U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he expects NATO defense ministers to discuss how to resume their formal dialogue with Russia when he meets with them Thursday and Friday in Krakow, Poland. The NATO-Russia dialogue was suspended after Russia invaded Georgia last year. Gates spoke on his way to Krakow.
Secretary Gates says relations with Russia will not be a main focus of the meetings, but he expects ministers to discuss the issue in-between official sessions because in spite of the disagreements it is important to move forward in dealing with the Russians on a variety of topics.
"There are Russian behaviors that are a concern to us. We also need the Russians in other areas. So we need to work this relationship through, I think, in a constructive way that allows us to move forward. But at the same time mindful of some of their actions that still give us a problem," he said.
Secretary Gates says one of those actions is the Russian attempt to convince Kyrgyzstan to end American use of its base at Manas to supply the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan. He says Russia is trying to have it both ways by offering to help and at the same time pressuring the Kyrgyz government.
Regarding U.S. relations with Russia, Gates says there will have to be a top-level review involving the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies, in order to balance the desire to move forward with concerns about some Russian policies.
Some analysts have speculated that the Obama Administration might offer to cancel the planned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to improve relations with Russia, which has strongly opposed the plan. U.S. officials have not said they want to do that, but Secretary Gates repeated the new administration's position, which includes two conditions that did not exist during the Bush Administration.
"We are concerned about the Iranian missile threat, and as long as that threat exists we will continue to pursue missile defense, as long as we can make sure it works and that it's cost-effective and we want to pursue it in partnership not only with our NATO allies, but also with the Russians," he said.
Secretary Gates will have the chance to discuss the new administration's different view of missile defense directly with his Polish and Czech counterparts during this week's meetings.
The secretary tried to arrange cooperation with Russia on European missile defense during the Bush Administration, but Russian officials were not interested, saying the U.S. installations would be a threat to their security. Now, Gates hopes there can be a fresh start.
"I am hopeful that with a new start that maybe there are some opportunities with the Russians that we can pursue," he said.
Secretary Gates' says his formal talks with his NATO counterparts on Thursday and Friday will focus on Afghanistan and preparations for the alliance's summit conference in April. But some of the hallway conversation about Russia may be equally important.