NATO chief and Russia's Putin agree to meet soon

March 8, 2012 - 8:56 AM

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO's top official plans to meet with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin to discuss ties that have deteriorated over the alliance's plan to deploy a missile shield.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Putin agreed during a telephone conversation on the need for good and stable ties, the alliance said Thursday.

"It was a constructive conversation," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said. "Both (participants) stressed that they're determined to continue cooperation and to meet bilaterally in the not-too-distant future."

The Western military alliance says its planned missile defense program is aimed at potential threats from nations that have, or are acquiring, missile technology. But analysts believe the shield is meant to protect Europe from Iran's medium-range missiles.

Still, Russia has objected to the program, fearing it will eventually grow powerful enough to intercept Russian missiles, thus undermining its nuclear deterrent.

It was not immediately clear whether the meeting will occur before the NATO summit in Chicago in May. The Russian president would normally attend such a meeting of NATO heads of state, but the unresolved dispute over missile defense has thrown that into doubt.

Despite those differences, the two sides have cooperated closely in Afghanistan, where Russia provides one of the main transit routes for supplies to coalition forces in the landlocked nation and trains Afghan counter-narcotics officials. The importance of the overland link from Europe has grown significantly since Pakistan partially blocked NATO supplies from crossing its territory following an alliance airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani border troops in November.

Their navies also have worked together in suppressing piracy off the Somali coastline, and there has been growing cooperation in other areas such preventing terrorist attacks.

The NATO statement said Fogh Rasmussen telephoned Putin on Thursday morning to congratulate him on his return to office and said that he looks forward "to continued engagement and constructive dialogue."

Fogh Rasmussen "emphasized NATO's commitment, and his own personal commitment, to working with the president-elect to establish a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, as agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2010," it said.

The NATO chief expressed hope that it would be possible to move forward on cooperation on missile defense, and that such cooperation would benefit both sides.

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Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich