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NATO chief says alliance is not trying to isolate Russia

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - NATO is not aiming to isolate Russia after a nerve agent attack on a former Russian agent and his daughter in Britain last month but had to crack down to show its unhappiness with Moscow, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.

The alliance last week expelled seven diplomats from the Russian mission to NATO and cut the maximum size of the delegation to 20 from 30 after the attack, which the West blames on Moscow although the Kremlin denies it.

"We continue to strive for a better relationship with Russia because Russia is our neighbour, Russia is there to stay. We are not aiming at isolating Russia," Stoltenberg said in remarks at the University of Ottawa.

Stoltenberg said NATO was concerned by a more assertive Russia that he said had annexed Crimea, destabilised eastern Ukraine, backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and meddled in the affairs of other nations.

"That was the reason why NATO allies and partners reacted the way they reacted after the attack in Salisbury. Because that is not a single event," he said. "It is an attack which has taken place (against) the backdrop of a pattern of hatred which we have seen over many years from Russia."

More than 100 Russian diplomats have been expelled by Western countries to punish the Kremlin over the March 4 attack in Salisbury, England.

NATO suspended all practical military and civilian cooperation with Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Stoltenberg is due to meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later in the day and address a joint news conference at 2.45 pm ET (1845 GMT).

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Susan Thomas)

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