LONDON– NATO must take a middle ground in response to Russia’s actions against Georgia, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told American and British reporters before attending a NATO meeting here today . Various NATO member states have urged different courses of action to punish Russia for its invasion of Georgia – a nation with NATO aspirations. Generally, NATO members in Eastern Europe and on the Baltic Sea want stronger sanctions than nations farther west.

“I think there is a middle ground, in which I suggest where we do some prudent things that are consistent with the kinds of activities NATO has been engaged in for 60 years in terms of planning, in terms of exercises and so on,” Gates said. These signals are not provocative and don’t tend to draw any firm lines or send signals that are unwanted, he said.

“At the same time, it sends some reassurance to the allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states that we’re mindful of their concerns,” he said.

Gates said he does not fear a direct military challenge from Russia. “It’s hard for me to imagine that those who are currently in NATO feel a real military threat coming from Russia,” he said. “To the degree there is a sense of concern, my guess is that it has more to do with pressure and intimidation than a prospect of any military action.”

NATO must continue to subscribe to the territorial integrity of Georgia, Gates said. “I think what has been important here is the unity of the United States and Europe in addressing what Russia has done,” he said. He praised French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, calling it “very constructive and very positive.”

The meeting Gates will attend will focus on the transformation of NATO. He will be discussing continued development of expeditionary capabilities for the alliance, more necessary capabilities such as airlift, and the reform of NATO headquarters.

Gates also addressed the status-of-forces negotiations with Iraq during the roundtable. He said the American negotiation team is back in Baghdad and has some ideas that should satisfy Iraqi concerns. The Iraqi government is concerned about jurisdiction and detainee issues. The United Nations authorization for U.S. forces in Iraq runs out Dec. 31, and the United States and Iraq must agree on a follow-on plan.

Finally, Gates said the United States is keeping a wary eye on North Korea following reports that its leader, Kim Jong Il, is seriously ill.

“We are watching it very closely,” he said. “We are concerned about instability. I think all of North Korea’s neighbors are concerned about instability, in no small part because of the possibility of large flows of refugees. We are looking at that, but at this point it’s not entirely clear how seriously ill he is, or what the circumstances are. We, with our friends, are just watching at this point.”

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LONDON– NATO must take a middle ground in response to Russia’s actions against Georgia,…