NATO-Russia talks confirm \'profound disagreements\'
BRUSSELS - NATO and Russia held "frank and serious" talks despite "profound disagreements" as their ambassadors met on Wednesday for the first time since 2014, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said.
The two sides agreed to keep communicating following the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which has been on ice since the alliance cut practical ties with Moscow to protest the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014.
"I think we had a very frank, serious and actually good meeting," Stoltenberg told a news conference after the talks.
"NATO allies and Russia hold very different views but we have listened to what each other has to say."
The aim of the talks was to ease military tensions over the simmering violence still gripping eastern Ukraine, although former Norwegian Prime Minister Stoltenberg admitted there was no major breakthrough.
"There were profound disagreements related to the crisis with Ukraine," he said.
Relations have worsened over Moscow's air campaign in Syria and tensions have flared in the past week after two incidents involving the US military and Russian planes in the Baltic Sea.
High on the agenda was an incident this month when Russian warplanes flew within metres of an American missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea in what the United States called a "simulated attack".
Two days later, a US air force plane was intercepted by a Russian fighter, which Stoltenberg earlier this week called "unprofessional and unsafe behaviour".
On Wednesday, Stoltenberg said it was important to "keep channels of communication open" in both military and political terms, adding that it was necessary for "risk reduction".
"We all agree that it is in all our interest to keep channels for political dialogue open. It is both necessary and useful, especially in times of tensions as we experience now," the NATO chief added.
"However, this does not mean that we are back to business as usual."
Fears the two sides could become embroiled in violence have grown since Russia started a bombing campaign in Syria, particularly after alliance member Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on its border in November.
Russia blames NATO for increasing the risk of conflict by building up its troops in eastern European countries, many of which have been lobbying for more Western support.
Ahead of the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was NATO that had frozen relations and that the alliance had "judged it necessary to contact us again".
"But, and we have made them understand this clearly, we cannot act as if it is 'business as usual," Lavrov said after talks with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault in Moscow on Tuesday.
Ayrault said the talks would "advance the sense of a common interest, which is peace and security".
Russia's representative at the talks, Alexander Grushko, had said he would use the meeting to protest NATO's activities near its western borders.
Stoltenberg said however that both NATO and Russia had agreed on the importance of the Minsk peace agreements, which were supposed to herald a broader settlement in Ukraine and return control of the eastern border with Russia to Kiev.
The deal has produced a tenuous calm in eastern Ukraine, parts of which are controlled by Moscow-backed rebels, but the truce has been threatened by a recent upsurge in clashes.
Crimea's future remains highly uncertain with Russian President Vladimir Putin insisting it will never be given up and NATO equally insistent it will never recognise its annexation.