NATO and Russia still have "profound" disagreements, the head of the military alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, said Wednesday, after ambassadors from both sides met following an almost two-year hiatus triggered by Moscow's controversial annexation of Crimea.
"NATO and Russia have profound and persistent disagreements. Today’s meeting did not change that," Stoltenberg said following the talks. "But we will keep channels of communication open," he added.
Relations between NATO and Moscow have reached their worst point since the Cold War due to events in Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and began supporting a rebellion erupting in the east, after Kiev ousted its pro-Russian president.
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. The move antagonized Moscow.
"There can be no return to practical cooperation until Russia returns to the respect of international law," Stoltenberg insisted after Wednesday's talks, which he described as "frank and serious."
The meeting highlighted disagreements between NATO allies and Russia on the situation in Ukraine, "both when it comes to the facts, the narratives and the responsibilities for the crisis," the NATO chief said, rejecting Moscow's description of the conflict as a civil war.
"This is Russia trying to destabilize eastern Ukraine, providing support for the separatists, ammunition, funding, equipment and also command and control," he added.
However, both sides agreed on the need for a full and rapid implementation of a peace deal for eastern Ukraine, Stoltenberg said, while adding that this must be not only "stated in meetings but also then implemented on the ground."
Ambassadors and ministers from the two sides had not met in the NATO-Russia Council since June 2014, although there have been some other political and military contacts.
Stoltenberg said the ambassadors would likely meet again following Wednesday's session, but Russia's NATO envoy, Alexander Grushko, said talks should only resume when there is a "real agenda."
"The problem is that we and NATO have no positive agenda today," Grushko said in comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS. "All the cooperation projects that were important for the security of Russia and NATO member states have been discontinued," he added.
The military alliance has been 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 "transparency, predictability and ... keeping the military lines of communication open," Stoltenberg said.
He appealed for greater use of existing communication channels, as well as an overhaul of the Vienna Document, an agreement adopted in 1990 on transparency and confidence-building among all 57 members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Russia is a member of the Vienna-based organization.
Stoltenberg stressed that NATO is not returning to "business as usual" with Moscow. This point is particularly important to Ukraine, Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said Tuesday after a meeting with the ambassadors of the 28-member alliance.
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 expressed fears Wednesday that the meeting would just serve "propaganda purposes."