NATO meets over Georgian crisis

Foreign ministers of 26 NATO nations are meeting in Brussels Tuesday to try to come up with a united response to Russian military activity in Georgia, as reporters on the ground say there was little sign of a promised Russian military pullback.





NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels Tuesday for an emergency summit to come up with a response to Russian military operations in Georgia. Russian troops showed no signs of pulling out of Georgia, according to Georgian officials and reporters on the ground.



Speaking to reporters in Brussels Tuesday, a French diplomat said NATO members had agreed to toughen its language on Moscow’s failure to withdraw troops from Georgia. But there were no details available yet.


In an early sign of the differences within the 26 member alliance, British Foreign Minister David Milliband said he was not in favour of isolating Russia, following Washington’s call on NATO nations to suspend at least ministerial level meetings with Russia.


"I am not one that believes that isolating Russia is the right answer to its misdemeanours,” Miliband told reporters Tuesday.


The meeting comes as Russian troops in Georgia showed little signs of pulling back in accordance with a ceasefire deal reached last week.


Reporting from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi Tuesday, FRANCE 24’s Robert Parsons said there was “absolutely zero evidence” that Russian troops were leaving either the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia or the Georgian heartland.



More than a week after Russian troops advanced into Georgia following a Georgian attack on the Russian-backed, breakaway province of South Ossetia, Parsons described the mood in Tbilisi as “very highly strung”.



In an interview with a French radio station Tuesday, Russia’s envoy to NATO said Moscow has started its troop withdrawal, a claim Russian officials made on Monday.


And in a gesture of goodwill, Russian and Georgian troops exchanged prisoners at a checkpoint near Tbilisi on Tuesday.


But according to Parsons, the Russian military is still planted in strategic locations in the Georgian heartland - including the town of Gori and the Senaki military base in western Georgia – making the residents of Tbilisi “very edgy indeed”.



Seeking to bridge divisions within NATO



As the international community is forced to assess a fundamental shift of strategic interests in the region, NATO foreign ministers in Brussels are hoping to bury their differences to arrive at a joint response to the current crisis.



“The problem here,” said FRANCE 24’s political affairs editor David Crossan, “is the divisions, which means the room for maneuver for NATO is rather limited”.



While the UK, the US, and the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe have been pushing for a strong reaction against Russia, France and Germany favour a more conciliatory approach, according to Crossan.



“France and Germany are in a rather different mood,” said Crossan. “They know how reliant Europe is on Russian energy supplies.”



The differences were highlighted in the lead-up to Tuesday’s meeting, with Rice calling for a strong reaction to Russian movements in the region while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters EU governments would not "threaten" Russia or impose an ultimatum for a Russian military withdrawal.



But analysts say that with the escalating insurgency in Afghanistan and the global energy crisis, NATO has few hands to play in the Georgian crisis.



Speaking to reporters ahead of the summit, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed Washington’s support of Georgia's bid for NATO membership.


At a meeting in April, NATO members reached an agreement that Georgia would be offered membership, without setting any dates.



NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Tuesday are likely to discuss the possibility of posting an enhanced observer force in the region as well as providing further humanitarian aid to Georgia.



Meanwhile in Vienna, the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that Moscow had agreed to allow 20 military observers in Georgia.


Speaking at a news conference, OSCE chairman, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, said the observers would be based "in the zone of conflict adjacent to South Ossetia". But he admitted it was "a little bit open where exactly they can be".



The OSCE currently has eight unarmed military monitors as part of its 200-strong mission in Georgia. Russia, Georgia, and the US are all members of the OSCE's permanent council.



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