New NATO leader offers olive branch to Russia

By Adrian Croft BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO's new leader offered an olive branch to Russia on Wednesday, saying he saw no contradiction between a strong alliance and building a constructive relationship with Moscow. Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who took over on Wednesday as NATO secretary-general, struck a more conciliatory tone towards Moscow than his Danish predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Stoltenberg said Russia needed to demonstrate a clear change in its actions and to comply with international law over Ukraine, where Moscow has annexed the Crimea region and supports pro-Russian separatists in the east. But, speaking at his first news conference at NATO headquarters, he said: "I see no contradiction between a strong NATO and our continued effort to build a constructive relationship with Russia. Just the opposite." The ceasefire in Ukraine offered an opportunity, Stoltenberg said, although he said Russia maintained its ability to destabilise Ukraine. Stoltenberg, 55, who in his youth was an anti-war activist, is known for his skills in forging compromise and for his knowledge of Russia. As prime minister, he negotiated a deal with Russia in 2010 that ended a four-decade dispute over their Arctic maritime borders and built a personal friendship with then-president Dmitry Medvedev. Stoltenberg takes over at a time when NATO is wrapping up its combat mission in Afghanistan but faces new challenges from a resurgent Russia to the east and Islamic State militants on the southern border of NATO ally Turkey. Symbolising these twin challenges, Stoltenberg said his first visits "in the coming days" would be to Poland and Turkey. NATO said last week Russia has withdrawn many of the more than 1,000 troops it had inside Ukraine but kept a large force near the border. HALTING COOPERATION NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in April in protest against its annexation of Crimea. It said high-level political contacts with Russia could continue but NATO and Russian ambassadors have met only twice since the Crimea crisis erupted. NATO would consider any Russian request for a new meeting with an open mind, Stoltenberg said. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Stoltenberg's appointment in April, saying the pair had "very good relations". Stoltenberg's comments contrasted with the hard line taken by Rasmussen, whose attempts to build a strategic partnership with Moscow were dealt severe blows first by Russia's war with Georgia in 2008 and now by the Ukraine crisis. "After the Russian aggression against Ukraine, I also had to realize that the security situation in Europe was, and now is, dramatically changed and it is clear that Russia doesn't consider us a partner, but rather an adversary," Rasmussen told Reuters in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Russia's behaviour was the "strongest regret" of his time in office, he said. NATO has made clear it will not intervene militarily in Ukraine, which is not an alliance member, but it has reinforced the defences of its eastern allies, which worry they could be a target of Russian aggression. NATO as an organisation also has no plans to fight Islamic State, but a number of NATO allies are taking part in air strikes in Iraq or Syria. Stoltenberg made clear NATO would come to Turkey's aid if it was attacked. "Our responsibility, the basic responsibility, is to stand up and be very clear that we are going to protect Turkey, that collective defence, Article 5, is something which is also going to be applied if Turkey is in any way attacked," he said. Article 5 is NATO's key mutual self-defence clause. (Editing by Tom Heneghan)