Moscow (AFP) Nov 18, 2010
President Dmitry Medvedev attends a summit of NATO leaders this weekend in a boost for Russia's relations with its Cold War foe but with Moscow still showing suspicion at plans for joint missile defence.
Medvedev will be the first Russian president to attend a NATO summit since the row over his country's 2008 war with Georgia, and the alliance's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen believes the meeting is a chance to exorcise the "ghosts of the past".
"If Russia and NATO can work out the tasks ahead of us, everyone interested in improving security, from Vancouver to Vladivostok, will win," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an article for the Itogi weekly.
Despite the confident rhetoric, a flourishing of relations has been hindered by Western plans for a missile defence system in Europe, including ex-Communist bloc countries, which Russia fears is aimed against its territory.
In a bid to overcome the suspicions, Rasmussen has championed an idea to bring Russia into a joint missile defence initiative against shared threats which will be a main focus of the 19-20 November summit in Lisbon.
"I think we are witnessing a fresh start in the relationship between NATO and Russia and maybe I could go further and say a fresh start in the relationship between Russia and the West," he said this week.
Moscow however appears to be not yet fully convinced of the alliance's intentions.
Medvedev gave the idea a cautious welcome, saying it required further study, and officials have warned against expecting a major breakthrough on the plan in Lisbon.
"It's important to understand in what direction they are asking us to go," Russia's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told the Interfax news agency.
"Whether it would risk threatening Russia's strategic missile potential or whether Russia can really take part on a equal basis. This what we need to hear in Lisbon."
Missile defence has been an irritation in relations between Russia and the West since the administration of former US president George W. Bush proposed putting facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.
His successor Barack Obama scrapped that plan but NATO remains committed to improving its defences against what it says is the risk of an attack from a "rogue state" like Iran.
US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder has said NATO could not make cooperation with Russia a condition for developing defences against any eventual threat.
But a senior US official said in Brussels: "I think we will come out (of the summit) by saying we have really turned a page in the relationship."
NATO will also be looking for increased Russian cooperation in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moscow, chastened by its calamitous Afghan invasion in Soviet times, has kept a careful distance from the conflict.
But Russia is considering expanding the transit of non-military NATO cargo across its territory for Afghanistan while a decision on it supplying helicopters for the Afghan army may be announced at the summit.
"This is no ordinary meeting and Medvedev knows he is taking a risk by taking part. But he knows that contacts with the West need to be widened," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy head of the US-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"On missile defence, there is a shared threat and the answer needs to be a common one," he told AFP.
The summit will also be the first to be attended by both Obama and Medvedev, who have sought a new atmosphere of cooperation.
Then president Vladimir Putin and Bush, whose relationship was marked by an icy mistrust, attended the April 2008 summit in Bucharest in what now seems like a different era.
Relations between Russia and NATO were established in 1991 and a NATO-Russia Council was set up in 2002 as a formal basis for ties.
But council meetings and some areas of cooperation were suspended after the 2008 Georgia war and NATO foreign ministers only agreed to resume cooperation and meetings in March 2009.
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