NATO Expels Russian Diplomats From Brussels; Move Reportedly Linked to Malign Activities in Europe

Patrick Goodenough | October 7, 2021 | 4:30am EDT
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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference in Brussels in June. (Photo by Olivier Hoslet/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference in Brussels in June. (Photo by Olivier Hoslet/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

(Update: NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday the decision to expel the Russian diplomats was “not linked to any particular event, but we have seen over some time now an increase in Russian malign activity.”)

( – NATO confirmed Wednesday that it is expelling eight Russian diplomats from Moscow’s observer mission to the alliance in Brussels, a move reportedly linked to spying and malign Russian activities in Europe including a deadly 2014 explosion in the Czech Republic.

The decision prompted a Russian government official to accuse the alliance of insincerity and a senior lawmaker to warn that retaliatory steps will be taken.

NATO officials have confirmed to numerous media outlets plans to expel eight “undeclared intelligence officers” and to reduce the ceiling on the number of diplomats accredited to the mission, from 20 to 10.

“We have strengthened our deterrence and defense in response to Russia’s aggressive actions, while at the same time we remain open for a meaningful dialogue,” an official said.

NATO did not provide reasons for the expulsions, but Sky News, which was first to report on the plans, said the decision was linked to the disclosure earlier this year of alleged Russian involvement in the massive 2014 blast at a Czech ammunition depot.

Last April the Czech government expelled dozens of diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Prague over suspicion that the explosion, which killed two people, was the work of a clandestine Russian military intelligence (GRU) team known as “unit 29155.”

Russia denied that allegations, accused Prague of “Russophobia,” and expelled Czech diplomats in retaliation.

According to Sky News the NATO decision to expel the diplomats from Brussels came after NATO over the summer asked member-states to provide information on suspected Russian covert operations on their soil.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko hit back after the expulsions were announced, saying that NATO officials just a day earlier had been stressing the importance of de-escalating Russia-NATO tensions, and of resuming diologue in the NATO-Russia Council.

“If anyone ever believed in the sincerity of those statements, there are none left today,” Grushko told Kommersant. “Their true price is clear for everyone.”

The NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002 as the main forum for advancing relations between the two parties. Practical cooperation was suspended in 2014 over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, although the council met occasionally in the ensuing years, most recently in July 2019.

Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the international committee of the State Duma lower parliament house, told the TASS state news agency Moscow would definitely retaliate for the expulsions.

“I have no doubt that the leadership of the Russian foreign ministry will suggest adequate response measures, not necessarily symmetrical,” he said.

The expulsion announcement came shortly after NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg met with President Biden and senior administration officials early this week.

While in Washington, Stoltenberg said at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University that the relationship between the alliance and Russia was “at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War.”

He tracked the deterioration back to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, but said “the big change came in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea.”

Despite the tensions, he said NATO has adopted an approach towards Russia of “deterrence, defense and dialogue.”

“When we are strong, when we are united we can talk to Russia,” Stoltenberg said. “And we have to talk to Russia because we don’t want a new Cold War. We don’t want a new arms race. And Russia is our neighbor, we need to engage with them.”

GRU unit 29155 is most notoriously accused of the failed attempt to assassinate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England in 2018 with the use of the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.

In response to that incident, NATO withdrew accreditation of seven staffers at the Russian observer mission in Brussels, and reduced the mission’s maximum size from 30 personnel to 20.

GRU unit 29155 was also accused of links to an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, and to allegations last year that Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan were offered bounties for killing coalition troops.

President Trump was widely criticized at the time for not taking retaliatory steps against the Russians. The Biden administration conceded last spring that the intelligence community had only “low to moderate confidence” regarding the bounty claims.

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