NATO reassures Russia on missiles as ambassador contacts resume

BRUSSELS Wed Nov 28, 2012 2:26pm EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO countries assured Russia on Wednesday that the planned deployment of Patriot missiles to Turkey was a defensive measure as the alliance and Moscow resumed ambassador-level meetings after a gap of nearly a year.

Envoys from the 28 alliance members held their first meeting with Alexander Grushko, a former deputy foreign minister who President Vladimir Putin appointed last month as Russia's ambassador to NATO.

Russia had left the post vacant since Grushko's predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, was promoted to deputy prime minister at the end of 2011.

NATO ambassadors attempted to calm Russian fears over Ankara's request for the alliance to station Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Turkey to guard against any spillover from the Syrian civil war.

"Some of the countries that have shown their intention to deploy Patriots reassured Russia that this is defensive only and that it is aimed at the de-escalation of the crisis," a NATO diplomat said.

NATO is expected in the next few days to approve Turkey's request to send the missiles, which the United States, Germany and the Netherlands have available.

The diplomat said Grushko "repeated the Russian position", which is that Moscow is concerned about the possible deployment of the missiles, fearing it will add to tensions in the border region.

Wednesday's meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, the first at ambassadorial level since Rogozin's departure, paves the way for a ministerial-level meeting next week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov travels to Brussels for talks with NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday, the first such meeting since April, and the Patriot issue is "very likely" to come up again then, the NATO diplomat said.

Syria has been a point of friction between Russia and the West. Russia has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Assad and accuses the West of encouraging militants fighting his government.

Although Russian officials have denied leaving the ambassador's post vacant for so long as a protest against NATO policies in such areas as missile defence and Libya, the resumption of high-level contacts could point to an attempt by Moscow and NATO to forge a more constructive relationship.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted after welcoming Grushko that he looked forward to "new dynamism" in the NATO-Russia Council.

Grushko was quoted this month as saying that Russia was ready for talks with NATO on limiting conventional military forces in Europe as long as the Western alliance did not bring politics into the picture.

(Edited by Jason Webb)