MOSCOW - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen asked Russia on Wednesday to give the Western military alliance more help in Afghanistan but failed to get an immediate pledge of assistance from the Kremlin.
On his first visit to Moscow since taking office on August 1, the NATO chief told senior officials that the bitter rows of recent years should not blind Russia to a common security threat from Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
Russia views Cold War adversary NATO with deep suspicion and ties have been severely strained by last year's war between Moscow and Georgia and by U.S.-backed plans to invite more former Soviet states to join the alliance.
Rasmussen, who is trying to secure more support for the fight against the Taliban after U.S. President Barack Obama said he would deploy 30,000 more troops, said Russia could up its efforts by contributing more helicopters.
I have invited Russia to strengthen Russia's terms of cooperation in Afghanistan, the former Danish prime minister said after meeting President Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin.
I suggested a helicopter package. I think Russia could contribute in a very concrete way by providing helicopters, helicopter training and spare parts, he said.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Medvedev would consider the request, but gave no indication that Moscow was willing to increase cooperation.
Rasmussen told former Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, who is now a powerful prime minister, that Afghanistan should become the centerpiece of NATO cooperation with Russia.
Putin said simply at the start of the meeting that cooperation with NATO could yield good results.
Rasmussen inherited an extremely strained relationship with Russia when he took over at NATO from Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
The Western alliance froze contacts with Moscow over the war in Georgia and resumed formal talks on April 29, the day NATO informed Moscow it was expelling two Russian diplomats.
Russia responded in May by announcing the expulsion of two Canadians working at NATO's information center in Moscow.
Disagreements should not overshadow the fact that, basically, we share security interests in many areas because we are faced with the same threats, Rasmussen told Lavrov.
The Soviet Union spent almost 10 years fighting in Afghanistan before withdrawing in 1989 after losing some 15,000 troops in a war with Western-backed mujahideen insurgents.
Since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan to topple the Taliban in 2001, Russia has raised concerns about increased drug trafficking and repeatedly ruled out sending troops back.
Before the trip, the NATO chief had expressed hope that Moscow might allow NATO to transport military cargo over Russian territory. Russia says NATO members such as the United States, France, Germany and Spain already have bilateral deals to transport military cargoes and personnel.
But Rasmussen has an uphill battle to convince a skeptical Moscow that they can trust one another, even as Russia seeks to mend ties with NATO's largest member, the United States.
Russian leaders have repeatedly criticized NATO plans to one day invite Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.
(Editing by Paul Taylor)