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NATO still has "clear disagreements" with Russia over Ukraine

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO still has “clear disagreements” with Russia over the Ukraine crisis and expects Moscow to do more to rein in armed separatists battling Kiev’s forces, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a news conference ahead of the NATO foreign ministers meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium March 30, 2017. Reuters/Eric Vidal

The West slapped sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed.

“Allies and Russia continue to have clear disagreements on the crisis in and around Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told a news conference after chairing a meeting of ambassadors from NATO and Russia in Brussels.

He said intense fighting continued to rage in the industrial eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, despite a formal ceasefire under the Minsk peace agreements signed in 2015.

“Allies urged Russia to use its significant influence on the militants to meet their obligations in full, and raised serious concerns about Russia’s recognition of identity documents issued by the separatists, imposing the rouble (currency), and seizure of companies,” Stoltenberg added.

Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, blamed the Ukrainian military for ceasefire violations and said he had raised the issue with alliance envoys, saying NATO was not putting enough pressure on Kiev to control its forces.

“We drew attention to ceasefire violations by Ukrainian forces, the continued creeping offensive of the Ukrainian army in so-called grey zones, the use of heavy weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements, and the presence of heavy weapons,” he said.

France and Germany were among NATO allies who criticised Moscow’s move in February to recognise ID documents issued to people living in the rebel regions in place of Ukrainian papers.

But Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, also welcomed the exchange of information between NATO and Russia on military moves.

“It is not an easy dialogue but a dialogue we are committed to. When tensions run high, it is even more important to keep talking to each other to reduce unpredictability and risks,” he said, adding that Russia had briefed NATO on three new divisions in its western military district.

In exchange, NATO offered information on four battle groups it is deploying in Poland and the Baltic states to help assuage their concerns over a more assertive Russia.

Grushko said such concerns were unfounded. “A confrontational agenda is imposed on us, as NATO seeks to prove its relevance,” he said, adding it was a “dead-end path.”

On Friday Stoltenberg will chair a meeting of NATO foreign ministers attended for the first time by new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They will prepare for the alliance’s first top-level summit since Donald Trump became U.S. president.

Last year Trump upset America’s allies by describing NATO as “obsolete”, though he has since said he strongly supports the alliance. He has continued to press NATO’s European members to spend more on defence.

Stoltenberg said he would meet Trump in Washington in April to prepare for the May 25 summit in Brussels.

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Mark Trevelyan