The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) met informally at Ministerial level Saturday in Corfu, bringing an end to the body suspension, in place since the Russian military intervention in Georgia last Summer. The NRC had been due to hold this meeting in late May, but Russia cancelled that meeting angry at NATO holding joint exercises with Georgia.
Before the meeting, James Appathurai the NATO spokesman told reporters that: It means we are back to business. It was not the business that was totally frozen. But at the political level and at the military-to-military level, I expect we will leave Corfu back to business.
In fact, the Council had only ever been suspended at the insistence of former President George Bush. Many European nations had wanted to use the NRC to talk with Russia about Georgia, but the US insisted on gesture politics instead. President Obama has sought better relations with Russia to move his arms control and disarmament agenda along. Restoration of the NATO-Russia Council was part of this policy.
The NRC has been meeting regularly at Ambassadorial level for some time. At a meeting a week ago, Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told Itar-Tass that the NRC ministerial meeting “will make it possible to re-launch the full format political dialogue that was interrupted on the NATO initiative after the Russian response to Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia.” The restoration of the political dialogue will also “open the way for the resumption of military cooperation, including interaction on Afghanistan, resumption of Russia’s participation in the NATO antiterrorist operation in the Mediterranean “Active Endeavour,” as well as cooperation in the fight against pirates near the Somalia coast.”
Re-engaging with Russia on Afghanistan is another key Obama objective. With Russian support the possibility grows of more robust northern supply lines into Afghanistan to provide logisitics for the ever growing US and NATO mission. Given the uncertain nature of southern supply routes through Pakistan, this is likely to be essential to any NATO success in Afghanistan.
After the meeting, outgoing NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said to journalists that: Despite the fact that there are differences ... the spirit (of the meeting) was one of wanting to cooperate.. The NATO-Russia Council, which has been in the neutral stand for almost a year, is now back in gear. The 29 ambassadors in Brussels will very quickly get back to work to agree on new procedures to make the NATO-Russia Council function more effectively.
The Russian view of the meeting was a little less positive. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the meeting was ".. a positive development", but that there was a "frank exchange of views" at the table. As de Hoop Scheffer said, the disagreements focused on Georgia, where NATO nations refuse to accept Russian recognition of breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which they now support militarily. Scheffer said that: No one tried to paper over our differences, on Georgia for example. But we agreed not to let those disagreements bring the whole NRC train to a halt.
Lavrov, on the other hand, insisted that Russia's recognition of the separatists could not be reversed: All have to accept the new realities and the decisions taken by Russia after the conflict are irreversible.
This is a first step, but the most positive factor is that both sides have agreed that talking about problems is better than a new East-West face-off. The Bush administration wa sprepared to push NATO into a new Cold War to make a point to Russia about Georgia. Cooler heads have prevailed, and a range of issues from missile defence and arms control to Afghanistan are now on the table for future cooperation.
(Note that the full NATO web pae on the meeting can be accessed here)