NATO foreign ministers will hold emergency talks in Brussels on Tuesday to reconsider the alliance's ties with Russia. Amid mixed reports, it remained unclear whether Russia was fully withdrawing troops from Georgia.
An increasingly assertive Russia is at the center of NATO's attention
NATO ministers are expected to pledge support for Georgia and criticize Russian intervention into the country at the emergency meeting, which is taking place in the middle of Europe's traditional summer break.
Just before the ministered gathered in Brussels on Tuesday, Aug. 19, Russian and Georgian forces exchanged prisoners in an exhibition of goodwill, news agencies reported.
"The process went smoothly," Georgian National Security Council secretary Kakha Lomaia said, according to Reuters. "It was mediated by the French ambassador.
The NATO meeting, called by the United States, comes amid warnings from Washington that the Kremlin risks compromising its role in Western institutions such as NATO, the World Trade Organization and the Group of Eight (G8) because of its military activity in Georgia and in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century," US President George W. Bush said last week. "Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions."
A NATO spokeswoman said ministers would deliver "a very clear message of solidarity to Georgia."
Meanwhile, reports regarding Russia's military activity in Georgia were contradictory. US officials said Monday that Russia had moved short-range missile launchers into South Ossetia since fighting ceased there last week and that there was no sign of a significant pullback of its troops from Georgia.
Russia's defense ministry, however, on Monday announced the start of its withdrawal. The Russian NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, on Tuesday told France's Inter radio station that troops were pulling out of Georgia.
Russia angered by NATO criticisms
Russia's push into Georgia's core territory has outraged the US and Britain
Rogozin also reacted angrily to comments by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who described Russia's actions in Georgia as "excessive" and "disproportionate."
De Hoop Scheffer's comments were "utterly intolerable," Dmitry Rogozin said in an interview with the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
"These are not credible allegations, especially coming from the head of an organization like NATO, which has itself used not just disproportionate force, but force against civilian targets and the civilian population, especially in its conflict with Yugoslavia in 1999," the envoy added in an interview which was published on Monday.
NATO-Russia Council soon a thing of the past?
One obvious repercussion may well involve the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).
Established at a summit in Rome in 2002, the NRC has often been defended by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as "a valuable forum for dialogue to resolve complex political issues."
The NRC has also led NATO and Russia to cooperate on a practical level, such as with joint military exercises. But that cooperation looks increasingly at risk.
Joint US, Canadian and Russian military exercises scheduled for Aug. 20 have already been cancelled -- and so have joint naval exercises between Russia, the US, Britain and France which were originally due to take place on Friday.
Poland under pressure
Meanwhile, one of the most immediate results of Russia's intervention has been to convince reluctant Poland of the merits of hosting US missile interceptors on its territory. The US missile shield, which also involves the construction of a tracking radar in the Czech Republic, is strongly opposed in Moscow.
Last week, Russian Army generals menacingly told Poland that the hosting of US missiles would turn it into a potential military target.
The last NRC meeting was held in June. On that occasion, the NATO chief praised Russia for its cooperation with the alliance in spite of serious disagreements.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has riled Moscow by agreeing to host a US missile shield
Last week, a request by Russia for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the Georgia conflict was turned down, with the alliance's chief saying more time was needed to prepare it.
And now, the US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, said Tuesday's talks in Brussels will have NATO allies "consider" freezing, if not abandoning the NRC altogether.
"We will talk amongst ourselves about NATO's relationship with Russia," Volker said in an interview with German television.
Drastic steps unlikely
Noting that several member states which were once under Soviet control had expressed strong anti-Russian sentiments, Gates said that since NATO is built on consensus, "all opinions must be taken into account."
However, few analysts expect Tuesday's meeting to come up with any drastic decisions.
They argue that while Eastern European countries may push for a strong response to Russia's renewed military assertiveness, Western powers such as France and Germany will continue to favor a more conciliatory approach, if only to protect their commercial interests.
Speaking at an emergency EU meeting last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier argued that the best strategy for the West would be to keep its channels of communication with Moscow open, rather than indulge in "one-sided condemnations."