NATO and Russia are set to resume military ties on Saturday and agree to cooperate on Afghanistan, counterterrorism and anti-piracy patrols at their first high-level meeting since last year's war between Russia and Georgia, Western officials said.
Relations between the alliance and the Russian military were frozen in the aftermath of the five-day war last August.
Although political ties have thawed considerably over the past five months, there have been no formal military contacts since then. "I've come in an optimistic mood," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said ahead of a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his counterparts from NATO's 28 member nations on the Greek island of Corfu. "I expect (the meeting) will be the restart of our relationship, that we can see where we can more intensively work together, not shying away from the differences of opinion that we have." Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Greek counterpart Costas Karamanlis were the only heads of government to attend the meeting. "We need the Russian Federation also for Afghanistan, given its key role in the region from which terrorist missions could be carried out," news agency ANSA quoted Berlusconi as telling reporters on a flight to Corfu.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that he "never believed it was right to try to isolate Russia.
"I think there are terrorist threats that we can tackle better with Russia rather than without Russia," he said after arriving at the seaside resort off Greece's western coast.
The talks are being held in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, a panel set up in 2002 to improve ties between the former Cold War rivals.
The meeting comes as President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev prepare to hold a summit next week, and is likely to reflect the trend toward improved relations.
"What we would like to see is cooperation in areas where we have clearly identified interests," said a senior US official who spoke on usual condition of anonymity. "We hope today's meeting is the beginning of the process of reviving military-to-military cooperation."
Despite last year's disruption of ties with NATO, Russia has continued cooperating with individual NATO nations such as the US, France or Germany by allowing them to use Russia's rail network to resupply international forces in Afghanistan, and its navy has worked with NATO warships on their joint anti-piracy patrols. Officials said participants are expected to give a go-ahead on Saturday for formal military ties to be restarted with meetings of defense ministers and military chiefs of staff.
NATO commanders are particularly interested in Russia's cooperation on the transshipments of military supplies to the rapidly expanding US-led force in Afghanistan. The normal supply route to landlocked Afghanistan via Pakistan has come under repeated Taliban attack, and the generals are keen to have an alternate overland supply route available through Russia and the Central Asian countries.
Saturday's meeting coincides with preparations for Afghanistan's presidential elections on August 20, seen as a key indication of whether the US and NATO are succeeding in their efforts to stabilize the nation. NATO also wants Russia to provide more assistance to the war effort, including helping the government army with arms and airlift. The US official said that in addition to Afghanistan, other areas of military-to-military cooperation range from anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and counterterrorism activities, to missile defense and other issues.
Lavrov is expected to brief the NATO ministers on Medvedev's proposal for a new European security structure, including a stability treaty encompassing Europe and North America. Contentious issues such as Georgia and a key European arms-control treaty will also be discussed, but none is seen as an obstacle to improving relations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was expected to meet with Lavrov in Corfu, was forced to cancel those plans after she fell and broke her elbow at the State Department. Deputy Secretary of States James Steinberg will replace her. The NATO-Russia meeting will be followed Sunday by a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose rotating chairmanship Greece currently holds. The OSCE talks, which start Saturday night with a dinner, will be followed on Sunday afternoon by a meeting between EU ministers to discuss Iran, the Greek Foreign Ministry has said.