Following the latest meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) on 26 October, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance and Russia "continue to have fundamental differences" regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“Our dialogue is not easy, but that is exactly why our dialogue is so important,” Stoltenberg said after the 29 NATO ambassadors met with Russian envoy Aleksandr Grushko at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. He described the latest session of the NRC as a "frank and open discussion" on Ukraine, Afghanistan, transparency and risk reduction.
Relations between Moscow and NATO have been severely strained over issues including Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region in March 2014 and its support for separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine. The war between Kyiv's forces and the Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014. In April 2014, NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia including in the NRC. However, the alliance agreed to keep channels of communication open in the NRC and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council at the ambassadorial level and above, to allow the exchange of views, including on the Ukraine crisis.
A series of potentially dangerous close encounters between Russian and NATO warplanes and navy ships in recent months has added to the tension. The NRC -- a forum intended to prevent tensions from escalating -- had already met twice this year (on 30 March and 13 July).
Stoltenberg said that the situation in eastern Ukraine remains “fragile,” citing cease-fire violations, the continued presence of heavy weapons close to the line separating Ukrainian government forces and the separatists, and the obstruction of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Military exercises and risk reduction
Information was also exchanged at the NRC meeting on recent military exercises, including the Zapad 2017 drills that Russia held with Belarus in September. NATO allies "made clear that the scale and geographical scope of exercise Zapad 2017 significantly exceeded what Russia had previously announced", Stoltenberg said.
"We agreed that the principle of reciprocal exercise briefings, including advance briefings, is useful", Stoltenberg added. "We also agreed that we can enhance transparency and predictability in the Euro-Atlantic area through contact among our senior military leaders”.
In a separate news conference, Grushko said NATO’s assessment was wrong and NATO was wrong to lump all the exercises going on in Russia last month under the Zapad name.
Stoltenberg said that the alliance and Russia also had a "frank exchange" on the security situation in Afghanistan and the "regional terrorist threat," adding, "Our analyses differ considerably". However, he said the alliance and Moscow "share the same interest in ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan".
The NRC also addressed allegations that Russia is supporting the Afghan Taliban, which Moscow denies. Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who attended the meeting, said that "There is no proof, it is mere rhetoric”, according to the Russian news agency TASS.
The commander of US military operations in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told a US Senate committee in February that Russia had significantly increased its covert and overt support for the Taliban, and in March, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, told US lawmakers that he had seen evidence of increasing Russian efforts to influence the Taliban and was “perhaps” supplying the militant group.
In recent weeks further allegations surfaced in The Times that Russia is funding Taliban military operations against NATO through a covert programme of laundered fuel sales. However, the chairman of NATO’s military committee has said that he has not seen "hard" evidence that Russia is supplying arms to the Taliban.