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NATO leaders meet Putin, seek thaw with Russia

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - NATO began a farewell summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday which both sides hoped would thaw chilly relations and set the stage for cooperation with the next Kremlin leader.

Putin sat down with President George W. Bush and the alliance’s 25 other leaders for a two-hour meeting, one day after NATO leaders meeting in Bucharest promised Ukraine and Georgia they would one day join the Western defense pact.

That pledge could irk Putin but Russian officials chose to underline the importance of NATO’s refusal on Thursday to put the two former Soviet republics on an immediate path to membership in the face of fierce Russian opposition.

“We will take stock of our commonalities. But also seek ways to intensify the process of finding common denominators on issues on which we don’t agree,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in brief remarks opening the meeting.

Talks began in a positive mood, a NATO diplomat said.

“There have been no substantive changes of the main issues -- but no fireworks either. Putin was very positive on the NATO-Russia Council,” the diplomat said of the structure set up six years ago to manage ties between the former Cold War foes.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko sought earlier on Friday to reassure Russia his country’s ambitions were not directed against its former Soviet master.

“Our state has the full right to choose our own way of development, protect our security and our interests. Our interests are not destined (to be) against any other country,” Yushchenko told an earlier session.

De Hoop Scheffer said a statement pledging to welcome Ukraine into NATO was an unambiguous commitment that did not leave “a shimmer of a doubt” although Kiev would still have to meet the membership criteria.

Yushchenko said he was sure a review in December would grant Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a formal gateway to eventual membership. That was denied his country in Bucharest after Germany, France and others resisted.

PUTIN STAYS QUIET

Uncertainty remained about how Putin would respond to NATO pushing open its doors to Georgia and Ukraine.

Initial Kremlin reaction was caustic but not explosive. The Russian Foreign Ministry published a letter on Thursday in which Putin assured rebels in breakaway Georgian regions he would not abandon them if Tbilisi cuddled up to the West.

In a sign Putin did not want to use the meeting to launch a new tirade against NATO, the Kremlin said he would not give a news conference at the end of the meeting. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would take his place, officials said.

But they said there was no underestimating the importance of NATO’s pledge to Ukraine and Georgia, whose membership would in effect remove the existing buffer zone of states between NATO and Russia.

“I want to stress that the context (of these talks) has changed after yesterday’s decision,” Russian Foreign ministry official Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.

Bush, who like Putin is in the twilight of his presidency, will also meet the Russian leader at his holiday home in the Black Sea resort for talks he has described as a last chance for a “heart-to-heart”.

Out to polish a legacy tarnished by the Iraq war, Bush wants to raise ideas for a “strategic framework” agreement between the United States and Russia during his stay with Putin a day later at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The Kremlin said Putin had come to the Romanian capital determined to focus on the positive and play down disputes with the West ranging from Kosovo to U.S. missile shield plans.

It will be the first time NATO leaders have hosted a Russian president since 2002 and could help them gauge how much power Putin plans to retain after Medvedev takes over as president next month. Putin is expected to become prime minister.

NATO and Russia signed a land transit pact allowing the alliance to use Russian land to deliver non-lethal supplies to its troops in Afghanistan, a NATO spokeswoman said.

However the agreement will not cover movements of troops or air transit arrangements as initially sought by NATO.

Writing by Randall Palmer and Mark John; Editing by Timothy Heritage

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