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NATO Chief Says 'Profound Differences' Remain Between Alliance, Russia

  • RFE/RL

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks after a NATO-Russia Council meeting at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on April 20.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks after a NATO-Russia Council meeting at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on April 20.

The first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in almost two years was "frank and serious," and reasserted deep disagreements over the Ukrainian crisis, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said after the talks in Brussels.

The April 20 meeting of the council, which serves as a forum for cooperation between the two sides, ran more than 90 minutes over schedule.

The two sides also discussed military activities of the alliance and Russia, and the security situation in and around Afghanistan, Stoltenberg told a news conference.

"NATO and Russia have profound and persistent differences," Stoltenberg said. "Today's meeting did not change that."

"In the meeting, it was reconfirmed that we disagree on the facts, on the narrative, and the responsibilities in and around Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.

Practically all civilian and military cooperation between the alliance and Moscow was suspended in April 2014 following Russia's unrecognized annexation the previous month of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

The council has met only once -- in June 2014 -- since Russia annexed Crimea. However, Stoltenberg has met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on several occasions in recent years and the alliance has stressed that while cooperation had been halted, channels of communication were open.

The April 20 meeting was presented as an opportunity for the two sides to continue their political dialogue, but came amid continuing disagreements over Russia's role in Ukraine, heightened tensions over Moscow's air campaign in Syria, and recent incidents involving the U.S. military and Russian planes in the Baltic Sea.

Following the meeting, Stoltenberg highlighted NATO's differences with Russia over its involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

"Many allies disagree when Russia tries to portray this as a civil war," he said. "This is Russia destabilizing eastern Ukraine, providing support for the separatists, munitions, funding, equipment, and also command-and-control."

"So there were profound disagreements," he said.

However, the NATO chief also said the meeting was a potential step toward repairing relations, and stressed the need for dialogue.

The allies and Russia "hold very different views but we have listened to what each other has to say. I think we had a very frank, serious, and actually good meeting," Stoltenberg told a news conference.

Ahead of the talks, Stoltenberg had stressed that "dialogue is more important when times are difficult and tensions are high," while also saying that the meeting did not mean that "we are back to business as normal."

Russia's permanent representative to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, sounded a skeptical note after the meeting.

"If the situation turns toward a positive agenda," Grushko said, "then why not hold another meeting? The problem is that, at this point, we have no positive agenda."

High on the agenda on April 20 were incidents this month involving the Russian and U.S. militaries in the Baltic Sea.

U.S. military officials said that, on April 12, two Russian military jets carried out "aggressive" overflights near a U.S. guided-missile destroyer in "simulated attack profiles" in international waters off the coast of Russia.

The U.S. officials said the Russian Su-24 jets were not armed, but flew so close to the U.S. destroyer and at such a low altitude that they created a "wake in the water."

On April 18, the Pentagon reported what it described as an "unsafe" maneuver by a Russian fighter jet that flew close to a U.S. reconnaissance plane.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said a Russian Su-27 flew less than 15 meters from the wingtip of the U.S. plane in international airspace over the Baltic Sea on April 14.

The council was set up in 2002 as a consultative body. NATO froze formal meetings and some cooperation under the council's auspices in 2008 due to what it called Russia's "disproportionate military action" in Moscow's brief war with Georgia.

With reporting by dpa, AFP, Reuters, and AP