Brussels: NATO and Russia held their highest level talks for nearly two years on Wednesday, in a bid to ease military tensions over the Baltic Sea and the simmering violence still gripping eastern Ukraine.
The meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will be the first since the alliance cut off all practical ties with Moscow to protest the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014.
Relations have worsened over Moscow`s air campaign in Syria and tensions have flared in the past week after two incidents involving the US military and Russian planes in the Baltic Sea.
NATO`s press office confirmed that ambassadors from the 28 countries that make up NATO had begun their meeting with Russian officials at the alliance`s headquarters in Brussels.
"We are not afraid of dialogue," said NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday, adding that they would discuss Ukraine, improving military cooperation and the war in Afghanistan.
"Actually we think dialogue is more important when times are difficult and tensions are high," he added.
Stoltenberg will hold a press conference at 1000 GMT.
High on the agenda will be an incident this month when Russian warplanes flew within metres of an American missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea in what the US called a "simulated attack".
Two days later, a US air force plane was intercepted by a Russian fighter, prompting Stoltenberg to accuse Russia`s military of "unprofessional and unsafe behaviour".
He said the incident "just underlines the importance of open military lines of communications, of predictability and risk reduction. These are among the issues we will discuss tomorrow with Russia at the NRC."Fears the two sides could become embroiled in violence have grown since Russia started a bombing campaign in Syria, particularly after alliance member Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on its border in November.
Russia blames NATO for increasing the risk of conflict by building up its troops in Eastern European countries, many of which have been lobbying for more Western support.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out that it was NATO that had frozen relations and said that the alliance had "judged it necessary to contact us again."
"But, and we have made them understand this clearly, we cannot act as if it is `business as usual," Lavrov said after talks with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault in Moscow.
Ayrault said the talks would "advance the sense of a common interest, which is peace and security."
Russia`s representative at the talks, Alexander Grushko, has said he will use the meeting to protest NATO`s activities close to its western borders.
"Today we are having a military build-up in the Baltic area, which from our point of view is absolutely unjustified," he said last week. "The shape of NATO-Russia relations is very bad."
The talks will also focus on implementing the Minsk ceasefire accords in Ukraine, which were supposed to herald a broader settlement and return control of the eastern border with Russia to Kiev.
The deal has produced a tenuous calm in eastern Ukraine, parts of which are controlled by Moscow-backed rebels, but the truce has been threatened by a recent upsurge in clashes.
Crimea`s future remains highly uncertain with Russian President Vladimir Putin insisting it will never be given up and NATO equally insistent it will never recognise its annexation.