Russia is in the spotlight for NATO countries and new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The hope is that Clinton's meeting with the Russians will signal start of a new era in trans-Atlantic relations.
Clinton faces her first big diplomatic test
Clinton was given a red-carpet welcome at the European Parliament on Friday, March 6, shaking hands with well-wishers and signing autographs.
Clinton hopes to keep the good will going as she meets with top Russian officials on Friday evening. It's the first high-level meeting between the two countries since Barack Obama became president in January. No major decisions are expected, but the Obama administration has said it hopes to improve relations.
On Thursday, NATO announced that it would resume the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), including at the ministerial level. The NRC acts as the main forum for direct dialog between the two sides.
Russia can't be ignored
"Russia is an important player, a global player," NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. "Not talking to them is not an option."
The resumption of talks is critical since there are a number of current issues where the alliance and Moscow need to exchange their views, Scheffer said.
The short war between Russia and Georgia remains a concern
"We have quite a number of areas where we have fundamental differences of opinion and where we think Russia should change its opinion," he added.
Scheffer did not provide a date or venue for the next meeting, but said it should happen "as soon as possible after the summit" to mark NATO's 60th anniversary on April 3-4.
The news was greeted positively in Moscow, where a foreign ministry spokesman told the Interfax news agency that Russia noted "with satisfaction that good sense has prevailed within NATO."
However, the official expressed regret that the alliance ministers had made the decision on a "unilateral" basis, saying: "This should be a joint decision made with Russia."
NRC meetings were effectively frozen by NATO after Russia's war with Georgia in August as well as Moscow's subsequent recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
NATO ministers on Thursday stressed that the alliance was still deeply angered by Russia's decision to invade Georgia and recognize the breakaway territories. But they also acknowledged that they needed Russian help in dealing with Afghanistan, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the global fight against terrorism.
A date has not yet been set for the next council meeting
Earlier Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told alliance foreign ministers it was time for a fresh start in relations with the Kremlin through a resumption of the NRC.
"We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest, including helping the people of Afghanistan," she said at her first meeting with NATO ministers. "It is time to move ahead, not wait in place with the illusion that things will change on their own.
"While some perceive the NATO-Russia Council as a reward or concession to Russia, it should be viewed as a mechanism for dialog on issues where we disagree and a platform for cooperation that is in our interests," she said.
Clinton added that NATO must leave the door open for NATO membership to Georgia and ex-Soviet satellite state Ukraine, despite seeking to repair ties with the Kremlin, which opposes alliance membership for both states.
The US and NATO say Russia can help in Afghanistan
With a sharp focus on Afghanistan, Clinton proposed a regional conference with key players including NATO, the UN, Russia, India and Pakistan aimed at stabilizing the Middle Eastern country, diplomats said, according to a report by the DPA news agency. The conference would be held in Brussels on March 31, DPA said.
The secretary of state also told ministers that the US's strategic review of its Afghanistan mission would push for a stepping-up of efforts on the civilian side.
It would also focus on "realistic and achievable" targets, such as preventing Afghanistan from becoming a failed state or a safe haven for terrorists, rather than a Western-style democracy, diplomats said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said support among NATO members for a return to high-level ties with Russia was overwhelming.
"I think we can conclude that there is a fresh wind in NATO, and also, hopefully, a new atmosphere of cooperation," he said. "We will need both because our tasks will not get any easier.
"The (Georgia) crisis, which is now behind us militarily ... cannot leave us in a situation where we refuse to talk," said Steinmeier, a long-time advocate of reconciliation with Moscow.