NATO Rebukes Russia Over Ukraine, `Dangerous' Armed Behavior

  • U.S.-led alliance demands more Kremlin openness over war games
  • First meeting in two years replays tensions of the last one

NATO scolded Russia for aggressive behavior that undermines Ukraine and magnifies the risk of accidental military confrontations elsewhere in Europe.

The first meeting of the two sides since June 2014 was conducted in the same spirit as the last one, with the U.S.-led alliance warning that Russia is tearing up the post-Cold War map and the Kremlin standing its ground.

“NATO and Russia have profound and persistent disagreements: today’s meeting did not change that,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday in Brussels.

The roundtable also reflected unease inside the 28-nation alliance over ties with Russia, with France and Germany more eager than one-time Soviet-dominated states in eastern Europe to keep open the channels of communication.

Alliance officials reported little progress in getting Russia to communicate in real time over its military drills and what Stoltenberg called “dangerous” fly-bys on NATO’s flanks. In the latest incidents in early April, Russian attack jets buzzed a U.S. warship and a reconnaissance plane in the Baltic region in separate encounters.

‘Deeply Disturbing’

Russia’s ambassador to the alliance, Alexander Grushko, declined to say how he responded to the appeal for more military-to-military contact. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he also said the Kremlin has no direct control over the pro-Russian separatists who continue to hold wide swathes of eastern Ukraine.

“It was a decision of NATO to stop all projects of cooperation,” Grushko said. “We are open for dialogue and our position hasn’t changed.”

No date was set for another meeting, with both sides saying that they aren’t going back to “business as usual.” For the West, that means pressing ahead with the defensive buildup in eastern Europe as a form of low-cost deterrence, and pushing Russia to rein in the Ukraine rebels.

NATO’s Stoltenberg spoke of a “deeply disturbing” spate of recent cease-fire violations in Ukraine.

For its part, the Kremlin regards the eastern European reinforcements as U.S.-led aggression, an attempt to encircle or envelop Russia or, at the very least, to reinstate the “containment” policy of the Cold War.

Threats, Challenges

Underlying the tensions are “competing narratives” about the nature of power and the modern European order, which emerged in a brainstorming session by the European Leadership Network that brought together Western and Russian experts.

The relationship “is arguably at its lowest ebb since the mid-1980s and there is potential for it to get worse,” the ELN, a London-based think tank, said. “This could lead to a direct military confrontation, undermine worthwhile cooperation across Europe and could stifle attempts at global cooperation on a range of 21st century threats and challenges.”

While analogies to the superpower standoff make the rounds, the déjà vu is often overstated. Troop numbers on both sides are nowhere near the Cold War peak and the West sees Russia as a regional troublemaker, not the exporter of global revolution that it pretended to be in its Soviet guise.

Russia’s projection of force into Syria fits that pattern. So do the stepped-up military drills and tests of NATO’s air defenses in the Baltic region that have become commonplace since the seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine in 2014 put President Vladimir Putin’s upgraded military on show.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the meeting at ambassadorial level a “good sign,” while pointing to “a whole series of sharp differences.” Speaking alongside her, President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, one of the Baltic republics often faced with Russian intimidation, said: “Channel of communication, yes, but not cooperation yet.”

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