NATO welcomes "positive" meeting with Russia

(dpa) - NATO welcomed the "positive spirit" demonstrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Bucharest on Friday, pointing to a transport deal in Afghanistan as evidence of an improvement in relations between the alliance and Moscow.

"There was no hiding of views, but the spirit was positive," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after a NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting in the Romanian capital.

Ahead of the NRC, the NATO chief had called on the Russian leader to steer clear of "unhelpful rhetoric" during the meeting.

And though he acknowledged that deep divisions remained, he expressed satisfaction at the fact that Putin had helped produce "constructive" talks in Bucharest.

"This morning I am not complaining about unhelpful rhetoric," de Hoop Scheffer said.

During the course of the meeting, NATO and Russia formalized a transport agreement in support of the alliance's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

The deal will allow non-lethal goods destined for ISAF to be transported through Russian territory on their way to Afghanistan.

Only hours before the NRC opened, at least five people were killed in two separate attacks by insurgents against ISAF convoys - the latest in a long string of such incidents in Afghanistan.

The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established at a 2002 meeting in Pratica di Mare, near Rome, as a means of fostering mutual understanding.

But relations between NATO and Russia have progressively worsened since, reaching one of their lowest post-Cold War points over the past year.

Disagreements cover a variety of issues, including Kosovo and NATO's willingness to extend its reach eastwards.

Putin on Friday reiterated his view that offering NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia would be seen as a threat.

On Thursday, the alliance's leaders postponed a decision on whether to offer Membership Action Plans to the two former Soviet republics, precisely because of European concerns that it would upset Moscow.

And the Kremlin was less than pleased with Thursday's announcement that the United States and the Czech Republic had reached an agreement to site elements of a US anti-ballistic-missile system on Czech soil.

The radar in the Czech Republic, which the US says is intended to protect the West from rogue states such as Iran, will be part of any future NATO missile defence system.

The Kremlin objects to the US plan, arguing that it poses a threat to its own security and deterrent capability, and has suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) in response.

Speaking Friday, de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged that "no stunning breakthroughs" had been achieved in Bucharest, but underlined the importance of holding such regular meetings with Russia.

"We use the NRC to discuss items we agree on ... but even more importantly, we use the NRC on the items we do not agree on, be it enlargement of NATO, be it the adapted CFE treaty, be it Kosovo," he said.

Friday's brief NRC - lasting only about one hour - took place in Bucharest's Palace of the Parliament, a monstrous 330,000-square- metre mansion built during the regime of former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

It was the first to be attended by Putin since its creation and the last by his US counterpart, George W Bush.

The two leaders were due to meet again in the Black Sea resort of Sochi over the weekend.

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