US Defense Secretary Gates heads to Europe
Against a backdrop of high tension with Russia
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is due in Europe on Tuesday for a trip to the Balkans and an informal NATO meeting against a backdrop of high tension with Russia, AFP reported.
First stop will be Macedonia, a country with ambitions of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), before a meeting of the defense alliance in Hungary on Thursday and Friday.
Extension of the organization eastwards, a source of open disagreement between Russia and the United States, is likely to figure prominently in Gates`s talks in addition to the war effort in Afghanistan.
"We are very open to constructive Russian engagement in the region and in Europe more broadly," said a senior US defense official, talking on condition of anonymity.
"But we do want to send a message to the Russians that their actions will not affect our commitment to our colleagues and our allies in the area."
The NATO meeting is set to address relations with Russia, which hit their lowest point since the end of the Cold War in the aftermath of a war between Georgia and Russia in August.
"These (NATO) meetings are always driven by what`s leading the headlines in the recent days, so there`s no doubt Georgia-Russia will be a big issue," said the US official. "There`s no doubt piracy or Afghanistan will be issues."
Georgia, whose NATO membership bid has been pushed by the US, launched an assault on one of its separatist regions in August, but its forces were pushed back by a massive Russian invasion of the country.
The ferocity of the Russian reaction was interpreted as a signal from Moscow of its readiness to resist an expansion of NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine, which it sees as being in its sphere of influence.
A meeting of a NATO-Georgia commission, set up after the conflict, is set to meet on Friday -- the day Russian troops are expected to complete their withdrawal from positions outside Georgia`s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Gates is also to meet bilaterally with his Ukrainian counterpart in the Macedonian city of Ohrid, where a meeting of defense ministers from southeast Europe will also take place.
His visit to Europe comes after the US Congress approved the NATO membership of Albania and Croatia, in southeast Europe. To be admitted, possibly in April 2009, their bid must be ratified by the parliaments of all NATO`s 26 members.
Macedonia`s attempt to join is complicated by an unresolved dispute with Greece over its name, which is shared by a northern Greek region.
As well as membership issues, the NATO meeting will also address the war effort in Afghanistan and Gates is set to push fellow members for more troops to help bolster efforts there.
Recent months have seen a spike in violence despite the presence of 70,000 soldiers in two international forces, one from NATO called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and another under US command.
The size of ISAF increased from 37,000 soldiers to nearly 50,000 between January 2007 and January 2008. The US recently announced it would send another 5,000 soldiers between November and January.
The commander of NATO forces has called for another three brigades, 10,000 soldiers, to help combat the violence.