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Oct 1, 2014 11:11 AM

New NATO chief: better ties with Russia possible

The Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) NATO's new secretary-general struck a more conciliatory tone Wednesday on Russia, saying there's a chance now for improved relations between Moscow and the West.

"We see opportunity in the cease-fire, which has now been established in the eastern part of Ukraine, but we also see violations of the cease-fire and that it's a fragile situation," Jens Stoltenberg said.

On his first day in office, the 55-year-old Stoltenberg also welcomed the bombing campaign being waged by the United States, France, Britain and other NATO and non-NATO nations against Islamic State militants, who he said have committed "horrific atrocities" in Iraq and Syria.

He told reporters he finds "no contradiction" between his desire for a strong NATO and the quest for better ties with Russia. But he also demanded that Moscow adhere to international law and that there be a "clear change" in Russian actions toward Ukraine.

He also said the alliance would react with an "open mind" if Russia were to seek to revive the NATO-Russia Council, which has virtually ceased to operate since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March.

A former two-term Norwegian prime minister, Stoltenberg became the 13th secretary-general in the trans-Atlantic organization's 65-year existence. Analysts predicted his consensus-building style would mean softer rhetoric than his predecessor, Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"I expect more moderate language, and that he will try to keep the dialogue open," said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, an independent Norwegian research institution.

To allies like Germany, the expectation of a dial-back of the rhetoric was one factor in Stoltenberg's favor.

Stoltenberg was unanimously chosen as Rasmussen's successor by NATO's policy-making North Atlantic Council in March. The choice won swift if tentative approval from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had dealt with Stoltenberg when he headed a center-left government in Norway, a Russian neighbor.

"We have very good relations, including personal relations," Putin told Russian state television at the time. "This is a very serious, responsible person, but we'll see how our relations develop with him in his new position."

Traditionally, a European has headed NATO's civilian headquarters in Brussels, while an American officer holds the post of the alliance's supreme military commander, beginning with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1951-52.

Stoltenberg is the first secretary-general to hail from an alliance nation that borders Russia. He becomes NATO's highest-ranking civilian at a time when Western relations with Moscow are at their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Berlin Wall a quarter-century ago.

Simultaneously, NATO member states are confronted with crises in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and North Africa, the uncertain future of Afghanistan, and an array of security challenges ranging from the threat of cyber attacks to pirates preying on international shipping.

Stoltenberg told a news conference at NATO headquarters that his three priorities are to "keep NATO strong. Help keep our neighborhood stable by working with partners. And keep the bond between Europe and North America rock solid."

NATO will not let its guard down on its eastern fringe, he promised, adding that the beefed-up air and sea patrols and land exercises intended to reassure nations like Poland who are worried about Moscow's intentions will continue as long as necessary.

"We will uphold our commitment and we will defend our allies," Stoltenberg said.

Next February, he said NATO defense ministers should agree on the size and makeup of a new highly mobile "spearhead force" that could rapidly reinforce allies menaced by Russia or other threats.

An economist by training, Stoltenberg became Norway's youngest prime minister in 2000 at 41, though he had to resign seven months later when his Labor Party took a beating at the polls.

In the waning days of the Cold War, when he was a promising young politician, the Soviet Union's spy agency tried to recruit him, but he reported the KGB's attempts to Norwegian authorities, Norwegian intelligence officials have said.

Stoltenberg pushed through an increase in military spending during his second spell as prime minister from 2005 to 2013.

Stoltenberg has long been a staunch U.S. ally. He endorsed President George W. Bush's "war on terror" after the Sept. 11 attacks, backed the decision to send Norwegian troops to Afghanistan and sent Norwegian units to take part in NATO airstrikes in Libya.

On the international scene, he was known for his dignified response to attacks by mass killer Anders Behring Breivik that killed 77 people in Norway in July 2011 the country's worst atrocity since World War II. For Norwegians, he said, it meant "hours, days, nights filled with shock, despair, anger and weeping."

As well as heading NATO's staff and chairing its policy-making council, a major part of the secretary-general's job is trying to broker agreement among the alliance's 28 member countries. Stoltenberg has had previous international assignments, including as a U.N. special envoy on climate change and chairman of a U.N. advisory panel on climate-change financing.

Married with two children, he is an avid cyclist and skier.

Harpviken predicted Stoltenberg will miss the informality of Norwegian life, where he could strike up a conversation with a fellow biker as they both waited at a light in Oslo. But the analyst said Stoltenberg has the skills needed to achieve effective unity at NATO even as it faces multiple security challenges.

"He rarely picks a conflict with anybody," Harpviken said. "He is a consensus maker. Not a visionary perhaps, but one who builds through small steps."


AP reporters Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed.


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