BRUSSELS — The first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in nearly two years ran over schedule Wednesday but failed to do much to improve relations between Moscow and the U.S.-led alliance, at their lowest ebb since the Cold War.
"NATO and Russia have profound and persistent differences," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired the council, told reporters afterward. "Today's meeting didn't change that."
"It's better to talk than not to talk," said Russian Ambassador Alexander Grushko, who met with counterparts from NATO's 28 member states.
But Grushko said that for the Kremlin, "it's absolutely clear that without real steps on NATO's side to downgrade military activity in the area adjacent to the Russian Federation, it will not be possible to engage in any meaningful dialogue on confidence-building measures."
Stoltenberg said the meeting, which lasted 3 ½ hours, or 90 minutes longer than planned, was the occasion for "frank and serious" exchanges about the situation in Ukraine, issues relating to military activities of Russia and NATO, and the security situation in and around Afghanistan, including the threat of extremist violence region-wide.
The NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002 as a forum for consultations between the former Cold War foes, but before Wednesday, had last met in June 2014, when the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine sent relations with the West into a tailspin.
The latest session at NATO headquarters led to no decisions, not even a firm commitment to reconvene, but Stoltenberg observed that "since we never suspended the council, I expect that we will meet again."
The NATO chief said all alliance members and Russia had agreed on one thing: the need for swift and comprehensive implementation of the Minsk agreement designed to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
For some, the mere fact NATO and Russia were sitting down at the same table again was a positive.
"Today was an important acknowledgement by both sides that they need to be talking to each other," said Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank. Kearns said he expected the conversation to continue, in large part because the U.S. and Russia are in favor.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country is one of NATO's most important European members, said the talks in Brussels weren't expected to be simple or harmonious.
"But given the large number of difficult issues, this dialogue has a value in itself and should be continued," Steinmeier said in a statement. "That is the only way we can develop a common understanding of problems and the necessary solutions."
NATO has suspended practical cooperation with Russia because of the Crimean annexation and what it views as Russia's support for the armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Stoltenberg said the NATO-Russia Council meeting didn't mean the alliance was returning to "business as usual" with Moscow, but that it was vital to keep open the channels of communication.
"Especially when tensions are high, political dialogue is necessary to discuss our differences and to reduce the risk of military incidents," Stoltenberg said.
The meeting failed, however, to deliver tangibles in an area the NATO chief had singled out as a priority: agreeing on mechanisms to reduce security risks caused by Russian or NATO military activities.
In one recent incident, U.S. officials accused Russian warplanes of repeatedly buzzing a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea last week, coming as close as 30 feet (9 meters).
Grushko on Wednesday rejected the U.S. complaints, telling reporters his country's aircraft "were acting fully in line" with international agreements and accusing NATO of attempting "to exercise military pressure on Russia."
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed to this report.