NATO chief in first Russia visit

MOSCOW: NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen was to meet Russian leaders Wednesday in Moscow, the first visit by a head of theWestern military alliance since the Georgia war blew a Cold War chill through ties.

Furious disputes over Russia's actions in its war with Georgia last year led to a halt in cooperation between the two sides, but Rasmussen has vowed to rebuild trust since taking office in August.

"Given the announcements by the new NATO secretary general about increasing the quality of partnership with Russia, special attention will be put on activating cooperation to increase trust," the Kremlin said in a statement ahead of the visit.

It said the two sides would also discuss important international issues, including Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear programme and the peace process in the Middle East.

Rasmussen is to meet all the key players in Russia in a packed schedule of meetings on Wednesday, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

On Thursday Rasmussen is to meet more top officials and also give a keynote speech to the prestigiousMoscow State Institute of International Relations, according to the Kremlin.

As NATO forces step up the fight against the Taliban, the alliance will be looking for greater assistance from Russia on Afghanistan, an area where Moscow has been wary of involvement since the debacle of the Soviet invasion.

Russian media have also reported that Rasmussen may be seeking more concrete cooperation from Russia by giving the coalition AK-47 assault rifles, armoured personnel carriers and other military hardware.

"No one in NATO expects Russia to again send its soldiers into Afghanistan. But we can do a lot together," Russia's Nezavisimya Gazeta quoted an official as saying.

In a keynote policy speech in September after taking office, Rasmussen had described improving relations with Russia as one of the key priorities of his tenure.

"We need Russia as a partner in resolving the great issues of our time," Rasmussen said in the speech in Brussels.

Russia's relations with NATO and the United States have been helped by the US decision to shelve a plan for building missile defence facilities in Central Europe that had infuriated Russia.

In the Brussels speech, Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, said the potential for linking the US, NATO and Russian missile defence systems should be explored.

NATO and Russia have been at loggerheads for years over missile defence, arms treaties, their stance on the independence of Kosovo -- where the alliance has a peacekeeping force -- and their attitude toward Iran.

But their relations plunged to a post-Cold War low after Moscow sent its troops into Georgia in August 2008 and then recognised the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions.

However the "reset" of Russia-US relations under President Barack Obama has also warmed Russian ties with NATO. NATO and Russian foreign ministers on December 4 held the highest level meeting since the Georgia crisis.