NATO ambassadors were set Wednesday to resume talks with their Russian counterpart, ending a nearly two-year hiatus that followed the controversial Russian annexation of Crimea.
"Dialogue is more important when times are difficult, when tensions are high, and since we face some really serious challenges now, I think it is especially important that we are able to meet the Russians," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday while attending a meeting of EU defence ministers in Luxembourg.
"The main purpose of the NATO-Russia Council tomorrow is to exchange views, is to be transparent, is to contribute to predictability and to discuss Ukraine," he added.
Relations between Ukraine and neighbouring Russia have plummeted to an all-time low since Kiev ousted its pro-Russian president in 2014. Moscow responded by annexing Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and supporting the then-erupting rebellion in the east.
NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Moscow after the annexation, which it said violated international law. It also boosted its military presence in eastern member states, which said they felt threatened by Russia. But the move antagonized Moscow.
Wednesday's meeting will "definitely not be an easy encounter," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier predicted on Monday, saying that there should not be "too high expectations."
Ambassadors and ministers from the two sides have not met in the NATO-Russia Council since June 2014, although there have been some other political and military contacts.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned on Tuesday that the "mistrust" between NATO and Russia will be challenging to overcome, according to the state news agency TASS.
The military alliance is nevertheless keen to avoid tensions with Moscow boiling over into military incidents, such as the downing of a Russian fighter jet by NATO member Turkey last year.
An incident last week with Russian jets that made low-altitude passes close to a US military destroyer in the Baltic Sea underlines "the importance of open military lines of communications, of predictability and risk reduction," Stoltenberg said.
But the military alliance has also warned that the meeting does not mean it is returning to "business as usual" with Moscow, a point that is particularly important to Ukraine, Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said Tuesday after a meeting with NATO ambassadors.
"The message I received ... is that there is no business as usual with Russians until the conflict in Ukraine is resolved," he told journalists at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Prystaiko underlined the fact that Russia has been providing separatists in eastern Ukraine not only with troops, but also military equipment.
"I told the allies that these people, separatists in the East, have more tanks for example than most of the NATO nations - and they are not easily bought at local hardware superstores," he said.
NATO countries in eastern Europe, which are geographically closest to Russia, have been particularly wary of resuming high-level talks with Moscow. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said on Monday that he had been "sceptical."
"Recently we had ... a lot of moments when [the Russians were] talking just for talking, and continuing what they are doing," he noted. "But I really would not stay in the way of those who would like to talk."
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