BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the Western alliance will continue to pursue dialogue with Russia while strengthening its deterrence capabilities and support for partners in Eastern Europe.
Stoltenberg was speaking to reporters in Brussels during the second and last day of a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, which was also attended by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
"We agreed that our approach to Russia decided at the Warsaw Summit in 2016 -- defense and dialogue -- has been effective,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “We have strengthened our collective defense, while remaining open to dialogue.”
I think there is broad consensus among all the NATO members that there is no normalization of dialogue with Russia today."-- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
“As we look to the [NATO] summit next July, we agreed we should continue to strengthen our deterrence and defense, pursue dialogue in good faith, and support our partners in Eastern Europe," he added.
Tillerson, meanwhile, told reporters in the Belgian capital that NATO ministers had agreed that there was “no normalization" of ties with Russia at the current time.
"We had a lot of discussion at this NATO meeting...over what is the proper engagement with Russia, and I think there is broad consensus among all the NATO members that there is no normalization of dialogue with Russia today," he said, without going into detail.
Tillerson also said the United States was pushing hard for agreement with Moscow on deploying a United Nations peacekeeping force to eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are battling Ukrainian government forces in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since its started in April 2014.
"We prioritize ending the violence -- that's our first priority -- and to seek to do that we need to put a peacekeeping force in place," Tillerson said ahead of planned talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on December 7.
But the secretary of state cautioned that "significant differences" remained between Washington and Moscow over the exact nature of any peacekeeping force.
"We hope that we can close those gaps. We think it's vitally important to stop the violence. People are still dying every day," he said.
Discussions about deploying a peacekeeping force have heated up since September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed deploying UN peacekeepers along the line separating the opposing forces.
The plan swiftly drew criticism from both Kyiv and the West, largely because of concerns that deployment only along the front line would cement Russian control over separatist-held territory and do nothing to stop Russia from sending fighters and weapons into Ukraine.
Putin later said he was open to adjustments to his initial proposal, but no agreement has been reached.
Tillerson once again denied there is any truth to media reports that President Donald Trump plans to fire him and put CIA Director Mike Pompeo in his place.
Tillerson told reporters that “this is a narrative that keeps coming up about every six weeks, and I would say you need to get some new sources because your story keeps being wrong.”
Trump has rejected the reports of Tillerson’s impending dismissal as "fake news."
The president and the secretary of state have often contradicted each other in public statements regarding major international issues.
Tillerson will move on to Vienna on December 7 for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where his planned meeting with Lavrov is scheduled to take place. He will then move on to Paris for the last leg of his European journey.