MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin has appointed a firebrand nationalist as Russia's permanent representative to NATO as the Kremlin takes a more assertive stance towards its Cold War foe.
Putin signed a decree appointing Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of a nationalist party in parliament, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Kremlin spokeswoman said on Thursday.
Rogozin, 44, has called for Russia to re-arm to counter the threat from the Western military alliance.
He said last month that if he got the job he would defend the interests of Serbia in Kosovo and raise the issue of a U.S. plan for a missile shield.
NATO is viewed with great suspicion in Russia, where officials say expansion eastwards shows the alliance forged during the Cold War is being used by the United States and European powers to counter Russian influence.
In a statement to his supporters on Thursday, Rogozin said he was taking the job at a watershed in Russian history.
"In this critical moment for our fatherland, when it is being decided what path Russia goes down, and whether our country will be able to regain the status of a great power, patriots cannot remain indifferent," the statement said.
Putin has raised military spending during his 8-year presidency and said last month Russia would not remain indifferent to NATO's "muscle-flexing" near its borders.
Russian ties with the military alliance have been strained by concerns about Washington's plans to station a missile defense shield in Europe, Moscow's suspension of a landmark arms treaty and disagreements over the future of Kosovo.
Rogozin was born into a Moscow military family and studied journalism at Moscow State University.
He told the Echo Mosvky radio station last month NATO and Russia had much to cooperate on.
"For some reason it is assumed that our relations consist of barking at each other -- one side says Woof Woof and the other side replies Woof Woof," Rogozin said. "In fact, there is a massive amount of questions where we have no conflicts at all.
"The main motive of my work is the protection of the national interests of the great power I represent," he said.
"If the national interests of this great power are threatened by anyone than I will fight against this with, above all, diplomatic means."
Rogozin replaces Konstantin Totsky as Russia's permanent representative to NATO. Totsky was appointed by Putin in March 2003.
Rogozin, who says he speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian and Czech, was Putin's representative in negotiations with the European Union over the status of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, after EU expansion.
He won prominence as the leader of the Kremlin-backed Motherland (Rodina) party which came fourth in a 2003 parliamentary election on promises to protect the interests of ethnic Russians.
Two years later, Rogozin fell out with the Kremlin and his party was disqualified from Moscow city council elections for a video advertisement interpreted by a court as racist.
He left politics following Kremlin pressure on members of his party, complaining that he had paid the price for becoming too popular. (Editing by Robert Woodward)