NATO holds major summit with Russia

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US President Barack Obama and his NATO allies hold a summit with Russia on Saturday to win support for a Europe-wide missile shield and repair strained relations between the former Cold War enemies.

Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Lisbon for the first meeting between a Russian president and the 28-nation Western alliance since his country's 2008 war with Georgia, a pro-Western former Soviet state that now aspires to join NATO.

"A former military adversary is now clearly a partner," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.

"It's a turning point in working together that we can clearly call historic. Of course there's still a long road ahead of us, to build security with Russia, but to start on this road has extraordinary importance," she said.

NATO hopes to overcome Russian suspicions about plans to mount a missile shield over the skies of Europe by inviting Moscow to cooperate in the system, which the alliance agreed on Friday to develop.

The Western allies also expect Russia to agree to step up cooperation on Afghanistan despite Moscow's bitter experience there in the 1980s, when Soviet forces were forced to withdraw after failing to defeat US-backed insurgents.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has described the meeting as a chance to exorcise the "ghosts of the past."

Obama's own "reset" in US relations with Russia faces a major obstacle, however, as the US Senate threatens to delay ratification of a landmark nuclear arms reduction pact.

European allies rallied to Obama's side, piling pressure on US senators to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), with Rasmussen warning that any delay "would be damaging to security in Europe."

The treaty would restrict each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002.

Western leaders adopted a once-in-a-decade mission statement on Friday which states that "NATO poses no threat to Russia."

The military alliance also agreed to invite Moscow to take part in a ballistic missile defence system to ease Russian concerns that it was a direct challenge to its nuclear deterrent.

Rasmussen has said he expects Russia and the allies to begin a joint study of Russia's possible inclusion in the missile defence system, which would be a significant softening of Moscow's position.

Obama decided to replace a previous shield project of his predecessor George W. Bush, with a more mobile system targeting Iranian short-range and medium-range missiles, initially using sea-based interceptors.

Before leaving Moscow, the Russian party said it was keen to share ideas about common missile defence but played down the chances of a major decision realigning the continent's security.

Rasmussen said Russia would likely be invited to link up with the NATO missile umbrella rather than merging its defences with those of the alliance, set up in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union.

"I think we should think of two separate systems that cooperate. We could exchange information and data and thereby make the whole system more efficient and give better coverage," he said Friday.

The two sides are expected to sign a significant Afghanistan cooperation package.

Russia has cooperated with NATO on Afghanistan by allowing alliance supplies to transit through its territory and providing counter-narcotics training to Afghan officials outside Moscow.

NATO, whose fuel convoys have come under attack on Pakistani roads, wants Russia to allow equipment in and out of Afghanistan and expand the list of permitted goods to include armoured vehicles.

Russia has allowed a one-way transit of non-lethal NATO supplies by train to Afghanistan.

Russia is also considering opening a second counter-narcotics training centre, officials said, while NATO wants Moscow to provide around 20 Mi-17 helicopters, spare parts and pilot training to Afghanistan.

© 2010 AFP

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