministerial level, as soon as possible after the summit. "Russia is a global player. Not talking to them is not an option," he said.
NATO said differences remained with Moscow and de Hoop Scheffer urged Russia to fully meet its commitments on Georgia.
NATO members say a build-up of Russia's military presence in breakaway Georgian regions and violates Georgian territorial integrity and goes against a French-brokered ceasefire deal.
"We have quite a number of areas where we have fundamental differences of opinion and where we think that Russia should really change its position," de Hoop Scheffer said.
Clinton, while pressing for a fresh start with Russia, said the door to alliance membership must be kept open for ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow strongly opposes their entry bids.
Clinton is set to hold her first substantive talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday and agreement on resuming ties with NATO will help the atmosphere.
The United States, the biggest force contributor in Afghanistan, is carrying out a review of its strategy, and Clinton proposed an international conference for March 31 to map out future strategy to tackle the insurgency.
So far Washington's appeals for more troops for Afghanistan have generated only a limited response from Europe.
But Clinton said there had been "broad agreement" on a new strategy, including a regional approach, better coordinated civilian and military commitments and intensive efforts to promote governance and economic opportunities.
"All the participants recognized the need for increased resources and manpower," she told a news conference.
(Writing by David Brunnstrom and Sue Pleming; Editing by Richard Balmforth)