NATO denies provoking Russia-Georgia conflict

Published: Friday September 19, 2008

NATO denied provoking last month's conflict between Russia and Georgia, a spokesman for the alliance said Friday, after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused it of sparking the conflict.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer meanwhile pledged "full solidarity" with the ex-Soviet republic, following an informal meeting with the 26-nation bloc's defence ministers in London.

In a separate development likely to anger Moscow, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and his Czech counterpart signed an agreement clearing the way for stationing US forces to operate a missile defence radar in the Czech Republic.

Asked for his response to Medvedev's accusations earlier, NATO spokesman James Appathurai told AFP: "There is nothing provocative about supporting Georgia's democratic development, nor anything provocative in helping them meet their aspirations to come closer to the Euro-Atlantic community."

Medvedev had said NATO "provoked the conflict" between Russia and Georgia last month, adding that Russia was "being pushed... behind an Iron Curtain. I would like to underline again that this is not our path. There is no sense for us in returning to the past."

De Hoop Scheffer, meanwhile, told reporters at a press conference in London that "NATO is in full solidarity ... with the Georgian people and with the Georgian government."

"We have an intensive partnership, an intensive dialogue, an intensive high-level political engagement with Georgia," he added.

Georgian efforts to become part of NATO have infuriated Russia, which objects to the prospect of its old Cold War foe extending to its borders.

The brief Georgia-Russia war last month overshadowed the talks, which were originally intended to focus on the alliance's continuing transformation to a more flexible regional security bloc, and the conflict has chilled Russia's relations with the West to a degree not seen since the Cold War.

Those relations are likely to be further damaged with the US-Czech status of forces agreement, which provides the legal basis for the US presence there, and marks the last piece of a years long negotiation over the radar, part of a US missile defence system that has aroused intense Russian opposition.

Earlier on Friday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, after talks with visiting Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, Britain was in "full support of the territorial integrity of Georgia and we will be giving financial and economic support to Georgia, and urging other countries to do so."

"We will be working with our European partners to ensure that there is sufficient support for the reconstruction of Georgia," he added.

On Thursday both Scheffer and Gates spoke cautiously of how to respond to Russia following the conflict last month.

Scheffer said he foresaw "no U-turn in NATO policy" despite uncertainty about Russian intentions and said the Georgia conflict would not be resolved "if we seek to punish Russia".

Gates, meanwhile, urged NATO to avoid provocation in its response to Russia, adding he thought concern among members on the issue "has more to do with pressure and intimidation than it does any prospect of real military action."

Brown meanwhile told Sky News television that supporting Georgian and Ukrainian membership to NATO was "the right thing to do."

He added: "If a sovereign country, free to make its own decisions, wishes to be part of a democratic group that has quite clear principles attached to its membership then we should be prepared to look at that."