Russia avoids harsh penalties from NATO
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO pulled its punches against Russia on Tuesday, suspending formal contacts as punishment for the Georgia invasion but bucking U.S. pressure for more severe penalties.
The Russian ambassador to NATO played down the result of the emergency meeting of the Western alliance.
"The mountain gave birth to a mouse," said Dmitry Rogozin.
Although the allies said they would not convene any more meetings of the NATO-Russia Council until Russian troops withdraw from Georgia, they bowed to concerns from Europe -- which depends heavily on Russia for energy -- and stopped short of adopting specific long-term steps to punish Moscow for its actions.
"There can be no business as usual with Russia under present circumstances," alliance secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after the meeting of NATO foreign ministers here.
"We are not abandoning the NATO-Russia Council, but as long as Russian forces are occupying large parts of Georgia, I cannot see the NATO-Russia Council meeting," he said.
Russia, which has accused the United States of wanting to dismantle the council, asked for a meeting last week but has been rebuffed thus far.
De Hoop Scheffer said "the future will depend on concrete actions from the Russian side," but he was forced to add that "no specific decisions on programs or projects [with Russia] have been taken."
In a small victory for the United States, NATO foreign ministers did agree to show support for Georgia's pro-Western government by creating a NATO-Georgia Commission to oversee the former Soviet republic's bid to join the alliance and begin providing military training to its army.
And, they united behind a demand for Russia to fully comply with a European-mediated cease-fire and to respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
They also kept the door open for Tbilisi's eventual membership despite fierce Russian resistance.
However, there was no consensus for more robust expressions of backing for Georgia or displeasure with Moscow.
"There are different sensibilities on this; there are states who want this process to move faster," Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado said. "The alliance has to take united, firm position, but without being aggressive."
As limited as the NATO action was, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the alliance of "trying to make a victim of the aggressor, to absolve of guilt a criminal regime, to save a collapsed regime and is taking a course to rearm the current leaders of Georgia."
The White House, meanwhile, pressed Russia to remove its troops from Georgia more quickly.
"It didn't take them really three or four days to get into Georgia, and it really shouldn't take them three or four days to get out," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is spending time at his ranch.
"It needs to happen faster; that's what they've agreed to," he said.
In Georgia, Russian soldiers took about 20 Georgians in military uniform prisoner at a Black Sea port, blindfolding them and holding them at gunpoint, and also took American Humvees that were awaiting shipment back to the United States. A small column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left the strategic city of Gori in the first sign of a Russian pullback of troops.
Ahead of the NATO meeting in Brussels, U.S. officials had said they were looking for tangible ways to demonstrate support for Georgia and make Russia pay for what Washington calls a "brutal invasion" of a smaller neighbor and an attempt to subvert a democratically elected government.
Yet, they were forced to scale back their plans once they realized that some European allies -- particularly those who depend on Russia for energy -- were wary of isolating Moscow.
"The United States sought precisely what we got in this statement," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
She was heading later Tuesday to Poland where she was to sign a missile defense treaty with the Poles over vehement objections from Russia.
She maintained the alliance had rallied firmly behind Georgia by agreeing to stick to a December timeline to reconsider the country's NATO membership and by deciding to send specific technical assistance to assess damage and help reconstruct critical infrastructure like power networks, airports and hospitals.
Rice also said that NATO had made "very clear" that it would not allow Russia to re-create an Iron Curtain dividing eastern and western Europe anew after the end of the Cold War.
"This alliance ... is not going to permit a new line to be drawn in Europe," she said. "There will absolutely be no new line and NATO does not accept that there is a new line."
Of immediate importance, the ministers said is for Russia to honor to the cease-fire that was brokered by France, the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Despite repeated promises from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to pull his troops out of Georgia in accordance with the agreement, Moscow has yet to make significant withdrawals, bringing firm rebukes from NATO members.
"It is time for the Russian president to keep his word to withdraw Russian forces," Rice said in comments echoed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who helped negotiate the deal.
"We are very disappointed, because despite the promise to us, there is no withdrawal of troops," Kouchner told reporters after Tuesday's meeting. "When you sign up to an agreement you have to respect it."
European Union foreign ministers were to meet in Brussels later Tuesday to consider how to react to Russia's defiant stance.
Kouchner said French President Nicolas Sarkozy may call an European summit to review EU relations with Russia if Moscow does not respect the cease-fire.
"We don't want to use this sort of pressure, but we also don't want this document to remain a dead letter," he said.
Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Russia had agreed to allow 20 more international military monitors in and around Georgia's disputed region of South Ossetia, the flashpoint separatist region at the heart of the current conflict.
Associated Press Writers Paul Ames, Slobodan Lekic, Robert Wielaard and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.