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NATO-Russia: A step towards rapprochement?

Europe's security priorities have changed considerably since Russia's annexation of Crimea. But do new threats trump old alliances? DW asks whether the upcoming NATO-Russia Council meeting signals a thaw in relations.

US military personnel seen as they cross into the Czech Republic from Poland after finishing training drills in 2015

US military personnel seen as they cross into the Czech Republic from Poland after finishing training drills in 2015

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last week announced that the

NATO-Russia Council

(NRC) would reconvene after nearly two years since "all practical cooperation" was suspended in the wake of

Moscow's annexation of Crimea

from Ukraine.

While Stoltenberg is expected to raise concerns about the implementation of the Minsk Agreements aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, "regional terrorist threats" will also be discussed.

In 2014, NATO, alongside EU and US officials, accused Moscow of involvement in the eastern Ukrainian conflict after it effectively annexed parts of the Crimean Peninsula in an internationally-condemned public referendum.

But the NATO-Russia meeting expected later this month is likely due to thawing US-Russian relations, Cor Snijders, co-founder of The Hague-based security consultancy Lowlands Solutions, told DW.

"The primary objective and desire regarding the upcoming NATO-Russia Council meeting in April is most likely to establish a general improvement of the diplomatic ties and cordial relations between the United States, as the most prominent NATO-member, and Russia," said Snijders.

"This is in order to avoid future military incidents between the two nuclear entities in, for instance, Syria or Eastern Europe," he added.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Snijders: "Recently Stoltenberg tempered his remarks regarding an 'imminent threat' from Russia at its eastern borders."

In flux: Europe's security priorities

Meanwhile, Europe's security interests have greatly changed since the early months of 2014. A string of attacks claimed by the

"Islamic State" militant group

in Paris and Brussels has upped pressure on the EU and its member states to bolster security.

The conflict in Syria has also contributed to a wave of irregular migration to the EU, a challenge that has been met with controversial responses, including a

NATO mission in the Aegean Sea

and an EU-Turkey deal to

swap migrants in Greece for refugees in Turkish camps.

Meanwhile, Russia has been busy raising its foreign policy profile in areas where the EU has fallen short. Moscow stepped in to negotiate an - albeit fragile - ceasefire in the

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

, for example.

Andrew Michta, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told DW that despite sanctions regimes against Russia, NATO's reengagement with Moscow shows President Vladimir Putin "has clearly broken out of the West's effort to isolate him."

"Russia's success in Syria at propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and being now in a position to impact the intensity of that conflict - and thereby to impact the refugee flow from the Middle East and North Africa - has positioned Russia to play a greater role on this critical issue for Europe's security," Michta noted.

The Syria question

In February, Moscow brokered a

"cessation of hostilities"

in Syria with the US, and aided Syrian government forces in re-taking the historic city of

Palmyra

from the "Islamic State."

"Due to the fact that the NATO-Russia Council was initially set up in 2002 to discuss security-related issues in a dialogue between NATO and Russia, the current threat of the 'Islamic State' and IS-affiliated organization - also in the Caucasus and against Russian military in Syria - will be put on the agenda as well," Snijders told DW.

"The formulation of a coherent plan of a so-called 'collective offensive' against Islamic extremism and domestic terrorism will be a prominent topic in April," he said.

The announcement of the NRC session comes on the heels of Moscow and Washington tentatively agreeing to "strengthen Russia-US cooperation in the interests of a lasting ceasefire" in Syria, according to a statement Russia's foreign ministry released on Sunday.

"The 're-establishment' of the NATO-Russia Council meeting, after two years of inactivity, can therefore, indeed, be seen as a step towards rapprochement," Snijders said.

The end of the eastern front?

While the NATO-Russia Council meeting signals a step forward in mending security relations with Moscow, it has not stopped members of the alliance from pledging more troops to the eastern frontier.

Following a meeting earlier this month with NATO chief Stoltenberg, Obama reminded reporters at a press conference that he requested a $3.4-billion (3 billion euros) budget to station an

additional US army brigade in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, Germany on Monday announced that 5,000 Bundeswehr troops will participate in NATO defense maneuvers this year, up 500 soldiers compared to 2015, according to German public broadcaster "Deutschlandfunk."

"Russia wants to ensure that any decisions on reinforcing NATO's northeastern flank to be taken at the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw are as limited as possible," Michta told DW.

"There is no consensus in the alliance on setting up permanent US and NATO based in the Baltics, Poland and Romania - the allies along the flank continue to press for permanent installations, others reject the idea, and Russia sees an opportunity here to drive the point home directly," Michta added.

Although rapprochement could be on the table, Snijders said the implementation of the Minsk Agreement in Ukraine and NATO's largest military build-up on its eastern flank since the end of the Cold War may be difficult subjects to skirt as the NRC reconvenes.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the experts and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any government entity or affiliated organization.

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