March 28, 2017 / 3:49 PM / 5 months ago

NATO and Russia to meet again, edge toward regular talks

FILE PHOTO - A NATO flag flies at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, March 2, 2014.Yves Herman/File Photo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO envoys will hold a formal meeting with Russia on Thursday, their fourth since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine halted regular talks, although both sides continue to accuse each other of destabilizing eastern Europe.

The NATO-Russia Council, the forum bringing together NATO ambassadors and Russia's top diplomat to the U.S.-led alliance, is seen as a way to prevent tensions escalating by explaining each other's positions, even when joint exercises and peacekeeping have been suspended.

"The NATO-Russia Council is an important platform for dialogue to reduce tensions and increase transparency and predictability," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, an admirer of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, is seeking better ties with the Kremlin on a range of issues, including fighting Islamist militants. Western diplomats said it was not clear if the chances of East-West cooperation had improved under Trump.

On Thursday's agenda is the separatist conflict in Ukraine that the West accuses Russia of orchestrating. Moscow denies that, but Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea remains divisive.

Troop movements by both NATO and Russia will be discussed, as well as Moscow's deployment of missiles to its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, diplomats said.

Afghanistan will also be on the agenda, but it is not clear if NATO's top commander will address his suspicions that Russia may be supplying Taliban insurgents. Moscow has rejected that as a lie.

The Council comes just weeks after the first telephone call in two years between the head of NATO's military committee, General Petr Pavel, and the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Pavel is seeking a face-to-face meeting.

"The rhythm of the Council's work is gradually recovering," Russia's Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko said, referring to the meetings that restarted after a near two-year hiatus last April.

Russia is concerned about NATO's deployment of some 4,000 troops to the Baltic states and Poland, of whom some are already in place and the rest are due by June.

The alliance will seek to provide reassurance that the build-up is defensive. NATO governments say the measures are modest compared with the 330,000 troops the alliance believes Russia has amassed on its western flank near Moscow since May.

The allies say the four battalions, backed by additional U.S. forces on rotation, are justified by the Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, which provoked fears in the Baltics that they might be next.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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