BRUSSELS - Russian and NATO defense ministers pledged to step up military cooperation Thursday in the first ministerial meeting of a new council launched to bring the former foes together in the fight against terrorism.
"It is a mark of the political will underpinning the new NATO-Russia relationship that we have been able to get down to real business so quickly and so effectively," said NATO Secretary General George Robertson.
Barely 10 days after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his NATO counterparts signed an agreement setting up the new cooperation council at a summit outside Rome, the two sides agreed on a package of joint defense measures.
They included better counterterrorism protection for peacekeepers in the Balkans; a joint assessment of terrorist threats to airliners, nuclear power plants and other civilian and military targets; and cooperation to prevent the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"We are confronted with very serious threats to our security," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters after the meeting. "Those threats need to be combatted with very different tools than those used during the Cold War."
The two sides agreed to hold more joint exercises and consider using Russian planes to plug gaps in NATO military arsenal by providing transport to ferry allied troops to far-flung destinations and air-to-air refueling.
Such plans dovetail with the thrust of the NATO defense minister's meeting earlier Thursday, which sought to urgently overcome shortfalls in the alliance's ability to deploy troops long distance to quell potential terrorist threats.
"Some of the capability gaps that the NATO countries have are gaps that could be filled by Russia," Lord Robertson told a news conference.
Other areas where they agreed to look at increased cooperation included providing missile cover to troops in battle and submarine rescue operations - an area of particular sensitivity to Russia following the 2000 sinking of its nuclear submarine Kursk with the loss of all 118 crew.
Ivanov repeated Russia's opposition to NATO's plans to invite in up to seven new members from eastern European at a summit in November, but indicated the expansion would not cool relations with the alliance.
"The question about NATO enlargement is not our business, it is NATO's business," he said.