updated 10/21/2008 3:46:04 PM ET 2008-10-21T19:46:04

The top U.S. military officer met Tuesday with his Russian counterpart — who led the invasion of U.S. ally Georgia — signaling a thaw in relations between the two powers.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Russian Gen. Nikolai Makarov, discussed Georgia, missile defense, and Russia-NATO relations, officials said.

The talks, at a secluded riverside mansion outside Helsinki, were the highest-level military meeting between the two countries since Russia's war with Georgia in August, which strained already tense ties between Washington and Moscow. Makarov became Russia's top military officer in June.

"The two men discussed a wide range of issues, including the future of NATO and the current status of missile defense systems in Europe," said Kim Hargan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Finland.

Gates pleased with outcome
Mullen later called U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, saying they had a "productive, businesslike conversation," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in Washington, adding that Gates was pleased with the outcome.

A U.S. defense official said Makarov suggested the meeting and the two military leaders covered a range of topics, including Georgia, Black Sea operations, and Afghanistan as it related to NATO involvement.

Makarov told Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency that they talked about the resumption of the Russia-NATO Council, which was suspended after the Georgia war. A decision on resuming the council, a forum that brought NATO countries and Russia together, will be made in November or December "and this question remains in the American's court," Makarov was quoted as saying.

The U.S. sharply criticized Russia's invasion of Georgia, a stalwart U.S. ally and aspiring NATO member. It has received hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid and its armed forces received extensive training from U.S. instructors.

Those moves irked Russia, which views Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence and fears the prospect of another former Soviet republic joining NATO.

Washington and Moscow have also clashed over U.S. plans to base elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia fears the system would be used to either spy on its military or reduce its nuclear deterrent.

A major step forward?
Finnish Maj. Juha Makela, a researcher at the National Defense University in Helsinki, described Tuesday's meeting as a major step forward in U.S-Russian relations.

"It shows they are really trying to talk about matters at a practical level," Makela said. "This is a probably a first phase in a round of talks that will end up with discussions at a political level."

Makarov told the ITAR-Tass agency that he and Mullen agreed to discuss military matters "periodically" by phone "and if necessary, in face-to-face talks."

After the Georgia-Russia crisis broke out Aug. 6, Mullen spoke on the phone with Makarov, who presided over Russia's incursion into Georgia over the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the American Forces Press Service said, quoting an unidentified source.

The report said after the fighting started the men discussed the flight of U.S. Air Force C-17 transport jets that carried Georgian troops serving in Iraq back to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and later they discussed the USS Mount Whitney, which carried humanitarian supplies to the Georgian port of Poti.

Makarov gave assurances that Russia would not interfere with the U.S. military movements, the Pentagon report said.

NATO accused of double standards
Two months ago, Russia halted military cooperation with NATO, accusing the West of "double standards" over the Georgia conflict. However, it said it still wanted to keep working with the alliance to fight terrorism and drug trafficking.

Adm. Juhani Kaskeala, the head of Finland's defense forces, organized the meeting at the manor outside the Finnish capital. The neutral Nordic country shares an 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) border with its huge eastern neighbor and has been the venue of several U.S.-Russian meetings during and since the Cold War.

Tuesday's meeting came a day after Mullen became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs to visit Belgrade since 1951. He met Serbian counterpart Gen. Zdravko Ponos, and the two said military cooperation between their countries was good, despite strained political relations over Kosovo.

Mullen was to visit the Baltic republic of Lithuania on Tuesday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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