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Gates to Attend Meetings in Macedonia, Hungary

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will travel this week to participate in a southeastern Europe defense ministerial conference in Macedonia and a NATO meeting in Hungary, senior defense officials said.

The Russian invasion of Georgia probably will be a primary discussion point at the meeting in Macedonia, Defense Department officials said, adding that they believe Gates will get some fresh insights and feedback from his counterparts.

While in Macedonia, Gates and Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov will meet. Officials speaking on background said the meeting is a way for the secretary to show support for Ukraine and its engagement with NATO.

The NATO ministerial meeting in Budapest, Hungary, will focus on NATO operations, specifically those of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, officials said. The meeting will include non-NATO troop-contributing nations, officials said, and the discussion on Afghanistan will zero in on longer-term commitments to the nation.

“The secretary is really intent on focusing on the future of NATO,” a senior defense official said. “His term is ‘institutionalizing transformation’ – the capabilities of NATO looking into the future. His focus is more overarching” than headline-driven, the official said.

Another discussion will focus on issues such as alliance headquarters reform. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has prepared some specific proposals for the ministers to discuss at this session. The ministers also will discuss multinational approaches to defense capabilities, such as NATO buying C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets to bolster strategic airlift capabilities. The C-17s will be based at a Hungarian air base, with the first planes arriving in the spring.

Other issues for discussion are deployability targets and the NATO Response Force, the officials said, and the leaders also will speak about Kosovo and piracy issues, which have come to the forefront following increased pirate attacks of ships in the Indian Ocean, along the Somali coast. Two weeks ago, pirates seized a Ukrainian ship full of military arms in the area.

The secretary also will participate in a NATO-Georgia Commission meeting in Budapest. The commission was established a month ago, and this will be the first ministerial-level meeting. “We see this as an excellent opportunity to show support for Georgia at this time,” the senior defense official said.

Because of events in Georgia, the NATO-Russia Council will not meet in Budapest, officials said. NATO had planned a NATO-Russia Council meeting for Budapest, but those plans changed after the invasion of Georgia, defense officials said.

“In fact, within two weeks after the invasion, Russia announced that it was suspending all high-level activities with NATO,” one official said. “Even if Russia had not done so, it is highly unlikely NATO would have extended an invitation to Russia to participate in the Budapest gathering.”

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