NATO looks for strong line, continued dialogue with Russia

NATO should take a strong line with Russia over its use of force in the conflict with Georgia, but that strong line should not imperil NATO-Russia dialogue, the alliance's foreign ministers said at an emergency meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, dpa reported.

"The first priority is to provide political and practical support to Georgia, the second is to ensure that Russia doesn't learn the wrong lessons from the events of the last two weeks ... Force cannot be the basis for the demarcation of new lines around Russia," British Foreign Minister David Miliband said ahead of the meeting.

However, "I'm not one who believes that isolating Russia is the right answer to its misdemeanours. I think that the right response is hard-headed engagement," he said without specifying how that hard- headedness might be put into action.

The meeting at NATO's Brussels headquarters was convened at the request of the United States, the alliance's most powerful member, amidst ongoing concern as to the military situation in the Caucasus.

Ahead of the meeting, US diplomats warned that Russia's actions in Georgia, which the US sees as disproportionate, could imperil its participation in international organizations and its cooperation with NATO through the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), founded in 2002.

However, ministers on Tuesday stopped well short of calling for a freeze in NRC meetings.

"I don't want to suspend (the NRC), but at the same time it's obvious that we can't have business as usual with the disproportionate use of violence," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said.

"If we have the NRC, and it doesn't meet after what has happened, I ask myself what point it has ... I hope that after this meeting we will start talking again and the great powers (the US and Russia) will talk again," Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn said.

In April NATO leaders promised that Georgia would join the alliance at an unspecified future date. However, some member states warned that such a move would antagonize Russia and lead to an increase in tension in the region.

NATO ministers on Tuesday stressed that that pledge of future membership remained valid.

Russia must understand that "we're going to stick together as an alliance and make sure people who want to join the alliance know they've got political and practical support," Miliband said.

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