Germany pushed its NATO allies Wednesday to re-open high-level channels of communication with Russia, arguing that Moscow has a constructive role to play in many areas, especially in ending the Syrian conflict.
“We still have very different experiences with Russia, there is a difficult situation in eastern Ukraine, again breaches of the ceasefire,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a meeting of his NATO peers in Brussels.
“But we also see that Russia is acting definitely in a constructive way in the efforts to find a solution for Syria.”
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and support for pro-Moscow rebels fighting the pro-Western government in Kiev has badly soured ties with the West, prompting NATO to suspend all practical cooperation.
Since June 2014 there have been no meetings of the ambassador-level NATO-Russia Council (NRC) which used to handle all political contacts between the two sides. Steinmeier said it was now time to look again at the issue.
“I pushed… for possibilities to reduce risks and exchange information with Russia. This can only mean in the current situation that we try to make this instrument available again,” he said, referring to the NRC.
Steinmeier said his NATO peers had agreed to ask alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg to begin preparations for such talks.
“This means that meetings on the level of ambassadors will be made possible again soon,” he said.
Stoltenberg said later Wednesday he would “now explore how we can use the council as a tool for political engagement.”
He stressed however that as long as the Ukraine crisis remained unresolved and Russia failed to live up to its commitments to support the Minsk peace accords there, it could not be business as usual.
He said the US-led alliance had always wanted political engagement with Russia, even as NATO has boosted its readiness in the face of a more assertive Moscow.
This includes establishing a rapid response force and measures to cope with the type of hybrid warfare — a mix of conventional force and indirect management — Moscow demonstrated in Ukraine.
NATO diplomatic sources said convening the NRC in itself would not be that significant but Steinmeier’s proposal got a sympathetic hearing when the foreign ministers met late Tuesday.
They said US Secretary of State John Kerry was also positive on the idea.
Kerry said separately Wednesday he believed Russia could play “an extremely constructive and important role” in Syrian peace efforts.
Some NATO members, however, remain sceptical, especially in eastern Europe where they fear Russia wants to reassert its Soviet-era influence, the sources said.