BRUSSELS: NATO said on Friday it will hold formal talks with Russia before a landmark July summit in Warsaw endorses the alliance’s biggest military build-up since the end of the Cold War, to counter a more assertive Russia.
In April, the NATO Russia Council (NRC) held its first meeting since June 2014 but the talks ended in “profound disagreements” over Ukraine and other issues, although alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said at the time it was a useful exchange.
Pressed by some of NATO’s 28 member states to try again, Stoltenberg said Friday that alliance foreign ministers had agreed to explore if another NRC was possible.
“We have agreed on the message of dialogue and defense… based on that, there was broad agreement yesterday that NATO should convene a new meeting of the NRC before our next summit in July,” he told reporters alongside European Union foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini.
“We will now start to look at the modalities and practical arrangements,” he added as NATO foreign ministers met for a second day in Brussels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided Stoltenberg for making the announcement so publicly without consulting Russia first.
“Why would he say such a thing?” Lavrov said according to an Interfax report.
“The Russia-NATO Council works on the basis of consensus. If they wanted to discuss it, let them discuss it with us and not go straight for the microphone.”
There was no immediate indication of whether Russia would accept the NRC invite.
Stung by Russia’s Ukraine intervention and annexation of Crimea, US-led NATO cut all practical cooperation with Moscow but the NRC was kept open as a potential channel of communication.
At the same time, the alliance began a major military revamp to ensure a much quicker response in the event of a repeat of the Ukraine crisis.
A key component involves putting more troops and equipment into eastern Europe to reassure allies there they will not be left in the lurch, a move Russia says threatens its security.
Poland, host of the July summit, has pressed especially hard for NATO to take a tough line on Moscow amid fears Russia wants to re-establish its Cold War sphere of influence.
Some member states however have been nervous about ending up in a new Cold War, and Germany in particular has urged using the NRC to talk with Moscow, if only to show the alliance’s good faith.
NATO diplomatic sources said others were unenthusiastic but prepared to go along in order to preserve unity.
Speaking Thursday, a senior US official said it was not clear if there would be another NRC before the Warsaw summit “but the United States does not mind either way.”
“Maintaining dialogue is good but we won’t resume practical cooperation, joint exercises etc, until Ukraine is resolved,” said the official, who asked not to be named.