March 28, 2008 / 4:57 PM / 10 years ago

Russia says NATO "playing with fire" on expansion

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia warned against NATO expansion into ex-Soviet neighbours Georgia and Ukraine on Friday before a NATO summit next week that will discuss what Moscow sees as encroaching deep into its backyard.

<p>Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses journalists during a joint news conference with his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni following their meeting in Tel Aviv March 20, 2008. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis</p>

In separate comments, Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov and a Kremlin spokesman said possible NATO membership for the two countries would have repercussions for any plans to deepen Moscow’s ties to the Western military alliance.

Lavrov warned Georgia against using NATO membership as a tool to regain control over its rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away in the 1990s and enjoy Russian support.

“Concerning South Ossetia and Abkhazia, if Georgia intends to gain NATO support in order to solve these two conflicts by means of force, it’s a dangerous game,” Lavrov told journalists.

“The population of South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot think of joining NATO,” he said after meeting his colleagues from the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States. “In such a complicated issue it’s a dangerous game to play with fire.”

Georgia, whose pro-Western leaders want to move out of Moscow’s orbit, seeks membership in NATO and the European Union. Ukraine also hopes the NATO summit in Bucharest next week will grant it a roadmap towards joining the alliance.

The United States is backing both bids. But France, Germany and some other European nations say such a move would be untimely.

Lavrov criticised further NATO expansion and characterised the western military alliance as a remnant of the Cold War.

“NATO’s expansion in its current form ... reflects the old logic of preserving and strengthening divisional lines in Europe,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin, who hands over power to elected successor Dmitry Medvedev on May 7, will attend the summit although Russia’s strong opposition to the plan has become a factor souring its ties with NATO, said the Kremlin spokesman.

“The realisation of an ‘open door’ policy towards Ukraine and Georgia will be a sign for us that the West has made its choice in favour of unilateral actions rather than forming Trans-European institutions,” Dmitry Peskov said.

Peskov said this approach only fuelled Moscow’s suspicions.

“The expansion policy disunites states,” he said. “Any country which is not a member of the bloc and does not take part in forming its policy, feels a threat to its security.”

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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