NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the Western military alliance and Moscow will discuss the "unsafe behavior" of Russian jets that flew close to a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a guided-missile destroyer when the two sides convene this week for their first formal meeting in nearly two years.
The planned April 20 meeting of the NATO-Russia Council follows two Baltic Sea incidents last week in which Russian warplanes buzzed the USS Donald Cook destroyer and performed what Washington called "erratic and aggressive maneuvers" near an American plane during a flight in international airspace.
"The unprofessional and unsafe behavior of Russian planes...underlines the importance of open military lines of communication, of predictability and risk reduction," Stoltenberg said on April 19 in Luxembourg.
The ambassadorial-level meeting in Brussels will be the first such consultation since NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Moscow in April 2014 following Russia's military seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula the previous month.
Since then the NATO-Russia Council has only met once, in June 2014, though Stoltenberg has met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on several occasions in recent years.
Speaking April 19 ahead of an EU Defense Ministers meeting, Stoltenberg said the two sides would discuss Afghanistan and "the crisis in and around Ukraine," where fighting between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country has killed more than 9,100 since April 2014.
The meeting comes amid rising concerns about violations of a fragile cease-fire that has been in place since a February 2015 peace deal brokered in Minsk.
Stoltenberg stressed, however, that that the planned meeting of the council "does not mean that we are back to business as normal."
"We decided back in 2014 to suspend practical cooperation, and we have also implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War," he said.
"But we have decided to keep the chance for political dialogue open, and the NATO-Russia Council is one way of making sure that we have political dialogue with Russia,” Stoltenberg added.
'Preparation For Aggressive Action'
The bedrock of the NATO-Russia Council is a historic cooperation deal signed by the alliance and Moscow in 1997. Officials at the time hailed the accord as a "definitive" end to the Cold War, and the dawn of collaboration in "a new Europe of unlimited possibility."
But NATO has accused Russia of jettisoning the accord by backing separatists in Ukraine and responded by boosting its presence in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, Moscow's Soviet-era domain, where fears of potential Russian expansion run deep.
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz told the Rzeczpospolita daily in an interview published on April 19 that Russia continues to pose a serious threat to NATO and that Moscow's behavior "attests to systematic preparation for aggressive action."
"It's time to talk about it openly," said Macierewicz, whose government will push for a greater presence of the alliance's forces on its eastern flank at a summit of NATO heads of state to be held in Warsaw in July.
Moscow has reacted angrily to NATO troop deployments in the alliance's eastern member states, calling these moves a violation of the 1997 partnership act that is stoking tension between the former Cold War foes.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on April 19 criticized what he called "extremely unfriendly actions" by NATO with a "buildup of its potential on our borders."
"We believe the alliance's actions present a threat to Russia's national interest and national security," Peskov was quoted as saying by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Stoltenberg said he expects the Russians "to say and to present their view” at the April 20 meeting.
"We are not afraid of dialogue. Actually, we think dialogue is more important when times are difficult, when tensions are high," Stoltenberg said.
He added that NATO "does not seek a new Cold War" or a "new arms race."
"What NATO has done when it comes to reinforcement of our collective defense is defensive; it is proportionate and it is a direct response to what we have seen of Russian aggressive behavior in Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.
With reporting by Reuters