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NATO and Russia on ‘solid path’: alliance chief

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday the alliance was on a “solid path” to improving ties with Russia, as the United States declared Moscow a partner and not an adversary.

In their latest attempt to repair the rift in post-Cold War relations following Moscow’s 2008 war in Georgia, foreign ministers held a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

“I feel that we truly are on a solid path now to improve NATO-Russia relations,” Secretary General Rasmussen told reporters after the meeting.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile made clear the United States did not believe NATO and Russia were adversaries — and called on Moscow to eventually join the alliance in a combined missile defense “architecture.”

“NATO and Russia have an important partnership — one that we should strengthen and deepen to advance our shared interests and solve shared challenges,” she said at the talks.

Clinton has played a key role in the Obama administration’s effort to “reset” relations with Russia, a strategy the White House says has yielded important cooperation on issues including Iran’s nuclear program.

The meeting went ahead at the plush Waldorf Astoria hotel as the alliance waits for Russia to respond to an invitation to hold a full-scale leaders summit in Lisbon on November 20.

“We did have a useful discussion on what the substance (of the summit) might be, and we discussed concrete substance,” Rasmussen said.

The Lisbon meeting would take place after NATO leaders hold their own summit in the Portuguese capital November 19-20.

NATO and Russia are cooperating on countering narcotics and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, and on other national security threats, but are divided over US missile defense plans and the alliance’s eastward expansion.

NATO’s dominant member, the United States, marked the meeting with a call to revive a Cold War-era treaty setting limits on troops and weapons which Russia froze nearly three years ago.

Clinton said the two sides should agree to restore the viability of the conventional arms control regime in Europe this year, and move on to modernize the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE) next year.

Moscow suspended compliance to the CFE in December 2007, then asked Western governments to accept amendments to the 1999 treaty.

But NATO nations refused to ratify the amended pact, which took into account geopolitical changes wrought by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, until Russian troops withdraw from ex-Soviet republics Georgia and Moldova.

In a political boost to Washington, Russia announced just before the New York encounter that it had dropped plans to supply Iran with S-300 air defense missiles because they are subject to international sanctions.

US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the United States strongly welcomed President Dmitry Medvedev’s “leadership” on holding Iran “accountable” to its obligations.

Russia agreed the missile deal several years ago but has never delivered the weapons amid pressure from the United States and Israel, which fear they would dramatically improve Iran’s defensive capabilities.

But the two sides have identified common interests in the face of threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation and drug trafficking as they gingerly revive ties that had sunk to a new low following the war in Georgia.

On Afghanistan, Russia meanwhile cooperates in the fight against drug smuggling and allows the transit of supplies, except weapons, for NATO troops through its territory.

Plans under the previous US administration for the US missile shield to be extended into eastern Europe, notably with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, drew strong protests from Moscow.

But President Barack Obama last year scrapped the plan for sea- and land-based missile interceptors and sensors based partly on a reassessment of the threat from Iran.