MOSCOW (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen asked Russia on Wednesday to give the Western military alliance more help in Afghanistan but failed to get an immediate pledge of assistance from the Kremlin.
On his first visit to Moscow since taking office on August 1, the NATO chief told senior officials that the bitter rows of recent years should not blind Russia to a common security threat from Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
Moscow views Cold War adversary NATO with deep suspicion and ties have been severely strained by last year’s war between Russia and Georgia and by U.S.-backed plans to invite more former Soviet states to join the alliance.
Rasmussen, who is trying to secure more support for the fight against the Taliban after U.S. President Barack Obama pledged 30,000 more troops, said Russia could up its efforts by contributing more helicopters.
“I have invited Russia to strengthen Russia’s terms of cooperation in Afghanistan,” the former Danish prime minister said after meeting President Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin.
The NATO chief later said that he had asked Russian leaders to allow the alliance to fly cargoes — including possibly military ones — over Russian territory to Afghanistan and to provide more helicopters for the Afghan armed forces.
“I indicated that we would like to see a widening of the transit conditions,” he told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Medvedev would consider NATO’s requests, but gave no indication that Moscow was willing to increase cooperation and Rasmussen said he did not expect an immediate answer.
Rasmussen told former Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, who is now a powerful prime minister, that Afghanistan should become the centerpiece of NATO cooperation with Russia. Putin said simply that cooperation with NATO could yield good results.
Rasmussen inherited an extremely strained relationship with Russia when he took over at NATO from Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and he faces an uphill battle to convince a skeptical Moscow that they can trust one another after the rows of the past.
The Western alliance froze contacts with Moscow over the war in Georgia and resumed formal talks on April 29, the day NATO informed Moscow it was expelling two Russian diplomats.
Russia responded in May by announcing the expulsion of two Canadians working at NATO’s information center in Moscow.
“Disagreements should not overshadow the fact that, basically, we share security interests in many areas because we are faced with the same threats,” Rasmussen told Lavrov.
But Rasmussen also called on Russia to withdraw troops from Georgia and said that Georgia and Ukraine would one day be NATO members, statements that are likely to upset Russian leaders just as the alliance seeks help on Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union spent almost 10 years fighting in Afghanistan before withdrawing in 1989 after losing some 15,000 troops in a war with Western-backed mujahideen insurgents.
Since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan to topple the Taliban in 2001, Russia has raised concerns about increased drug trafficking but repeatedly ruled out sending troops back.
Russia says NATO members such as the United States, France, Germany and Spain already have bilateral deals to transport military cargoes and personnel across Russian territory.
Editing by Charles Dick