Nato will invite Russia to take part in a US-European missile defence shield at a summit on Saturday, a move that would herald the closest cooperation between the powers since the end of the Cold War.
Nato leaders agreed on Friday to develop a missile system to protect the territory of all Nato member states in Europe and North America. It will be capable of intercepting long-range missiles fired from the Middle East.
Russia will be invited to be involved in the system when President Dmitry Medvedev meets US President Barack Obama and other Nato leaders at the summit in Portugal, but it remains unclear what role Moscow might play.
The system would be designed to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from Iran or North Korea, but Russia is reluctant to join a programme that defines Iran as a potential missile threat.
Nato member Turkey also is opposed to identifying Iran, a neighbour and ally, as a possible aggressor. Nato sources said leaders had agreed not to name Iran in a statement that will refer to the missile shield, securing Turkey’s support.
Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen will hope language can be found to satisfy Russia and make the missile defence cooperation possible.
The Nato summit largely has focussed on the military alliance’s role in Afghanistan, where 150 000 US and Nato-led troops are fighting a Taliban insurgency.
Russia, which fought its own campaign in Afghanistan from 1979-89 before withdrawing in defeat, is expected to agree to help Nato in the conflict, allowing equipment to move across its territory and providing specialised helicopters.
Moscow is expected to sell 18 Mi-17 helicopters to the United States and lend three more to Afghan forces. The Mi-17 is better suited to operating in Afghanistan’s high altitudes and cold weather than equivalent US helicopters.
But Russia has ruled out any suggestion that it could get involved on the ground in Afghanistan, where Nato is struggling for success after 10 years of fighting.
Rasmussen said on Friday that Nato forces would begin handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces next year, aiming to end foreign forces’ involvement in combat operations by the end of 2014 so they can concentrate on training.
Some Nato and Pentagon officials have expressed doubt that the 2014 deadline can be met because of the rising threat posed by Taliban insurgents to Afghanistan’s weak government.
But Rasmussen said he believed it was a realistic goal and one that would allow Nato to focus on training Afghan troops.
“Tomorrow we will announce that the transition process is about to start at the beginning of 2011 and I find it realistic that this process will be completed by the end of 2014,” Rasmussen told reporters on Friday.
Obama, who will have talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, backed the decision to start the security handover in 2011 and called for moves towards a reconciliation with the Taliban.
The United States has an increasingly tense relationship with Karzai, who has accused Nato forces of heavy-handedness and called for them to hand over security responsibility to Afghan soldiers and police by 2014. – Reuters