MADRID - Russia is offering intelligence and other backup to support NATO troops preparing for a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Wednesday.
Meeting his NATO counterparts, Ivanov said the offer showed the increasingly close relationship between the former Cold War foes, but stressed Moscow would not be sending troops to Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union was embroiled in a costly war through the 1980s.
"Cooperation with NATO may take many forms, but not direct military participation," Ivanov told a news conference.
NATO is scheduled Aug. 11 to take command of a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force in the Afghan capital, Kabul, currently run by Germany and the Netherlands.
Ivanov welcomed a commitment from the United States and other NATO allies to show what he called "military restraint" on the territory of the seven eastern European nations scheduled to join the alliance next year.
He said Russia had received assurances that plans currently under consideration by the Pentagon to replace large U.S. bases in Germany with smaller, more flexible units in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria would respect arms control agreements with Russia.
Russia was also pleased with plans for Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia - who will also join NATO next May - to sign up to the European arms control treaty when it enters into force.
In return, Russia agreed to stick to its pledge to withdraw troops from Moldova and Georgia. NATO officials said Russia was on track to remove all its troops and military equipment from Moldova by October.
In an attempt to allay western concerns about Russian aid to Iran's nuclear industry, Ivanov insisted any nuclear fuel sent to the Bushehr nuclear plant would have to be returned to Russia after it has been spent in the reactor.
He also said Iran must sign an International Atomic Energy Agency protocol allowing inspections of all nuclear sites at any time.
Russian help to Iran's nuclear power program has drawn intense criticism from the United States which says it could help Tehran develop atomic weapons. However, Russia is pushing ahead with its US$800 million contract to complete the Bushehr plant.
Ivanov attended the second and final day of a NATO foreign ministers meeting as part of a year-old agreement to improve ties between Russia and the Atlantic alliance.
Both sides stressed the rapidly developing cooperation between them in areas ranging from counterterrorism and missile defenses to maritime rescue missions and planning to cope with earthquakes and other civil emergencies.
"This level of cooperation, in the past, would have been inconceivable," said NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. "In today's world the NATO allies and Russia need each other more than ever."
Robertson said NATO was considering Russia's offer of help in Afghanistan, saying that the "good will shown by Russia is much appreciated."