BRUSSELS (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.
A NATO spokesman said the alliance was negotiating accords on land and air corridors to transport troops and equipment, which could be announced when President Vladimir Putin attends a NATO summit next month.
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 at a centre near Moscow.
“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 April 2-4 meeting in the Romanian capital.
The U.S. secretaries of state and defense, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, will visit Moscow on Tuesday to discuss with their Russian counterparts a wider package of issues including missile defense, 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.
“We are negotiating land and air transit agreements plus the possibility of making more permanent our cooperation on counter-narcotics training,” Appathurai said.
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 defense alliance.
NATO diplomats said the summit was unlikely to give the two former Soviet republics MAP status because of reservations among some west European countries, especially Germany, about their readiness.
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.
However the diplomats insisted neither the United States nor European allies would give Moscow a veto over countries joining the alliance, and the Bucharest summit was likely to give them some lesser upgrade and stress NATO’s door remains open.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists at a Brussels Forum on transatlantic relations: “We are in favor of sending a strong and positive signal to both Ukraine and Georgia. We are currently discussing how we can do that in the most appropriate way. We have not yet concluded how.”
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, asked about the Gazeta Wyborcza report, told reporters: “Russia could play a positive role to facilitate logistics of NATO operations in Afghanistan. That would be welcome. But I would not link that to the policy of an open door for Ukraine and Georgia.”
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.
Russia’s then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said early last year that Russia was ready to offer more help in Afghanistan, saying at a NATO meeting in Spain that Moscow had a “vital, visceral interest” in restoring stability to Afghanistan.
But NATO-Russia cooperation 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.