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story.lead_photo.caption Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry confer Tuesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels. - Photo by AP / JONATHAN ERNST

BRUSSELS -- The United States and its NATO allies struggled Tuesday to come up with a clear message to send Russia at a time of conflicting concerns in Europe and the Middle East.

While the West remains alarmed by Russia's aggressive action in Ukraine and go-it-alone military efforts in Syria, they say they need Russian help in both places.

Meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other top diplomats discussed ways to intensify the campaign in Syria against Islamic State extremists and calm tensions between Turkey and Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it believed crossed its border.

But for all the hopes of greater cooperation, there were reminders of the tensions between Russia and NATO. Russia wasn't present for any of the talks at the alliance's headquarters outside the Belgian capital.

Kerry and Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski discussed a recent uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine and stressed the need for the government, rebels and the Kremlin to fully implement a February cease-fire agreement. They also agreed that "international sanctions against Russia should stay in place," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

Russia annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014 and has been supporting rebels fighting the government in the eastern half of the country.

In the wider meeting, NATO countries prepared to welcome Montenegro as the military alliance's 29th member despite Russia's warning of retaliation against the small Balkan nation, which is hundreds of miles away from Russia's border.

Montenegro's accession likely would be finalized at the alliance's summit in Warsaw next year, making it the first NATO expansion since the organization took in Albania and Croatia in 2009.

Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said that starting the process with Montenegro would be "another serious blow" to international security and deemed it "confrontational."

A Section on 12/02/2015

Print Headline: Russia absent but still a NATO topic

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