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NATO Set for First Formal Talks with Russia in Two Years

The NATO emblem is displayed at the headquarters of the security alliance in Brussels on October 22, 2013.
The NATO emblem is displayed at the headquarters of the security alliance in Brussels on October 22, 2013.

NATO will hold its first formal talks with Russia in nearly two years on April 20 to discuss the Ukraine crisis and other security issues, the US-led military alliance said Tuesday.

"The date has been mutually agreed," a NATO spokeswoman told AFP, adding: "It is good to talk but it cannot be a return to business as usual."

Alliance head Jens Stoltenberg said last week the two sides would shortly convene their first NATO-Russia Council meeting since June 2014, signalling a thaw in ties badly strained by Russia's intervention in Ukraine and especially its annexation of Crimea.

NATO envoys and their Russian counterpart had met regularly until the Ukraine crisis threatened what many thought could be a return to the deep freeze stand-off of the Cold War.

The two sides last met amid mutual recriminations over who was to blame for the crisis in Ukraine, where Moscow backs pro-Russian rebels who have carved out large enclaves in the east of the country.

The NATO spokeswoman said the meeting, to be held at alliance headquarters in Brussels, will focus on the three main areas outlined by Stoltenberg last week.

Stoltenberg said then that the discussions would focus on Ukraine and "the need to fully implement" the Minsk ceasefire accords which have produced a tenuous calm in the east.

Recent weeks however have seen an upsurge in clashes, raising doubts about the ceasefire which was supposed to lead to an overall settlement and return control of its eastern border with Russia to Ukraine.

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 recognise its annexation.

Stoltenberg said the two sides would also look at military activities overall, with a "particular focus on transparency and risk reduction.

In response to Russia's intervention in Ukraine, NATO's 28 members have agreed a major military revamp and dispatched troops, plus extra ships and planes to reassure its eastern European allies that they do stand alone.

Russia meanwhile has stepped up air patrols, leading to a sharp increase in NATO interceptions as both sides test out the other.

Stoltenberg noted that NATO and Russia need transparency to avoid possibly dangerous misunderstandings, especially following the November shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by key alliance member Turkey along its border with Syria.

The third area for discussion will be Afghanistan, where the Taliban appears to be making worrying inroads after NATO ended its combat role there.

While NATO suspended practical cooperation with Russia because of the Ukraine crisis, Stoltenberg always insisted that the NATO-Russia council should remain open as a channel of communication.

The West has also looked for possible Russian help in Syria against the Islamic State jihadist group, finding enough common ground recently to bring about a ceasefire and fresh peace talks.

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