On April 20, 2016, the NATO-Russia Council's first meeting in almost two years took place in Brussels, Belgium. The last time the NRC met was in June 2014. Following the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia was suspended; however, some channels of communication remained open, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov several times during the past two years. Following the NRC meeting, Stoltenberg said that NATO and Russia continue to have "profound and persistent disagreements."
Three main topics were discussed during the meeting: the Ukrainian crisis, NATO and Russian military activity in Europe, and the security situation in Afghanistan. Concerning Ukraine, Stoltenberg said that "NATO Allies made clear that they stand firm in their support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," stressing that NATO does not recognize the "illegal" annexation of Crimea by Russia. He also mentioned that Russia continues to support separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Stoltenberg expressed concern about the incidents in the Baltic Sea on April 11-12, 2016, when a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft made a low-altitude pass near the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75). Stoltenberg concluded, "NATO Allies remain firm that there can be no return to practical cooperation until Russia returns to the respect of international law." Concerning Afghanistan, both Russia and NATO expressed strong concern about the development of the situation in that country.
All the heads of missions of the 28 NATO member states participated in the meeting, which went nearly two hours longer than planned. Russia was represented by its Permanent Representative to NATO, Ambassador Alexander Grushko.
The following is a review of Russian government officials' reactions to the meeting:
NATO is expanding on the Russian border (Source: Ria.ru, April, 19, 2016)
Russia's Permanent Representative to NATO: "Without Russia, It Is Impossible To Solve Any International Problem"
Even though, according to Permanent Representative to NATO Grushko, NATO members have no intention of cooperating with Russia, he asserts that the fact that the NATO-Russia Council meeting took place attests to the failure of the West's policy to isolate Russia. He told Russia's Rossiya 1 TV: "I think that this is recognition that the project dubbed 'isolation of Russia' [has] failed. It is evident that without Russia it is impossible to solve or regulate any international problem." Underscoring that the NATO countries realize that they can't "keep isolating themselves from real processes in the sphere of security," Grushko added that Russia is not against holding a new meeting in the future, as long as there will be a "real agenda."
On the gun: "NATO", cartoon by pro-Putin media outlet Sharzh I Pero, published on April 4, 2016, NATO's anniversary and the day of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's visit to the U.S.
The Russian news agency TASS reported that Grushko said that Russia is not interested in returning to previous formats and wants to understand how NATO will be building its security plans in Europe, since today NATO's words and actions are contradictory: it makes declarations about opposing a new Cold War while at the same time building a military presence in Eastern Europe and along Russian borders. The question - says Grushko- is whether NATO has already embarked upon the traditional anti-Russian course, dominated by the American narrative.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that Grushko stressed that dialogue based on trust is impossible without reducing NATO military activity along Russia's borders. Grushko pointed out that Russia is not adversely affected by the lack of cooperation with NATO. Concerning the incidents in the Baltic Sea, he said that by sending the USS Donald Cook close to the Russian border, Washington was trying to put pressure on Moscow, and that Russia will take appropriate action should similar acts recur in the area.
Previously, on March 30, Grushko said that Russia will not passively observe the U.S. military buildup in Europe and will provide an "asymmetrical" response. "We are not passive observers, we consistently take all the military measures we consider necessary in order to counterbalance this reinforced presence that is not justified by anything. Certainly, we'll respond totally asymmetrically," Grushko said to Russian television channel Rossiya 24. Grushko further stressed that NATO's continuing expansion eastward will raise the tension between the West and Russia to an unimaginable level: "As of the present day, assessing as a whole what the U.S. and NATO are doing, the point at issue is a substantial change for the worse in the security situation. One can't imagine a situation in which those countries [Ukraine and Georgia] continue to cherish the hope of joining NATO and the alliance really plans to admit them, as this would cause the situation to explode and bring Europe to the brink of a crisis, whose size and scale can't be imagined today."
Russian Presidential Press Secretary: NATO Retained Its Original Purpose - To Deter Russia
Speaking about the worsening of relations between Russia and NATO, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told the Russia Today television channel that Russia will not tolerate any attempts to dictate to it how it should behave, and that it will retaliate against any military advances of NATO member states close to Russia's borders, such as the stationing of a missile defense system, "with our military and technical capabilities." Antonov also stated that Russia is opposed to entering an arms race, "no matter who is trying to impose one on us," adding that restoring military cooperation with NATO would only be possible based on the principles of "equality, dialogue, mutual respect, and acknowledgement of each other's interests."
In an interview released the day before the meeting, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia-NATO relations are characterized by total mistrust and that this would be difficult to overcome. According to Peskov, the Russia-NATO dialogue "will not be an easy one, because confidence is destroyed very quickly, but is restored much more slowly and this requires considerably greater efforts." Peskov also reiterated that NATO military buildup near Russia's borders poses a "threat to its national security." He said: "We have recorded very unfriendly actions of the Alliance in terms of its military buildup on our borders; we believe that NATO's actions pose a threat to Russia's national interests and national security... Moreover, we have to state that the recent actions of the Alliance have once again confirmed that NATO has failed to adapt to modern conditions and retained its original purpose - to deter the Russian Federation and be in confrontation with the Russian Federation."
Cartoon by pro-Putin media outlet Sharzh I Pero, published on April 4, 2016, NATO's anniversary and the day of the visit of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to the U.S.
Appendix: Russian Daily Izvestia Interview With Russian Permanent Representative To NATO Amb. Alexander Grushko, April 1, 2016
Russian permanent representative to NATO Amb. Alexander Grushko (Source: Missiontonato.ru, April 1, 2016)
Izvestia: "How does Russia assess the U.S. intention to deploy another armored brigadein Eastern Europe?"
Permanent Representative to NATO Amb. Alexander Grushko: "We need to have a look at how these intentions will be implemented. We will assess these plans not only in terms of what the U.S. can further deploy on the eastern flank, but together with the measures already taken. If we speak about a new pattern of force deployment on the eastern periphery of NATO, we witness a qualitative change in the very configuration of this presence and a significant deterioration of the situation in the military sphere. Today, constant rotation of U.S. forces is carried out in six Eastern European countries, and exercises are held on a regular basis with the participation of both the U.S. and European contingents. Naval forces in the Baltics are being reinforced. Storage options for equipment are being created; and this equipment is used by rotational units during joint exercises with national contingents. The improvement of infrastructure for new reinforcement troops is taking place. The air military activity has increased along our borders. The number of reconnaissance flights has increased many times over. There are talks about possible reinforcement of the military presence in the Black Sea region. All these attest to the fact that the policy of deterrence, which was declared on paper, is taking shape now in the form of concrete decisions in the area of military planning. This lays down a long-term negative tendency not only for regional security, but also for the security of Europe as a whole. The problem is that in fact nobody knows whether this process will stop. The decision to deploy an additional armored brigade was announced at a moment when nothing critical for NATO's interests was occurring on the eastern flank. It becomes ever more obvious that these military preparations are artificial. There is no direct threat either to Poland, or to the Baltic countries. Nevertheless, the [dis]information campaign continues to unfold. We hear absurd horror stories that Russia would attack the Baltics if it were not for NATO which undertook measures and deployed forces in this region. We have all the reasons to speak about a serious change in the military situation for the worse."
Izvestia: "Is it fair to say that NATO's actions violate the agreements with Russia, in particular the Founding Act of 1997?"
Grushko: "The additional armored brigade to strengthen the eastern flank contradicts the spirit of the Founding Act. Moreover, NATO tries to claim that all these military efforts fully correspond to the provisions of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, according to which NATO committed itself not to deploy additional substantial combat forces on a permanent basis. We have repeated many times that continuous rotation is in no way different from permanent deployment. But I would like to note that the two sites of the European segment of the global [missile defense] MD system are under construction. The [missile defense] site in Romania is already operational and will be transferred [to] NATO command in May . The construction of the facility in Poland is underway. These bases certainly meet the criteria of being substantial and permanent."
Izvestia: "How will the reinforcement of the U.S. forces affect NATO-Russia cooperation?"
Grushko: "It will not have any effect. Cooperation as such does not exist. In April 2014, NATO countries made a decision to suspend all practical cooperation with Russia. All projects were stopped. Today we do not have any positive agenda with NATO. We often hear from NATO representatives that they are open to dialogue. The dialogue with the Permanent Mission continues, and we have good contacts with the leadership of the Alliance, and with all Missions to NATO. But all these contacts cannot replace practical cooperation between Russia and NATO, that was built over the years to ensure the security of all NRC members in a number of areas. We worked together on Afghanistan and we made efforts in the fight against terrorism - not only through joint threat assessment and exchange of experience, but also by implementing projects that were designed to avoid tragedies similar to the Brussels attacks."
Izvestia: "How would you describe the work within the NATO-Russia Council [NRC] now?"
Grushko: "The work of the NATO-Russia Council has not been formally interrupted. At our initiative, the Council was convened for a special meeting in June 2014, in the wake of the punitive operation that the Kiev authorities launched in southeastern Ukraine. There have been no sessions since that meeting. Work is under way to convene an NRC meeting."
Izvestia: "Is it possible to appeal to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) in the present situation?"
Grushko: "The buildup of U.S. forces is taking place at a time when the arms control regime in Europe is undergoing erosion. The CFE Treaty regime was a cornerstone of European security. It established quantitative restrictions for basic categories of armaments, provided for detailed exchanges of information and an intrusive inspection regime. In the early 1990s, it became clear that the Treaty did not correspond to the new political realities, and talks about its adaptation began. These efforts culminated in the signing of an adapted CFE Treaty in 1999, which made the regime more responsive to the new realities. It provided for concrete mechanisms for engaging political instruments in cases when forces were deployed beyond certain limits. In 2004, Russia ratified this Treaty, but NATO countries delayed its ratification based on artificial pretexts. As a result, it has not been enforced. As long as the CFE Treaty continues to be out of touch with reality, we must state that the arms control regime in Europe is dead, which further complicates the security situation. But this choice was made by the NATO countries themselves."
 The NRC was set up in 2002, as a mechanism for consultation.
 Nato.int, April 20, 2016.
 Nato.int, April 20, 2016.
 Nato.int, April 20, 2016.
 Tass.ru, April 20, 2016.
 Tass.ru, April 20, 2016.
 Tass.ru, April 10, 2016.
 Ria.ru, April 20, 2016.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6374, Russian Officials: Russia Is Ready To Militarily Answer NATO's Growing Potential In Europe, April 5, 2016.
 Missiontonato.ru, March 30, 2016.
 Rt.com, April 20, 2016.
 Tass.ru, April 19, 2016.
 See the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russia: http://www.nato.int/nrc-website/media/59451/1997_nato_russia_founding_act.pdf
 The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) was signed on November 19, 1990. In 2015, Russia announced it had ended activities under the CFE. Russia's participation in the treaty was first halted in 2007. See: Osce.org/library/14087?download=true.