BRUSSELS, Mar 6 – NATO agreed Thursday to resume high-level talks with Russia, ending a seven-month freeze sparked by Moscow’s decision to send troops into Georgia in August.
After overcoming staunch objections from Lithuania, NATO foreign ministers agreed to restart the so-called NATO-Russia Council after the alliance’s summit on April 3-4.
"Ministers reached agreement to formally resume the NATO-Russia Council, including at ministerial level," alliance Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after chairing the talks in Brussels.
He gave no date or venue for the restart, but said it should happen "as soon as possible after the summit" to mark NATO’s 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, France, and the neighbouring German city of Kehl.
However Moscow’s envoy said a meeting at ambassadorial level would take place soon after the summit.
"The first full meeting at ambassador level will be held in April," Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin told reporters.
The so-called NATO-Russia Council meetings were frozen in August after Moscow sent troops into Georgia.
Despite the move, Scheffer underlined: "We have quite a number of areas where we have fundamental differences of opinion and where we think Russia should change its opinion."
He pointed notably to Russia’s widely condemned decision to recognise the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as its plans to set up bases there.
"We will urge Russia to meet fully its commitments with respect to Georgia."
In an effort to ease the concerns of Georgia and Ukraine, both striving to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in the face of Russian objections, the ministers also met with Georgian and Ukrainian representatives.
But Scheffer underlined that Russia was an important partner by providing logistical help to NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, as well as helping to fight terrorism, drugs, and nuclear proliferation.
However NATO takes its decisions unanimously, and any of its 26 members can torpedo a deal, and Lithuania held out, dragging the talks on, insisting that the allies devise a more coherent strategy to deal with Russia.
"I encouraged NATO foreign ministers to have an honest and frank account of what should be the strategy of NATO towards Russia," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas said after the talks.
"I hope that today’s long discussion among the foreign ministers will produce a common basis to move forwards," he said.
"My intention was not to block. My intention was to engage my colleagues" on the need for a strategy towards Russia, he said.
Several nations have wanted to resume formal meetings of the NATO-Russia Council, which meets routinely among ambassadors, but also at ministerial and head of state and government level.
France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain maintain that the sanction against the key European energy supplier is counter-productive and have called for it to be lifted for months. Britain joined that position late last year.
On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama revealed that he sent a long letter to his Russian counterpart in a bid to join forces on thorny issues like Iran, nuclear arms and missile defence, in a sign of a new detente.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it was "time to move ahead".
"It is time to move ahead, not wait in place with the illusion that things will change on their own. It is time for realism, as well as hope," she told the ministers.
"While some perceive the NATO-Russia Council as a reward or concession to Russia, it should be viewed as a mechanism for dialogue on issues where we disagree and a platform for cooperation that is in our interests," she said.
In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry welcomed the move.
"We note with satisfaction that good sense has prevailed within NATO," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Igor Lyakin-Frolov, the ministry’s deputy spokesman, as saying.