Russia breaks diplomatic ties with NATO

Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of NATO headquarters during the move there, in Brussels, Belgium Apr 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Russia plans to cease its diplomatic engagement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the Russian foreign minister said Monday, in the latest sign of unravelling relations between Moscow and the West.

Although significant on a diplomatic level, the announcement was not apparently accompanied by any military moves by Russia threatening European security. And Moscow still maintains diplomatic relations with the individual governments in the alliance.

The decision will end a post-Cold War experiment, never very successful, in building trust between Russia and the Western alliance, established decades ago to contain the Soviet Union, which officials in Moscow accused of later encroaching on former Soviet territory.

By early next month, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, Russia will halt the activities of its representative office at NATO headquarters in Brussels and withdraw diplomatic credentials from emissaries of the alliance working in Moscow.

NATO’s response was muted. “We have taken note of Minister Lavrov’s comments to the media, however we have not received any official communication on the issues he raised,” a spokesperson, Oana Lungescu, said. Lavrov had said the alliance was informed before his announcement.

The breakoff of diplomatic ties also comes as President Joe Biden is seeking to strengthen the European alliance after former President Donald Trump denigrated members as freeloaders on US military spending and threatened to withdraw.

Relations between Moscow and the West have been strained for years, but the immediate impetus for the Russian move was a spy scandal.

Earlier this month, NATO ordered eight Russian diplomats to leave Belgium by Nov. 1, saying they were undeclared intelligence officers. The alliance also reduced the size of the Russian representative office.

In response, Lavrov said Russia’s entire diplomatic mission would leave by Nov. 1 or a few days after that date.

“Because of NATO’s targeted steps, proper conditions for elemental diplomatic activity don’t exist,” he said. “In response to NATO’s actions, we are halting the work of our permanent representation to NATO, including the work of the main military envoy.”

Relations with the alliance had in any case long ago gone off the rails, he said. NATO had already twice reduced the size of the Russian delegation, in 2015 and 2018, he said. “On the military level there are absolutely no contacts taking place,” he said.

He said NATO had set up a “prohibitive regime” for Russian diplomats in Brussels by banning them from its headquarters building. Without visiting the building, he said, they could not maintain ties with alliance officials.

Lavrov suggested the expulsions of Russian diplomats had come as an unwelcome surprise, as he had met in New York just days earlier with the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, and discussed de-escalating tensions.

“He in every way underscored the honest, as he said, interest in the North Atlantic alliance in normalising relations with the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said.

NATO could still convey diplomatic messages to Russia’s embassy in Brussels, if necessary, Lavrov said.

In addition to diplomatic frictions, military tensions have also escalated in recent years, including last spring when Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s border, ostensibly for a military exercise.

In the immediate post-Cold War era, Russia had claimed a moral high ground in relations with NATO. Moscow, Russians noted, had dismantled its alliance of that era, the Warsaw Pact, while NATO in contrast expanded into former Soviet and East Bloc nations. Russia has since initiated new military alliances of its own, with former Soviet states and with China.

Relations were also strained by NATO’s intervention in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s against Serbia, a Russian ally.

Russia responded, for a time, by dispatching an outspoken nationalist, Dmitry O. Rogozin, now the director of Russia’s space program, as its emissary to the alliance in Brussels, where he became a thorn in the side of NATO officials.

The problems simmered on. NATO’s view of Russia dimmed further after Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but Russia’s aggressive moves there revived worries of an expansionist Kremlin agenda in Eastern Europe.

In announcing the halt to Russia’s diplomatic relations with NATO, Lavrov said Monday that the alliance did not show any interest in “equal dialogue or joint work.” He said there was no need to “go on pretending that in the foreseeable future anything will change.”

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