BRUSSELS - Nato and Russia said Wednesday they had made no progress in settling sharp differences over a planned missile defence system for Europe but pledged to continue efforts to resolve the row.
“It is no secret that we have not yet found the way to work together on missile defence,” Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after a meeting of the Nato -Russia council.
“However, ministerial discussions are valuable in addressing existing concerns and we need to continue to engage frankly and directly to overcome our differences.”
Moscow fears that US-led plans for a missile defence system against attacks from outside Europe - taken to mean from Iran or terrorist groups - compromise its security.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made the point again on Wednesday. “We failed to work cooperatively on this issue and Russian concerns are not being (taken into account),” Shoigu told a news conference after the meeting. “Before studying missile defence projects, we want to have assurances that this US missile defence system is not against Russia,” he added.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said separately that the missile defence project “remains on track”, with work on a first installation in Romania due to begin next week.
At the same time, however, Hagel praised the work of the Nato -Russia Council, with the two sides having “many areas of common interest”. He said he had had a good meeting with Shoigu and the two men had agreed to hold regular video conferences and staff exchanges.
The aim was to “have a very open, and frank discussion... to anticipate problems rather than waiting for a crisis,” Hagel said. “We have differences and will continue to have,” he added.
US missile plans in Europe have long been a sore point for Russia which charges that the missile shield is designed to reduce the deterrent effect of Moscow’s arsenal and thus alter the balance of power on the continent.
Meanwhile, the Nato-led war in Afghanistan has been a huge benefit to the country and its people, top Western defence ministers said Wednesday, rejecting recent criticism by President Hamid Karzai.
Compared with the start of the war in 2001 to oust the Taliban, “Afghanistan has benefited enormously,” Britain’s Philip Hammond said as he went into a meeting of Nato defence ministers.
Afghanistan lacked the basics of a modern state then but “we have turned that around,” Hammond said.
“It is never going to be like Switzerland” in Afghanistan but there will be a government in Kabul in control of the armed forces and most of the territory, he added. His German colleague Thomas de Maiziere made similar remarks, saying he was very surprised by Karzai’s attack on Nato’s role. “In the past, the Afghan president made very positive remarks about the Nato mission,” de Maziere said. “These remarks astonished me and do not reflect what the Afghan people tell us every day,” he said.
Earlier this month, Karzai condemned the Nato mission for causing “a lot of suffering” without delivering any gains.
“On the security front the entire Nato exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure,” he told the BBC.
Nato defence ministers are due to discuss the Afghan operation later Wednesday as part of preparations for the withdrawal of all troops next year.
Nato plans a training and advisory mission afterwards but this is being held up by difficult talks on an accord whereby Washington would keep some troops in the country.
The US hopes that a deal can be agreed before elections for Karzai’s successor in six months time.
Hammond, referring to the US-Afghan talks, said “the indications are that good progress is being made”.
“All understand that (a US-Afghan accord) that has to be in place before Nato” can negotiate its own agreement, he added.