BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO foreign ministers, meeting for the first time this week since Russia appointed a new ambassador to the military alliance, are hoping to improve ties with Moscow despite a fresh row over plans to send anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey.
A NATO spokeswoman said the meeting aimed to “re-energize” relations with Russia - whose cooperation is needed both on ending the conflict in Syria and smoothing the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The twice-yearly meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday will also discuss funding for Afghanistan forces after 2014, and will be preceded by a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels by Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
Russia appointed a new ambassador to NATO in October after a 10-month gap, raising hopes for an improvement in ties, strained by U.S. and NATO plans to construct a missile shield around Europe as well as last year’s NATO bombing campaign in Libya.
NATO and Russia have, however, have been at odds over how to end the 20-month revolt in Syria. Russia has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at increasing pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who meets NATO ministers including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, is expected to raise concerns over plans to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles on NATO member Turkey’s border with Syria.
“We will tell them (the Russians) ... that this is defensive and not there to establish a no-fly zone,” a senior NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The NATO meeting coincides with a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey, where he is expected to face fresh calls to help bring an end to the war in Syria.
The NATO meeting will also discuss how some $4.1 billion of annual foreign funding for Afghanistan’s security forces will be managed after 2014.
The Afghan government wants to handle its own finances but with Western concerns over corruption running high, it is likely NATO will have a strong role in managing international funding, NATO diplomats said.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul will join the Afghan part of the talks.
Western domestic pressure is rising to end the Afghan war where fighting shows little sign of easing - on Sunday militants attacked on a U.S.-Afghan airbase in eastern Afghanistan [ID:nL4N09C010].
Pakistan, whose help is seen as needed to reach a political settlement to the war, has begun to release some Taliban prisoners in response to calls from Afghanistan to smooth the way to peace talks.
Meanwhile, little progress is seen at the Brussels talks on the row between NATO and Russia over Washington’s plans for the missile shield, due to be completed in four phases by roughly 2020, to counter a potential threat from Iran.
Moscow says the system will undermine its nuclear deterrent by making its missiles vulnerable.
The senior NATO official said it was too early to expect any new initiative. “I think you still need to give it a little time ... On BMD (ballistic missile defense), we will need a new momentum,” he said.
Editing by Myra MacDonald