(CNSNews.com) – Retaliating against a NATO decision to expel eight Russian diplomats from Moscow’s observer mission to the alliance in Brussels, Moscow on Monday went beyond reciprocity.
It suspended the observer mission’s operation altogether, and ordered the suspension of the NATO military liaison mission and the termination of a NATO information office, both in the Russian capital.
Russia’s foreign ministry accused NATO of hyping the “Russian threat” in a bid “to make it look important in the current geopolitical circumstances.”
The Kremlin’s response to the recent NATO action – which was tied to “malign activity” in Europe – deepens tensions in the relationship between Russia and the alliance that was established seven decades ago to counter the Soviet threat.
Cooperation between Russia and the alliance has been suspended since 2014 over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, although the NATO-Russia Council has met occasionally since then, most recently in mid-2019.
“In response to NATO’s actions, we are suspending the activity of the NATO military liaison mission in Moscow and will recall the accreditation of its staff from November 1 this year,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a joint press conference in Moscow with his counterpart from Guinea-Bissau.
Lavrov said that once the Russian observer mission is closed, if NATO has any “urgent matters” to discuss, it could make do so through the Russian Embassy in Brussels, which is located in an adjoining building in the Belgian capital.
Russia has also suspended operations of the NATO military liaison mission. It was set up in 2002, hosted by the Belgian Embassy in Moscow, and tasked to keep channels of communication open with the Russian defense ministry, including on issues relating to the NATO-Russia Council, which was established that same year.
And in a third step, Lavrov said that the NATO Information Office, created in 2000 and also falling under the Belgian Embassy, will stop operating altogether. The office’s main function has been to explain the role and policies of the alliance to the Russian public and other audiences.
Earlier this month NATO confirmed that it was expelling eight “undeclared intelligence officers” from Russia’s observer mission in Brussels with effect from November 1, and also reducing the cap on the number of diplomats accredited to the mission, from 20 to 10.
It was reported at the time that the decision was linked to malign Russian activities in Europe including a deadly 2014 explosion at an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, however, that the expulsion decision was “not linked to any particular event, but we have seen over some time now an increase in Russian malign activity.”
‘Increasingly more aggressive’
Lavrov at Monday’s press conference said NATO had provided “no explanation” for its decision to expel the diplomats and limit the number who could be based at the observer mission.
He said NATO’s actions make clear that it “is not interested in an equal dialogue with us or any joint work. If this is the case, we do not see much reason in continuing to pretend that things may change in the foreseeable future. NATO has, in fact, announced that these changes are impossible.”
After Lavrov’s remarks his foreign ministry confirmed the decisions in a statement.
It said the latest NATO action came after earlier ones that included its suspension of “nearly all forms of civilian and military cooperation” in 2014, and the reduction in 2018 of the Russian observer mission’s maximum size from 30 personnel to 20.
(Those NATO decisions were in response, respectively, to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and to a failed attempt to assassinate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England with the use of the military-grade nerve agent Novichok – a plot linked to Russian military intelligence agents.)
“Our diplomats’ access to the bloc headquarters and their ties with the International Secretariat have reduced dramatically,” the ministry statement continued. “Military contacts have also been suspended.”
“These NATO actions have shown that the bloc is not interested in an equal dialogue or joint efforts to defuse military-political tension. Its policy towards Russia is becoming increasingly more aggressive.”
“The myth about the alleged ‘Russian threat’ is being promoted, in part, to strengthen the bloc’s internal affinity and to make it look important in the current geopolitical circumstances.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price at a briefing on Monday had no reaction to offer to the Russian announcement.
“But we do note that NATO recently withdrew the accreditation of eight members of the Russian mission to NATO who were serving as undeclared Russian intelligence officers,” he said.
“NATO’s policy towards Russia remains consistent,” Price said. “It has strengthened its deterrence and its defense in response to Russia’s aggressive action while, at the same time, leaving the door open for meaningful dialogue. That continues to be the case.”