The U.S. and its NATO allies are close to an agreement to erect a missile shield over Europe, a project that would give the military alliance a fresh purpose while testing President Barack Obama's campaign to improve relations with Russia.
The deal is likely to be sealed at a two-day NATO summit starting Friday in Lisbon, Portugal, officials say, as part of what the alliance calls its new "strategic concept" — the first overhaul of its basic mission since 1999.
The summit will include Obama and leaders of the 27 other member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will join a separate NATO-Russia session on Saturday.
Outlines of the deal were provided to The Associated Press by American officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal allied deliberations.
Russia to be invited
Under the arrangement, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.
NATO plans to invite Russia to join the missile shield effort, although Moscow would not be given joint control. The gesture would mark a historic milestone for the alliance, created after World War II to defend Western Europe against the threat of an invasion by Soviet forces.
The Bush administration first proposed stationing 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic, saying the system was aimed at blunting future missile threats from Iran.
Russia was furious, saying the missiles threatened the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal. At one point Moscow warned that if the plan went forward, it would station missiles close to Poland.
The Obama administration canceled the original plan in September 2009, proposing instead a reconfigured missile shield that would begin with ship-based interceptors and radars, followed by more advanced land-based interceptors to be deployed in Romania by 2015 and Poland by 2018. This is to be the core U.S. contribution to NATO's European missile defense system.
The U.S. has asked Turkey, also a member of NATO, to host some of the radar defenses and to approve the proposal for a Europe-wide defense network. Turkey has hesitated, saying it does not want the system explicitly to target its neighbor, Iran.
U.S. officials close to pre-summit talks were optimistic that the proposed European missile shield's remaining obstacles could be overcome. They said Russia seems to be seriously considering NATO's plan, while Turkey's concerns could be finessed.
"The Russians seem to be playing ball and seem to be somewhat open-minded about this," said F. Stephen Larrabee, a specialist in European security issues at the RAND Corp. think tank. In Larrabee's view, though, NATO must still persuade Moscow that the planned system will not undermine the credibility of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
"I don't think they've been completely convinced of that yet," he said.
Other experts agreed that Turkey's concerns about singling out Iran can probably be answered without jeopardizing the plan. "I would be surprised if this proved to be a deal-breaker," said Steven Pifer, a Russian affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Out of Afghanistan in 2014
NATO leaders also are expected to adopt a broad strategy for shifting responsibility for Afghanistan's security from the U.S.-led NATO forces there to the Afghans, beginning in the first half of next year and finishing in 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to attend one NATO session on the war.
Saturday's NATO-Russia session is expected to discuss a bigger Russian role in the Afghan conflict. NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Wednesday that Russia has been asked to contribute about 20 transport helicopters and provide training for Afghan helicopter pilots.
In adopting the new strategic concept, NATO is trying to adapt itself to deal with 21st century security threats. In Europe, "there is less fear of foreign intervention or aggression than there ever has been before in the history of the North Atlantic alliance," Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S., told a recent conference.
Europe's sense of security improves chances for better relations with Moscow. But it also has encouraged European governments to slash defense spending, and constructing a Europe-wide missile defense system will cost millions.
In Lisbon the allies are expected to declare that nuclear weapons will remain a central element in NATO's defenses. At the same time, the alliance will urge Russia to enter into negotiations to reduce U.S. and Russian short-range nuclear weapons stationed in Europe.
Prospects for those talks appear dim, however, unless the U.S. Senate ratifies the New START treaty, which would cut the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons. Republican gains in the recent congressional elections have made ratification more doubtful.