NATO Nears Accord to Use Russian Land

BRUSSELS -- NATO said Saturday that it was nearing a deal to use Russian land and airspace to supply its security forces in Afghanistan, but Western diplomats denied any trade-off with Moscow to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of the alliance.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he hoped for increased cooperation with Russia. An alliance spokesman said NATO was negotiating accords on land and air corridors for its troops and equipment, which could be announced when President Vladimir Putin attends a NATO summit next month.

"I hope that Afghanistan might be an area where NATO and Russia can make strides to cooperate more closely together," de Hoop Scheffer told a security conference in Brussels.

Diplomats said a NATO-Russia council meeting on Monday would discuss a "package of deliverables" also including the possible leasing of Russian planes and trains, Russian training for Afghan helicopter pilots and counternarcotics assistance.

"Discussions are under way. There is no deal done. We are working toward an agreement at the Bucharest summit," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said of an upcoming April 2 to 4 meeting in the Romanian capital.

"We are negotiating land-and air-transit agreements plus the possibility of making more permanent our cooperation on counter-narcotics training," he added.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will visit Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to discuss a wider package of issues, including missile defense, conventional and nuclear arms control as well as cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, the diplomats said.

NATO's 43,000-strong operation in Afghanistan is facing a severe challenge from resurgent Islamist Taliban fighters. The Soviet Union intervened in the mountainous central Asian country in 1979 but was forced out after heavy losses in the 1980s inflicted by Islamist guerrillas partly armed by the West.

NATO and Russia already cooperate in training Afghan and central Asian counternarcotics officials as part of efforts to contain Afghanistan's huge opium trade.

But NATO-Russia cooperation in general has proven difficult and been overshadowed by disputes over a planned U.S. missile shield in Central Europe and Moscow's decision last year to freeze its compliance with a European conventional arms treaty.

The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza said Saturday that Russia's offer of help was made in the hope of persuading NATO allies not to admit Ukraine and Georgia to a Membership Action Plan -- a key stage on the road to joining the Western defense alliance.

NATO diplomats said the summit was unlikely to give the two ex-Soviet republics "MAP" status -- the first step toward eventual membership -- because of reservations among some West European countries, especially Germany.

Critics point to the low level of public support in Ukraine for NATO membership, and Georgia's heavy-handed treatment of opposition protests last year, including the imposition of a state of emergency and closing down of a television station.

German Foreign Ministry political director Volker Stanzel suggested that NATO should await a solution to Georgia's "frozen conflicts" with the Moscow-backed rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia before moving ahead with MAP.

"What's the point of insisting on this precise year for giving MAP to Ukraine and Georgia?" Stanzel told the Brussels Forum conference staged by the German Marshall Fund think tank.

Other diplomats suggested that the Bucharest summit could give Ukraine and Georgia some lesser upgrade to their existing ties and stress that NATO's door remains open.

De Hoop Scheffer said it was too early to tell what they would win at the summit, but added of Russia's position, "Red lines drawn by others cannot be accepted by NATO."