Reuters International

Workers set up banners with the flags of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) outside Strasbourg's Congress Center April 2, 2009. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO envoys will hold their first formal meeting with Russia in almost two years on April 20, the Western alliance said on Tuesday, with the crisis in Ukraine, reducing military risks and Afghanistan on the agenda.

"It is not a return to business as usual, but we do need dialogue," said a NATO spokeswoman.

The forum bringing together Russia and its former Cold War adversary NATO was never officially suspended, but met last in June 2014 as Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula strained ties. Both sides have now agreed to hold talks at ambassador level in Brussels in the NATO-Russia Council.

While the West and Russia remain at odds over Ukraine, the meeting is a sign of willingness to improve diplomatic relations that could help avoid any accidental clashes in the region.

As NATO accelerates its biggest military build-up in eastern Europe since the Cold War, the alliance wants to talk to Moscow about improved military transparency to avoid misunderstandings.

NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in April 2014 in protest against Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

NATO said high-level political contacts with Russia could continue but NATO and Russian ambassadors met only twice since the Crimea crisis erupted, in March 2014 and then in early June of the same year.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek)

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