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NATO chief looks to build trust with Moscow visit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO’s new chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen will try to rebuild trust with Russia shattered by the Georgia war when he visits Moscow for the first time on Tuesday, but analysts cautioned against any quick results.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen holds a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels December 4, 2009. REUTERS/Yves Herman

NATO’s search for support for its troubled operation in Afghanistan is likely to top the agenda, but Rasmussen’s talks are also expected to touch on plans for missile defense and Russia’s proposals for a new European security architecture.

Analysts described the visit as a critical step in rebuilding trust after Moscow’s 2008 war in Georgia, which caused a freezing of ties that have only gradually thawed.

But they cautioned against expectations of substantial short-term progress from Rasmussen’s meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

“The relationship between NATO and Russia is important and needs attention, but this is a question of process,” said Andrew Monaghan, an analyst at the NATO Defense College in Rome.

“It’s very important that Rasmussen goes there and meets people and I am quite sure there will be something that can be brought back. But really, in terms of turning the relationship around, I think it’s unlikely.”

Russia has pledged more support in the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and its ambassador to NATO said last week Russia was willing to do “anything, except sending our troops.”

Moscow’s history in Afghanistan, where it spent 10 years before withdrawing in 1989, has led it to rule out sending troops back. But it also recognizes that NATO failure could lead to a spread of Islamist insurgency in central Asia.

Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan to bolster communist allies, but got bogged down in a conflict with mujahideen insurgents. Some 15,000 Soviet troops and 1 million Afghans died in the fighting.

NATO SEEKS DONATIONS, NOT SALES

However, NATO diplomats say that despite such supportive words, frustration is growing in the alliance at what it regards as Russia’s lukewarm support for the Afghan mission.

A NATO official said the alliance would like to see Russia providing more helicopters for the Afghan armed forces and weaponry including assault rifles and artillery, saying the equipment should be a donation rather than a sale of arms.

“This a priority for NATO,” a senior NATO diplomat said. “We want to have good relations with Russia, but the best way is to have real practical cooperation rather than nice discussions about philosophical questions.”

The diplomat said the alliance welcomed Russian cooperation in transit of supplies and training of counter-narcotics forces, but also wanted to see Russia donating funds to support the build-up of Afghan forces. It could also donate fuel, he said.

“The Russians have a range of possibilities as to how they can show their interest in helping. Whatever they are doing, NATO would say: ‘you need to do more’.”

Tatiana Parkhalina, director of the Center for European Security in Moscow, said Rasmussen’s visit should be seen as positive in itself after a year and a half of frozen relations. And she stressed the shared security concerns in Afghanistan.

“NATO is defending Russia’s national security interests in Afghanistan ... There is an understanding in the Kremlin that it is not in our interests to have NATO failing in Afghanistan.”

Monaghan said that while short-term assistance in Afghanistan was important, the longer-term aim in NATO-Russia ties had to be to get cooperation mechanisms working properly.

This though was hampered by each party’s often fundamentally different way of looking at global security issues.

“We are almost at the beginning of the relationship,” he said. “And both sides are very clear that there are concerns about trust ... and both sides systematically draw different conclusions from the same body of evidence.”

Russia has, for instance, been irritated by NATO’s reluctance to discuss Medvedev’s security proposals outside the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Some NATO countries, meanwhile, question Russian motives, seeing the plans as an attempt to divide and weaken NATO.

“We see the world very differently,” Monaghan said. “That’s why cooperation is so difficult. It requires sustained, focused attention and sustained resources to pick up relations ... and it’s certainly not going to be all over by Christmas,” he said.

Additional reporting by Conor Sweeney in Moscow

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