By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO chose former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as its next leader on Friday at a time when the Western military alliance must deal with a resurgent Russia following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.
Stoltenberg will take over as secretary-general of the 28-nation grouping on October 1, succeeding former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has led NATO since 2009.
Stoltenberg, the first Norwegian to occupy NATO's top post, will take over at a time when NATO, seen by some as a Cold War relic, has gained new relevance because of concerns about what the Ukraine crisis says about a newly assertive Russia.
"Stoltenberg's Norway is seen as a very serious defense player and has always taken the challenge of Russia very, very seriously. I think there is a little bit of a signal there," said Daniel Keohane, a defense expert at the FRIDE thinktank.
Stoltenberg will take over at a turning point in NATO's history.
The urgency of the Ukraine crisis means that the alliance, which is due to end combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of this year, is likely to refocus back onto its core task of defending its member countries.
NATO foreign ministers are expected to discuss next week in Brussels how they can reinforce the alliance's military presence in eastern European countries such as the Baltics and Poland, which are nervous that they are vulnerable.
Stoltenberg will also face a challenge in trying to persuade European countries to reverse, or at least end, sharp cuts in defense spending that many of them have adopted in response to the financial crisis.
Stoltenberg, who served for nearly 10 years as Norway's prime minister before losing elections last September, was backed by the United States, NATO's dominant power, and Germany. British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday that he also backed Stoltenberg.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, regarded as another potential candidate for NATO leader, said on Twitter on Thursday that Stoltenberg would be "a good NATO secretary-general. Poland will support him."
Others in the frame to succeed Rasmussen were Belgian Defence Minister Pieter de Crem and former Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini.
Stoltenberg is considered a skilful economic operator who got Norway through the global financial crisis relatively unharmed as the government used its massive stored oil wealth to boost spending, create demand and keep unemployment low.
His governments backed NATO's military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya. During his time as prime minister, the country also began to place orders for Joint Strike Fighter aircraft from U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp to replace an ageing fleet of F-16s.
Stoltenberg was Norway's prime minister when far right militant Anders Behring Breivik went on a bombing and shooting spree in 2011 that killed 77 people.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft, additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome; Editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Susan Fenton and Sonya Hepinstall)