Asia Crisis

NATO says near deal on Russian Afghan help

(Adds de Hoop Scheffer, Stanzel)

BRUSSELS, March 15 (Reuters) - NATO said on Saturday it was nearing a deal to use Russian land and airspace to supply its security forces in Afghanistan, but Western diplomats denied any trade-off with Moscow to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he was hopeful of increased cooperation with Russia. An alliance spokesman said NATO was negotiating accords on land and air corridors for its troops and equipment, which could be announced when President Vladimir Putin attends a NATO summit next month.

"I hope that Afghanistan might be an area where NATO and Russia can make strides to cooperate more closely together," de Hoop Scheffer told a security conference in Brussels.

Diplomats said a NATO-Russia council meeting on Monday would discuss a "package of deliverables" also including the possible leasing of Russian planes and trains, Russian training for Afghan helicopter pilots and counter-narcotics assistance.

"Discussions are under way. There is no deal done. We are working towards an agreement at the Bucharest summit," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said of an upcoming April 2-4 meeting in the Romanian capital.

"We are negotiating land and air transit agreements plus the possibility of making more permanent our cooperation on counter-narcotics training," he added.

The U.S. secretaries of state and defence, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, will visit Moscow on Tuesday to discuss with their Russian counterparts a wider package of issues including missile defence, conventional and nuclear arms control as well as cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, the diplomats said.


NATO's 43,000-strong operation in Afghanistan is facing a severe challenge from resurgent Islamist Taliban fighters. The former Soviet Union intervened in the mountainous central Asian country in 1979 but was forced out after heavy losses in the 1980s inflicted by Islamist guerrillas partly armed by the West.

NATO and Russia already cooperate in training Afghan and central Asian counter-narcotics officials as part of efforts to contain Afghanistan's huge opium trade.

But NATO-Russia cooperation in general has proven difficult and been overshadowed by disputes over a planned U.S. missile shield in central Europe and Moscow's decision last year to freeze its compliance with a European conventional arms treaty.

Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza said on Saturday that Russia's offer of help was made in the hope of persuading NATO allies not to admit Ukraine and Georgia to a Membership Action Plan -- a key stage on the road to joining the Western defence alliance.

NATO diplomats said the summit was unlikely to give the two ex-Soviet republics "MAP" status -- the first step towards eventual membership -- because of reservations among some west European countries, especially Germany.

Critics point to the low level of public support in Ukraine for NATO membership, and Georgia's heavy-handed treatment of opposition protests last year, including the imposition of a state of emergency and closing down of a television station.

German Foreign Ministry political director Volker Stanzel suggested NATO should await a solution to Georgia's "frozen conflicts" with the Moscow-backed rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia before moving ahead with MAP.

"What's the point of insisting on this precise year for giving MAP to Ukraine and Georgia?" Stanzel told the Brussels Forum conference staged by the German Marshall Fund think-tank.

Other diplomats suggested the Bucharest summit could give Ukraine and Georgia some lesser upgrade to their existing ties and stress that NATO's door remains open.

De Hoop Scheffer said it was too early to tell what they would win at the summit but added of Russia's position: "Red lines drawn by others cannot be accepted by NATO". (Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Sami Aboudi)