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Relationship With Russia Dominates NATO Session’s Closing Day

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

NOORDWIJK, Netherlands, Oct. 25, 2007 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrapped up his second day here focusing on NATO’s relationship with Russia, as well as Russian objections to some alliance activities.

Gates and other members of the NATO-Russia Council met with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to talk about their common interests and attempt to iron out their differences.

The session took place amid mounting Russian criticism on issues ranging from a proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe to negotiations over Kosovo’s future and NATO expansion plans.

The NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002, serves as a forum for all 26 NATO allies and Russia to work together as equal partners to advance NATO-Russia relations. It met during the second and last day of a NATO informal ministerial conference at this North Sea resort town.

Gates downplayed any disagreements with Russia earlier this week in Prague, telling Radio Free Europe that the United States considers Russia a strategic ally it shares many common interests with and wants to work with.

“I think our approach should be to consider Russia a strategic partner until and unless it proves otherwise,” Gates said during the Oct. 23 interview. “There has been a lot of rhetoric, but in terms of specific actions so far, the Russians have not taken any irreversible decisions. And they have, in some areas, continued to play a constructive role.”

For example, today’s NATO-Russia Council meeting here followed a two-day session Russia hosted earlier this week on the council’s counternarcotics training project for Afghanistan and Central Asia. Robert Simmons, NATO's deputy assistant secretary-general for security cooperation and partnership, praised the project as “one of the most significant successes of NATO-Russia cooperation.”

Today’s NRC meeting preceded Gates’ bilateral meeting with Polish National Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo, which a U.S. defense official characterized as “a good conversation.” The session focused on the NATO mission in Afghanistan and on a proposed missile defense system that would include 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

The inteceptors would be part of a proposed missile defense system designed to protect Europe and the United States from a ballistic missile attack by rogue countries in the Middle East. It also would include a radar in the Czech Republic.

President Bush said earlier this week in Washington that the need for the system “is real, and I believe it’s urgent.”

Russia considers the system a threat to its security, but Gates said during an Oct. 23 news conference in Prague that he believes his and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Moscow put options on the table he hopes will lessen Russia’s resistance.

Gates and Szczyglo talked about changes within the Polish government following Oct. 21 elections that moved the opposition party into power and their potential impact on the two countries’ defense cooperation.

The secretary told reporters the day after the elections that he’s confident the shift won’t erode U.S.-Polish cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan or missile defense plans.

Today’s NATO-Russian Council session came as NATO was discussing another Russian sticking point: the alliance’s support for U.N. Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari’s plan that will lead to Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Russia wants Serbian and Kosovar leaders to agree to any plan on Kosovo’s status.

A senior defense official traveling with Gates said yesterday’s talks underscored the importance of the 16,000-member Kosovo Force, or KFOR, peacekeeping mission. The ministers agreed that “as we head toward final status decisions, KFOR becomes more important than ever, and we all need to meet our commitments in KFOR,” the official said.

She noted that Gates has made clear he intends to keep U.S. forces there until next summer. “Other KFOR countries made similar commitments,” she said. “I think virtually everybody who spoke on Kosovo talked about the importance of the KFOR being strong and ready now, and nobody said they have a problem maintaining their force.”

Earlier this week, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Gates urged Southeastern Defense Ministerial members to continue their part in the KFOR stabilization mission “regardless of what happens after Dec. 10,” the deadline for negotiations regarding Kosovo’s future status.

NATO defense ministers here also discussed plans expand the 26-member alliance to include Croatia, Albania and Macedonia. Gates met with the NATO aspirants in Ukraine earlier this week to discuss their progress toward satisfying NATO membership requirements.

Gates also met with French Defense Minister Herve Morin today, with talks focusing on France’s contributions in Afghanistan, as well as the Kosovo mission, missile defense and the NATO-European relationship, a defense official said.

The two leaders had “very candid and constructive” talks, the official said, noting that the U.S. and French counterparts have “a very good rapport and excellent working relationship.”

The secretary declined to confirm media reports that France could for the first time send military trainers into southern Afghanistan. Such a move, which would extend France’s contribution beyond the 1,000 troops serving with the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Kabul and Kandahar, would represent a major strategic shift for France, a U.S. official told journalists.

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Robert M. Gates

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