NATO, Russia to hold first talks since Skripal attack

Brussels (AFP) –


NATO will on Thursday hold its first formal talks with Russia since the nerve agent attack on a former Kremlin double agent in Britain, as the alliance seeks to counter Moscow's increasing assertiveness.

Tensions between the transatlantic alliance and Russia have hit post-Cold War highs in recent years over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and more recently the attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury.

NATO vehemently criticised Moscow over the attack in March, the first hostile use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War Two, and expelled seven Russian diplomats as part of a coordinated international response.

"A meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will take place on 31 May 2018," a NATO official said.

"This is part of NATO's twin-track approach of strong defence and meaningful dialogue with Russia."

The meeting -- the seventh of the NATO-Russia council in the last two years -- will be held at the alliance's brand-new headquarters in Brussels and is expected to cover the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where Moscow is accused of backing pro-Russian separatists in the restive east.

Transparency around military exercises is also expected to be discussed. At the last meeting in October, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said alliance members had challenged Russia over its controversial "Zapad" drills which caused concern in Poland and the Baltic states.

The meeting comes as NATO builds up to its summit in July, which Stoltenberg on Monday said would focus on five key areas from deterrence to modernisation and EU relations, with measures to "manage" ties with Russia a priority.

Last week NATO and the EU urged Moscow to take responsiblity for the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine after international investigators concluded that a missile which destroyed the plane came from a Russian military brigade.

The NRC met regularly until the Ukraine crisis plunged relations between the West and Moscow into a deep freeze in 2014 but the meetings resumed in 2016 after months of debate within the alliance over whether it would send the wrong signal to Moscow.

US-led NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Russia over its role in Ukraine but has kept political channels of communication open.