NATO Chief Calls for Stronger Ties With Russia

NATO's secretary general on Thursday called for a deeper relationship between Moscow and the Western alliance, saying Russian involvement in world affairs is key to resolving many conflicts.

"Russia carries great responsibility in world affairs," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told President Vladimir Putin at the start of their Kremlin meeting. "Russia's active participation for the solution of many conflicts is essential."

Putin praised Russian-NATO cooperation in battling terrorism, citing Moscow's aid to NATO in Afghanistan and the Mediterranean.

"Our cooperation is developing and developing successfully according to our estimation," Putin told de Hoop Scheffer before journalists were ushered from the room.

Russia signed a partnership agreement with NATO in 2002 that outlined cooperation in counterterrorism, nonproliferation and peacekeeping. At the same time, Russia has raised concerns about the alliance's eastward expansion.

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Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said NATO's plans to embrace other former Soviet nations would be raised during the talks with de Hoop Scheffer, Interfax news agency reported Wednesday.

Grushko referred in particular to Georgia, saying NATO's decision to open a so-called "intensified dialogue" had been "interpreted by the Georgian authorities as an incentive to pursue a confrontational policy toward Russia." Georgia, a U.S. ally, aspires to join the alliance in 2008.

Georgia's brief arrest of four alleged Russian spies last month triggered the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries in years. Moscow imposed a transport blockade on its tiny southern neighbor and launched a crackdown on Georgian migrants.

Moscow has in the past expressed alarm over plans by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, which would take its Cold War-era foe right up to Russia's southern border and part of its western flank.

Ukraine's new government, led by Russian-leaning Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has put the brakes on the drive for NATO membership, but Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is pushing determinedly to join the alliance.

Grushko said Moscow was also exasperated by NATO member states' persistent refusal to ratify an amended version of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which limits the number of troops, aircraft, tanks and other heavy non-nuclear weapons in Europe.

Russia, worried about the prospect of NATO bases on its doorstep, has urged alliance members, particularly the ex-Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to ratify the 1999 version of the treaty, which was meant to reflect changes since the 1991 Soviet breakup.

NATO members have refused to do that until Russia abides by its commitment to withdraw troops from the ex-Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia. Moscow says the two issues are not linked.