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Clear Skies For NATO Meeting, Though Trouble Brews Over Russia, Afghanistan

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen: "We share interests with Russia."
NATO foreign ministers are breathing a collective sigh of relief as skies in Europe clear from volcanic ash and their April 22-23 meeting in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, can now officially go ahead.

Russia is expected to dominate the agenda of the meeting in the former Soviet republic, although Afghanistan, NATO's nuclear posture, missile defense, and alliance streamlining are all expected to be discussed.

NATO has in recent months tried to patch up its relationship with Russia, but an early whiff of controversy appeared when Moscow called off a planned NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting on the sidelines of the main event.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made rapprochement with Russia one of his top priorities. Speaking in Brussels on April 19, Rasmussen showcased a potential joint NATO-Russia missile defense program as a key point in future cooperation. "I believe that building missile defense in a way that includes Russia would help create the true European security architecture we would all like to see," he said.

Seen As Controversial

This proposal is clearly calculated as an olive branch for Moscow, which hotly contested U.S. plans to place missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. The plans were scrapped last year.

But Rasmussen's move to link missile defense to the revamping of the European "security architecture" may be seen as controversial in some NATO quarters. It echoes a proposal made first in June 2008 by the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which many allies saw as an attempt by Russia to undermine NATO.

So far, NATO's official policy has been to point Moscow toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the proper venue for all discussions on European security issues. Many allies argue that restricting the debate to the all-encompassing OSCE would, among other things, ensure the presence of the Ukraine and Georgia at the table. Both countries remain outside NATO and feel threatened by Russia, particularly since the Russia-Georgia war.

Rasmussen said this week in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service that NATO's April 2008 pledge to eventually include Ukraine and Georgia as members remains in place.

Estonia, the host of this week's meeting, also has a tense relationship with its former colonial master Russia. Most recently, trouble flared up in 2007 over the removal of a Soviet World War II memorial from a prominent location in Tallinn.

Estonia's foreign minister, Urmas Paet, describes the NATO-Russia relationship as "schizophrenic," with NATO keen to build up ties while Russia continues to regard the alliance as an enemy.

Shared Interests

Rasmussen's conciliatory attitude toward Moscow reflects the policy of U.S. President Barack Obama, who has sought to "reset" the relationship with Russia and enlist its support on a swathe of global issues.

Rasmussen told RFE/RL that for NATO, common interests are more important than areas of discord. "We may have our disagreements with Russia," he said, "but these disagreements should not overshadow the fact that we share interests with Russia in other areas -- areas in which we are confronted with the same security threats, like terrorism."

Another field where Russia plays a key role is Obama's drive for nuclear disarmament. On April 8, the United States and Russia signed a revamped Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, making significant cuts in each side's nuclear arsenals.

However, Rasmussen also made clear that NATO intends to retain a certain level of nuclear deterrent. "We should uphold a nuclear capacity as a credible deterrent," he said. "And to that end, I do believe that we also need the stationing of American conventional as well as nuclear capabilities in Europe."

A new missile-defense shield -- built in collaboration with Russia -- is seen as a complement to NATO's nuclear deterrent. The shield's main objective is to provide protection against the threat seen to be posed mainly by Iran. Rasmussen said on April 19 he wants the alliance's upcoming Lisbon summit in November to make missile defense a NATO mission.

Important Afghan Partner

Another headline issue at this week's NATO meeting is Afghanistan, where the alliance is engaged in an uphill battle against Taliban insurgents as the country's government struggles to retain the trust of the international community.

NATO's main challenge at this juncture is to ensure enough Western trainers are made available for the Afghan National Army and police to be able to gradually start taking over responsibility for security in selected provinces and districts.

Russia is an increasingly important partner on this issue as well, providing a vital transit corridor and expected to contribute trainers and materiel to the Afghan forces.

NATO foreign ministers will also discuss plans to award Bosnia-Herzegovina a Membership Action Plan, which would put the troubled Balkan country on a faster path to joining the military alliance.