Nato’s 26 foreign ministers are determined to present a united front on Tuesday in expressing continued support for Georgia’s ultimate membership of the western alliance and insisting that Russian troops complete a full withdrawal from Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, said that at an emergency meeting in Brussels, Nato’s foreign ministers would adopt a position of “firmness without threats” towards Russia. “It is essential that unity is preserved,” he said.
“We do not want to threaten them. But we are serious. There is a red line. The red line is the withdrawal of troops.”
However, deep longer-term divisions remain between Nato’s members over how to respond to a resurgent Russia and how quickly to embrace Georgia within the military alliance. Some countries are arguing for continued engagement with Moscow while others are openly debating whether to impose sanctions on Russia if it does not halt its aggressive action in the Caucasus.
There have been marked differences in tone between many European countries over how to respond to the Georgian crisis. “There is a difference of sensitivity rather than strategy,” one European diplomat said.
Many of Nato’s newer members from central and eastern Europe have been harshly critical of Russia’s actions in Georgia while some of the European Union’s founding members, such as Germany, France, and Italy, have continued to favour a strategic dialogue with Moscow.
Even so, Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has threatened “grave consequences” if Moscow fails to honour its pledge to stick to a ceasefire and withdraw troops.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, also stressed her strong support for Georgia’s ultimate membership of Nato on a visit to Tbilisi at the weekend. Italy has been more sympathetic to Moscow’s stance but insisted that the EU and Nato adopt a common approach. The UK, which has strained relations with Russia, has adopted a relatively low profile throughout the crisis.
The US has delivered ever more explicit hints that Russia could face expulsion from the G8, a block on its bid to join the World Trade Organisation or even financial sanctions.
“All of those are possibilities,” Robert Gates, the defence secretary, said over the weekend. “Russia is not as autarchic as it was in Soviet days. While they’re wealthy with oil, they need a lot from the west, and I think that there are some real opportunities here if they don’t observe the ceasefire and begin to reverse some of these actions.”
In a recent column in the Washington Post, Strobe Talbot, deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton when he sought to deepen relations with Moscow, warned that “the fundamental premise of American policy” on Russia – the country’s “continuing integration into a rule-based international community” – might have to be rethought under the next US administration.
Mr Gates has long been seen as a champion of partnership with Russia. While Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has sometimes had a strained relationship with Russian officials, until now the secretary of defence has been seen as an interlocutor with whom the Kremlin relishes doing business.
Ms Rice was scheduled to leave the US on Monday night for the Nato meeting in Brussels on Monday and a subsequent stop in Poland, which has just agreed to host the US missile defence system. Mr Gates dismissed Russian threats to target Poland with nuclear missiles as “probably fairly empty rhetoric”.
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