NATO Looking for Resumed Relations With Russia

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Seven months after breaking ties with
Russia over its invasion of Georgia, the NATO alliance is moving
toward resuming formal relations.

NATO foreign ministers meeting Thursday appeared likely to
decide the time is right. Such a move could boost President Barack
Obama's efforts to build a stronger bond with the Russians after
years of tensions during the Bush administration.

For U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived
in the Belgian capital Wednesday night, the NATO meeting will be
her first. She is at the midpoint of a weeklong trip that began in
Egypt and took her to Israel on Tuesday and the West Bank on
Wednesday. After the NATO session she is due to travel to Geneva on
Friday to meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

On Wednesday, a NATO spokesman said the alliance's
secretary-general hopes that Clinton and her fellow foreign
ministers will endorse a quick resumption of official contacts with
Russia. Spokesman James Appathurai said Russia will be one of two
main subjects under discussion; the other is the prospect of
developing a more effective strategy for carrying out the stalled
war in Afghanistan.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht told reporters after
hosting a dinner with his fellow NATO ministers Wednesday night
that despite some small differences, there appeared to be a
majority in favor of restarting formal ties with Russia.

Appathurai said the allies expect Clinton to update them on the
Obama administration's review of its Afghan war strategy. The
United States has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and the
alliance has a similar number. Washington has pushed the Europeans
for many months to increase their commitments in Afghanistan -
military and civilian - but a troop shortage persists, according to
U.S. commanders.

Clinton declined Wednesday to discuss the status of the
administration's Afghanistan review, which is examining ways to
improve not only the military aspect of the struggle but also the
international economic and diplomatic aspects. Asked whether Iran
might be brought in as a partner in helping to stabilize
Afghanistan, Clinton told reporters, "That will be considered."

Appathurai, the NATO spokesman, said Thursday will be "an
important opportunity for an exchange of views as we move closer to
the NATO summit," referring to an April meeting of NATO heads of
government and state at which Afghanistan will be a key topic. "We
will wish for all allies to sing from the same song-sheet, and this
will be an important stage in that process."

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Wednesday
evening that Thursday's meeting of allied foreign ministers was
expected to decide to authorize a revival of the NATO-Russia
Council, a forum in which the allies regularly meet with their
Russian counterparts to discuss a wide range of issues.

Clinton told reporters traveling with her Wednesday that the
U.S. and NATO relationships with Russia are complicated.

"Just as with the conversation I will begin with Minister
Lavrov on Friday, there's an interest in exploring with Russia what
kind of cooperation is possible - both with NATO and with the
United States on a range of issues," she said.

"In some areas, I think we're going to find there is a great
potential for cooperation. In others, we're going to have
differences and we will stand our ground and they will stand theirs
and we'll hope to find some accommodation, if possible. But there
are some actions Russia has taken recently, as you know, over the
last several years that are very troubling," she added, referring
at least in part to the Georgia war.

The five-day war erupted when Georgia launched an attack to
regain control over South Ossetia, which has run its own affairs
with Russian support since the early 1990s. Russian forces
intervened, driving Georgian troops out of South Ossetia and
surrounding areas and pushing deep into Georgia.

U.S. missile defenses are another source of tension with Moscow.
The Russians are particularly angry about a Bush administration
plan - now under review by the Obama administration - to install
missile interceptors in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the
Czech Republic.

Clinton said Wednesday, without saying whether Obama would
proceed with the plan, that the Russians should understand that the
missile shield is not aimed at them.

"I think they are beginning to really believe it - that this is
not about Russia," she said.

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