U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said here Tuesday that the United States is not opposed in principle to reengagement with Russia, but warned that Moscow should treat its neighbors "as equals" in the current international system.
"It is not an issue of isolating Russia, but an issue of what kind of appropriate engagement we could have with Russia," Rice told reporters after the first day talks in her last NATO foreign ministers' meeting at the military alliance's headquarters.
"We did everything we could to welcome a new Russia into the transatlantic space. I still think that is the future ... we should be cooperating," she added.
She said that the idea of working with the Russians through informal contact within the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) "is not a problem" with Washington.
In the meantime, Rice criticized Russia's opposition to NATO's eastward enlargement and Moscow's relations with some former Soviet Union republics, pointing to the Georgia conflict in August.
Stressing that "the 19th century is over," Rice said that today's Europe "is not about competition, conflict, and domination, but rather is a framework in which everyone treats its neighbors as equals in the international system, not as subjects."
Earlier Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced that the NATO foreign ministers had decided to re-engage with Russia in a conditional and graduated manner.
He told reporters he has been mandated by the foreign ministers to establish political contacts with Russia. The NRCl, a mechanism for dialogues on equal footing between Russia and the NATO allies, will meet on an informal basis.
The NATO foreign ministers suspended the NATO-Russia Council last August after the military conflict between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet republic aspiring to join NATO.
During their meeting on Tuesday, NATO foreign ministers agreed to deepen cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine and strengthen the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission in which their reforms directed at membership can be conducted.
"NATO will provide further assistance to both countries in implementing needed reforms as they progress, at least, towards NATO membership," Scheffer said, insisting that the two former Soviet republics "will one day become members, if they so wish."
Russia has long been concerned about an expanding NATO which has moved toward its borders. The military alliance, originally set up in 1949 to counter the military power of a similar bloc led by the Soviet Union, has grown up from 12 members to the current 26 members through five enlargements.
Although NATO countries maintained that the expansion was not directed at Russia, Moscow remained unconvinced.
During the NATO summit last April, then Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that NATO's further enlargement was a "direct threat" to security of Russia.