Russia halted all military cooperation with NATO, the Western alliance said Thursday, in the latest sign of East-West tension over the invasion of Georgia.
Alliance spokeswoman Carmen Romero said NATO had received notification through military channels that Russia’s Defense Ministry had taken a decision “to halt international military cooperation events between Russia and NATO countries until further instructions.”
The United States immediately played down the significance of the Russian decision, saying that NATO had already effectively frozen cooperation in protest at Russia’s continued military presence in much of Georgia.
“For all practical purposes, military-to-military cooperation had really already been ended with the Russians,” said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, with vacationing President Bush in Crawford, Texas.
“I can’t imagine a circumstance right now that we would engage in military cooperation with the Russians until the situation in Georgia is resolved.”
In a move that angered Russia, NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday said they would make further ties with Russia dependent on Moscow making good on a pledge to pull its troops back to pre-conflict positions in Georgia. But they stopped short of calling an immediate halt to all cooperation.
Moscow also bristled at NATO’s insistence that Georgia could one day join the alliance and by an agreement signed Wednesday allowing the United States to base anti-missile interceptors in Poland.
The U.S. State Department called the Russian move “unfortunate.” Spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington, “we want Russia to work with us” despite U.S. concerns about the Georgian invasion.
“We still have some very important issues that we need to work with Russia on,” Wood said.
'Russia's help is critical for NATO'
Under a 2002 agreement that set up the NATO-Russia Council, the former Cold War foes began several cooperation projects. They include sharing expertise to combat heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan, developing battlefield anti-missile technology, joint exercises and help with rescue at sea.
Romero said she was unaware of any specific events under the cooperation agreement scheduled before early September.
NATO itself decided last week to suspend plans for a Russian warship to join NATO counterterrorism patrols in the Mediterranean Sea, deciding it was inappropriate after the outbreak of fighting in Georgia.
Earlier Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that NATO needs Russia more than Moscow needs NATO, and Russian cooperation with NATO’s efforts against militants in Afghanistan could be jeopardized.
“Russia’s help is critical for NATO,” Lavrov said in televised comments in Moscow.
He said that after the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting “leading alliance members came to us and whispered in our ears, hoping that we do not halt cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan.”
Signs of tensions
Moscow signed an agreement with NATO in April authorizing the alliance to send non-lethal supplies to its troops in Afghanistan through Russian territory.
However, NATO officials said the alliance has not started to use routes through Russia since it has yet to conclude the necessary transit arrangements with Central Asian nations lying between Russia and the Afghan border.
In another sign of tensions, Moscow has called its ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, home for consultations, a diplomat at the Russian mission at alliance headquarters said.
Rogozin will leave Friday for “some time” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name for attribution.
Russian media reported Wednesday that Rogozin’s discussions in Moscow would include the question of future military cooperation with the alliance.
Meanwhile, three NATO warships sailed into the Black Sea on Thursday for what the alliance said were long-planned exercises and routine visits to ports in Romania and Bulgaria not linked to the conflict in Georgia.