- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

BRUSSELS I NATO agreed Thursday to resume formal contacts with Russia six months after shutting out Moscow because of the Georgia war, but a heated debate exposed the fears of former Soviet bloc nations about possible threats to their security.

At Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first meeting with the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s decision-making body, Mrs. Clinton and foreign ministers agreed that contact with Russia is more important than punishing it.

“The ministers reached agreement to formally resume the NATO-Russia Council, including at ministerial level,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. “We have quite a number of areas where we have fundamental differences of opinion and where we think that Russia should really change its position.”

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Mrs. Clinton pushed for resuming NATO-Russian contacts ahead of her meeting Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.

“We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest, including helping the people of Afghanistan, arms control and nonproliferation, counter-piracy and counter-narcotics and addressing the threats posed by Iran and North Korea,” she told her fellow ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, initially objected to reopening formal dialogue with Moscow, with Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas saying doing so is “premature.” Other former communist countries joined Lithuania in expressing reservations that the move may compromise security.

Mrs. Clinton sought to dispel those concerns.

The Bush administration was determined to proceed with the plan and signed agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to host the needed sites. But in a recent letter to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, President Obama suggested that the systems might not be necessary if Moscow persuades Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is “natural that some allies, notably the Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact members, are concerned about NATO overtures to Russia.”

“However, I think the best way to enhance their security and sovereignty is to foster a much more positive relationship and greater cooperation between NATO and Russia,” he said.

Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said “haste is the enemy of wisdom in foreign policy.”

“The U.S. and the allies should not give up on missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, [should] step up military training and cooperation with Eastern Europeans, boost ties with Ukraine, and refuse to recognize secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he said.

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