BRUSSELS: NATO and Russia begin their highest level talks for nearly two years on Wednesday, in a bid to ease military tensions over the Baltic Sea and the simmering violence still gripping eastern Ukraine.
The meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will be the first since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, when the alliance cut off all practical ties with Moscow in protest.
Relations have worsened over Moscow’s air campaign in Syria and tensions have flared in the past week after two incidents involving the US military and Russian planes in the Baltic Sea.
Ambassadors from the 28 countries that make up NATO will meet Russian officials in Brussels to discuss Ukraine, improving military cooperation and the war in Afghanistan.
“We are not afraid of dialogue,” said NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who will hold a news conference at 1000 GMT.
High on the agenda will be an incident this month when Russian warplanes flew within meters of an American missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea in what the US called a “simulated attack”.
Two days later, a US air force plane was intercepted by a Russian fighter, prompting Stoltenberg to accuse Russia’s military of “unprofessional and unsafe behavior.”
Fears the two sides could become embroiled in violence have grown since Russia started a bombing campaign in Syria, particularly after alliance member Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on its border in November.
Russia blames NATO for increasing the risk of conflict by building up its troops in Eastern European countries, many of which have been lobbying for more Western support.
Russia’s representative at the talks, Alexander Grushko, has said he will use the meeting to protest at NATO’s activities close to its western borders.
“Today we are having a military build-up in the Baltic area, which from our point of view is absolutely unjustified,” he said last week. “The shape of NATO-Russia relations is very bad.”
The talks will also focus on implementing the Minsk ceasefire accords in Ukraine, which were supposed to herald a broader settlement and return control of the eastern border with Russia to Kiev.
The deal has produced a tenuous calm in eastern Ukraine, parts of which are controlled by Moscow-backed rebels, but the truce has been threatened by a recent upsurge in clashes.
Crimea’s future remains highly uncertain with Russian President Vladimir Putin insisting it will never be given up and NATO equally insistent it will never recognize its annexation.