* NATO-Russia Council meets for only third time this year
* Russia angered by NATO troops build-up
* NATO says wants agreement to avoid military encounters
By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS, Dec 19 NATO will seek to reassure
Russia on Monday that its troop deployments to the Baltics and
Poland next year are purely defensive, in a rare meeting of the
alliance's envoys with those of the Kremlin that is unlikely to
resolve long-standing grievances.
The NATO-Russia Council, the forum bringing together North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation ambassadors and Russia's top
diplomat dealing with the U.S.-led alliance, will convene for
only the third time this year with the crisis in Ukraine still
the top concern for Brussels and Washington.
Russia says it is concerned about a NATO military build-up
near its borders. "We count on having a frank discussion about
the security situation in Europe ... including ... the
consequences of NATO reinforcements on the eastern flank,"
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, said on Friday.
With relations already at a low ebb, Russia's devastating
bombing campaign in Aleppo, which is not expected to be formerly
discussed, has provided a dark backdrop for the meeting,
However, NATO allies, particularly Germany, have been
pushing for a meeting with Grushko to explain why they are
sending four multinational battalions of up to 4,000 troops to
the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and
Poland from early 2017.
NATO governments say the measures are modest compared with
the 330,000 troops the alliance believes Russia has amassed on
its western flank near Moscow since May.
Allies say the four battalions, backed by additional U.S.
forces on rotation, are justified by Moscow's 2014 annexation of
Crimea that alarmed the Baltics that they might be next.
"The whole idea with re-enforcements is to prevent the
conflict," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier
this month following a meeting with Estonia's president. "It's
to send a clear message of deterrence."
NATO's top commander Curtis Scaparrotti also said this month
he wants the NATO-Russia Council to address the massive military
exercises that Russia has often held, with very little warning
given. "Russia has not been transparent," he told reporters.
NATO allies France and Germany are also seeking to implement
a peace deal for eastern Ukraine, where the West accuses the
Kremlin of providing money and weapons to rebels. Moscow denies
that, saying the violence in Ukraine's industrial east that has
killed more than 10,000 people is the result of a civil war.
One senior NATO diplomat told Reuters that there was little
chance of a breakthrough, particulary as the alliance waits for
the U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to take office in January.
"We cannot read the new U.S. administration's intentions.
There is a chance of a total change in policy," the diplomat
said, citing concern among European allies about Trump's
conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, one hope is that NATO and Russia could discuss
common rules to handle unexpected military encounters along one
another's borders in the air and at sea as both sides intensify
their military exercises.
"It is imperative that we establish a framework for handling
encounters between opposing militaries and the civilian aircraft
and ships operating in their midst," said John McColl, former
NATO deputy supreme allied commander in Europe and now at the
London-based European Leadership Network think-tank.
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)