CORFU, Greece (Reuters) - NATO and Russia on Saturday resumed formal cooperation on broad security threats but failed to bridge major differences over Georgia in their first high-level talks since the war in the Caucasus region.
The deal emerged after NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the two sides recognized it was time to crank up joint efforts against Afghan insurgents and drug trafficking, Somali piracy, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
The Russia-NATO thaw emerged a week before a summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, and a summit of G8 powers in Italy.
“We have restarted our relations at a political level, we also agreed to restart the military to military contacts which had been frozen since last August,” de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference, referring to the Russia-Georgia conflict.
“The NATO-Russia Council is now back in gear. We agreed not to let disagreements bring the whole train to a halt. On Georgia, there are still fundamental differences ... (But) Russia needs NATO and NATO needs Russia,” he said.
“Afghanistan is clearly, also from the Russian side, a dossier where more and closer cooperation is certainly within the range of the possible,” he said, and this could include intensifying counter-narcotics operations.
Russia was decidedly more reserved about the foreign ministers’ deal struck on the Greek island of Corfu after protracted recriminations over Moscow’s military intervention to repel Georgia’s attempt to wrest back rebel territory.
Lavrov called the meeting after a 10-month vacuum “to a certain extent a positive development” and cited “very frank exchanges,” alluding in part to intractable differences over Georgia’s status.
Lavrov repeated that Russia’s recognition of the “independence” of two rebel regions from Georgia was an irreversible “new reality” and the West should get used to it.
Russia routed Georgian troops who tried to retake South Ossetia in August 2008 and has blocked an extension of an OSCE peace monitoring mission in Georgia, which expires on Tuesday, by insisting on a separate mandate for South Ossetia.
Western diplomats fear the OSCE military observers’ imminent departure might lead to new fighting in the tinderbox Caucasus.
Despite the impasse over Georgia, de Hoop Scheffer said efforts to flesh out Saturday’s accord would begin soon at ambassadorial level in Brussels.
Many of the ministers will stay on for an informal European Union review of ties with Iran over its post-election crackdown on opposition protesters, and an OSCE session to tackle Western-Russian grievances stoked by the Georgia conflict.
A senior U.S. official said earlier NATO also hoped for cooperation with Russia in counter-piracy operations off Somalia and to extend, to a NATO level, bilateral talks on transit of military supplies to Afghanistan through Russian territory.
On Sunday, OSCE foreign ministers will assess ways to converge views on Georgia and a new “European security architecture” proposed by Medvedev.
This could not replace NATO or the OSCE, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, alluding to fears Moscow seeks to eclipse a longtime U.S.-dominated security framework that has drawn in ex-Soviet satellites in eastern Europe.
But a window had opened, he said, to resolve problems like missile defense and curbing nuclear and conventional arsenals.
Additional reporting by Dina Kyriakidou and Hans-Edzard Busemann in Corfu; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Charles Dick