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NATO Chief Looks For Afghan Help, Eases Tension In Moscow

  • Kevin O'Flynn

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) meets with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) meets with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Moscow.

MOSCOW -- NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to Moscow with a list of military equipment and assistance he hoped to procure from the Kremlin.

But the NATO chief spent much of his time in the Russian capital making conciliatory offers of his own -- as when he told a group of students today that the military alliance would never act aggressively against Russia.

"Let me make a very clear statement as secretary-general of NATO: NATO will never attack Russia. Never," Rasmussen said.

"And we don't think Russia will attack us either. We have stopped worrying about this, and Russia should stop worrying about us as well."

The fact that Rasmussen felt the need to spell out is one indication of the vast divide that remains between NATO and Russia.

Ties have been severely strained by NATO's post-Soviet expansion, and particularly its overtures toward Ukraine and Georgia, which infuriated Moscow and was seen as a partial motivation behind the five-day Russia-Georgia war in 2008.

But NATO and Russia have both expressed a wish to put old resentments aside. Rasmussen, in his first trip to Moscow since becoming NATO chief this summer, focused instead on the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan -- and what Russia could do to help.

"I think Afghanistan should be the centerpiece of cooperation in 2010," Rasmussen said. "And this is the reason why I have presented to the Russian leadership a concrete list of proposals as to how Russia could further its engagement in our operation in Afghanistan."

Helping In Afghanistan

The NATO chief repeatedly said on his trip that Russia and the military alliance face a common security threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan.

NATO has asked Russia to provide Kabul with helicopters, helicopter training and spare parts, as well as training support for the Afghan air force and for Afghan police.

Russia, which suffered devastating losses during the Soviet war in Afghanistan between 1979-89, has made clear it will contribute no troops to the U.S.-led campaign there. It has expressed willingness to cooperate in other ways, however, although until now few concrete agreements have been made.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered Russian officials to study Rasmussen's proposals. Technically, however, Rasmussen left Moscow empty-handed. At a news conference before his departure, the NATO chief attempted to put the talks in a positive light, saying his "intention was not to receive clear answers at this stage."

Russian analysts said, despite the lack of a firm deal, the talks alone were sign of rapprochement between Moscow and NATO.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of "Russia in Global Affairs," says a deal on Afghanistan seems likely.

"I think that serious, concrete discussions are taking place. Interests in some ways meet and some ways don't," Lukyanov says. "And that is the point of the dialogue -- an attempt to exchange what Russia wants and what the alliance wants."

Russian Concerns

However, suspicions of NATO remain high in Russia. In a comment piece before Rasmussen's arrival, Dmitry Rogozin, the publicity-loving Russian representative at NATO in Brussels, concluded in the final paragraph that tensions would ease -- but only after 20 paragraphs lambasting the organization.

Russia's Dmitry Rogozin concedes that relations with NATO are improving.
Ruslan Pukhov, a leading Russian defense analyst and the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, says it would be a mistake for Russia to aid U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan.

"Our helping the NATO countries in Afghanistan -- especially with our controversial past in Afghanistan -- would mean that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would probably be less able to hit the United States and their allies in Europe," Pukhov says. "But they can easily hit Russia and Russian citizens in Central Asia."

And despite the alliance's evident desire for greater cooperation with Russia, NATO chief Rasmussen continues to rebuff Medvedev's grand plan for a new European security treaty, which the Russian president published last month as an alternative to "biased" structures like NATO.

Rasmussen said the plan would be properly discussed in a forum like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but has declined to bring it on board for NATO consideration.

"I don't see a need for new treaties or new legally binding documents because we do have a framework already," Rasmussen said.

"NATO and Russia agreed on what we called a Founding Act [on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security] already in 1997. It contains a lot of very valuable principles for our cooperation and European security."

Still, Rasmussen said today that if NATO's Cold War aim was "to keep the Russians out," the alliance's goal is now "to keep everybody in."

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