LISBON -- First there was the "reset." And now there is the "fresh start." At a NATO summit in the Portuguese capital, the military alliance has followed up on U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to improve bilateral ties with Moscow with a series of agreements.
Russia and NATO agreed to cooperate on a ballistic missile shield, hammered out a new agreement to transport equipment to troops in Afghanistan, and put down in writing that they no longer pose a mutual threat.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council a "true fresh start" in relations between Moscow and the Western alliance.
"The NATO nations and Russia have today agreed, in writing, that while we face many security challenges we pose no threat to each other," Rasmussen said. "That alone draws a clear line between the past and the future of NATO-Russia relations."
It was the first time the council had convened since Russia's August 2008 invasion of Georgia soured relations between Moscow and the West.
With Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev present, it marked the first time both the U.S. and Russian leaders were in attendance for a council session.
Medvedev stopped short of accepting NATO's invitation to join in the alliance's planned missile shield in full, insisting Russia must be an equal "partner." But he agreed to involve technicians in development plans while not ruling out deeper cooperation in the future.Ambitious Aims
Rasmussen conceded that more work needed to be done to ensure Moscow was on board once any eventual system was fully in place.
"Starting today, we will begin working on missile-defense cooperation to protect our deployed troops on the ground and we will answer the questions that need answering for us to cooperate on territorial missile defense as well," Rasmussen said.
U.S. President Barack Obama (center), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left), and French President Nicolas Sarkozy joke prior to the NATO-Russia Council meeting.
Obama won NATO support on November 19 for an ambitious plan to build the missile shield over Europe as part of an effort to protect against Iran's ballistic missiles and a nuclear program.
The U.S. president hailed the agreements at a press conference following the NATO-Russia Council session.
"The new approach to European missile defense that I announced last year, the phased, adaptive approach will be the United States' contribution to this effort and a foundation for greater collaboration," Obama said. "After years of talk about how to meet this objective, we now have a clear plan to protect all of our allies in Europe as well as the United States."
For his part, Medvedev said a "period of difficult, strained relations has been overcome." He added that NATO and Russia "have large-scale plans, we will be working in all areas, including European missile defense."
"We will continue the dialogue about all issues concerning European missile defense," Medvedev said. "The doors are not closed. On the contrary, they are open for discussion, but the results must be clear and acceptable to us."Work In Progress
Russia fiercely opposed former U.S. President George W. Bush's plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe, with key components slated to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Obama scrapped those plans late last year in favor of a new U.S. system that would initially rely on sea-based interceptors and delay land deployments for a later date.
NATO is now trying to turn the once-contentious missile-defense issue into a means for cooperation with Russia, expanding on Obama's efforts to reset relations with Moscow.
Russia and the 28-member Western alliance will now create a working group on missile defense to forge the way ahead.
Rasmussen said Russia and NATO also agreed in Lisbon to expand their existing agreement allowing the alliance to transport non-lethal military supplies and equipment across Russian territory to Afghanistan.
"Russia will allow more NATO supplies through Russian territory to support our mission in Afghanistan and now we will be able to bring equipment out as well," Rasmussen said. "We will enhance our training of counternarcotics personnel from Afghanistan and from the region, including, for the first time, Pakistanis."Taking A Chance
In remarks at the start of the NATO-Russia Council, Rasmussen said it was time for the two sides "to modernize our relationship and build a true partnership."
Frontline NATO states like Germany and France have long welcomed closer ties with Russia. But the newer members of the alliance in Eastern Europe, where bitter memories of Soviet occupation remain fresh, there has been persistent skepticism.
There were, however, signs in Lisbon that some in Eastern Europe were ready to give rapprochement with Moscow a chance.
In an interview with RFE/RL on the sidelines of the summit, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said drawing Russia closer to NATO and giving Moscow a stake in the alliance's goals could yield positive results.
"More and more talks and at least the intention to have more positive cooperation with Russia are positive, so that already the examples we have, for example cooperation concerning antinarcotics activities in Afghanistan, or transit via Russia to Afghanistan, or antipiracy combat -- I guess it's all very practical and positive," Paet said.
Paet added, however, that for such cooperation to be effective, attitudes in Moscow will need to change
"I cannot feel or see that there can be any positive [missile-defense] solution, in the end, before NATO and Russia see the risks from the same perspective," Paet said. "In this sense I cannot imagine that this kind of cooperation, in the end, will be possible [while] Russia still sees NATO as an enemy, so that there will be a very practical question from whom then we will protect ourselves with this missile shield."