By David Brunnstrom and Timothy Heritage
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO proposed a new era of cooperation with Russia Friday, calling for joint work with Moscow and Washington on missile defense after the United States scrapped a planned anti-missile system.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described as “correct and brave” President Barack Obama’s decision to drop the missile shield intended for Europe by predecessor George W. Bush. Russia’s NATO envoy welcomed the NATO cooperation proposals.
Some military experts saw the moves as a sign of weakness by Obama which Moscow hardliners would want to exploit further. Putin called in a speech Friday for Obama to follow up with concessions on trade and technology transfer.
Others described abandonment of the system as a bold gesture that could improve frosty relations between the West and Russia, but also said many obstacles remained to better ties between the former Cold War foes.
“I do believe that it is possible for NATO and Russia to make a new beginning and to enjoy a far more productive relationship in the future,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in his first big policy speech since taking office in August.
“We should explore the potential for linking the U.S., NATO and Russian missile defense systems at an appropriate time.”
Rasmussen called for more cooperation on ending the conflict in Afghanistan, fighting piracy at sea and ensuring Iran does not develop nuclear arms. He also proposed a joint review of global security threats.
He gave few details of how his proposals would work but they were welcomed by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and one of Moscow’s loudest critics of the planned U.S. missile shield.
“It was very positive, very constructive and we have to analyze together all the sec-gen’s proposals for the new beginning of NATO-Russia cooperation,” Rogozin said.
He indicated Russia would not go ahead with plans to deploy medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, if the United States abandoned its plans to place ground-based interceptors in Poland and use a radar site in the Czech Republic.
NATO’s ties with Russia have improved since the Cold War ended but deteriorated again following the defense alliance’s eastward expansion to take in former Communist-ruled countries in eastern Europe and Moscow’s war in Georgia last year.
Contentious issues include NATO’s offer of eventual membership for Georgia and fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine, which was opposed at a NATO summit last year by France and Germany, and is deeply resented by Russia.
NATO is troubled by Russia’s recognition of the rebellious South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in Georgia as independent states, and there is lingering mutual mistrust.
“If I was only born yesterday, I would be delighted, but I was not born yesterday,” Rogozin said, adding that there had been several false starts in efforts to improve relations.
CONCERNS OVER IRAN
Washington had proposed the shield because of concerns Iran was trying to develop nuclear warheads — something Iran denies — and could mount them on long-range missiles. But Russia saw it as a threat to its own missile defenses and overall security.
Under a new plan, Washington would initially deploy ships with missile interceptors and in a second phase would field land-based defense systems. Rasmussen said no NATO ally would be weakened by the decision.
Putin, speaking to investors in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, said Obama’s decision to scrap the missile plans was positive.
“I expect that after this correct and brave decision, others will follow, including the complete removal of all restrictions on the transfer of high technology to Russia and (U.S.) activity to widen the membership of the World Trade Organization to (include) Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus,” Putin said.