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CWA # 604, 4 November 2021

NIAS Europe Monitor
NATO-Russia relationship: Looking beyond the suspensions and expulsions

  Joeana Cera Matthews

The Russia-NATO relationship only saw signs of worsening given the fact that NATO’s condition to return to normalcy was based on Russia leaving Crimea – a highly unlikely event, at least in the near future.

On 18 October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia would be terminating its diplomatic mission to NATO. Lavrov claimed the suspension to be a retaliatory move against NATO expelling Russian mission members to the alliance. 

On 21 October, opening the two-day NATO summit in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg commented: “We are in the midst of a transformation of NATO. Over the last years we have stepped up and refocused on our collective defence to protect our own territory.”

Three triggers of suspension
First, the immediate triggers. On 06 October, NATO banned eight Russian diplomats who were members of the Russian mission to the alliance. They were expelled on the grounds of being “undeclared intelligence officers” or simply put — spies. Alongside this expulsion, NATO halved the size of the Russian mission to its Brussels headquarters to just ten members, giving no justification for the same. Deutsche Welle had then reported Interfax citing a senior Russian lawmaker’s response; he said that Moscow “would retaliate, not necessarily in kind.” 

Second, the ripple effect of the expulsion. The NATO expulsion was followed by several eastern European countries, as well as those countries closely associated with the alliance, asking Russian envoys in their countries to leave, accusing them on grounds similar to those alleged by NATO. Moscow responded in kind — asking the diplomats to leave their respective region ‘for good’.

Third, the role of history. Relations between Russia and NATO have been strained since 2014. Following the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula along with the Moscow-backed Donbass region conflict, any existent working relationship between Russia and NATO ceased. The NATO-Russia Council, another forum the two used for interactions, has been dormant as well. 

What does the suspension mean?
First, dwindling channels of communication. Russia is set to cancel NATO’s accreditation on 01 November. Once this comes into force, the alliance is expected to contact Russia via the latter’s envoy in Belgium, Alexander Tokovinin, in case of emergencies. Lavrov suggested that NATO too appoint a similar envoy in Moscow. However, the already strained relations imply the futility of such a facility. Since the suspension of practical cooperation in 2014, channels of communication remain open only for high-level military coordination talks. As the New York Times stated: “The decision will end a post-Cold War experiment, never very successful, in building trust between Russia and the Western alliance.”

Second, the rhetoric of power-play. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement did not threaten to or eliminate the NATO diplomatic office, it only suspended the same. This is significant information to consider, given the fact that Russia had vehemently reacted at NATO suspending their members to the mission. When faced with a binary decision on whether to suspend the mission or wholly rid themselves of it, Russia chose that a suspension would suffice, at least for now. Taking a look at this perspective, it implies that Russia does not intend to cut all ties with NATO and that the present move is just a retaliatory measure against what the alliance did to their diplomats.

Is there a possibility of reconciliation?
First, the incessant misunderstandings and blame games. Following the expulsion of the Russian diplomats, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu stated that they had acted only in “defense and deterrence” and were still interested in having an “open and meaningful dialogue” with Moscow. However, Lavrov criticized the alliance for trying to “disintegrate the internal unity of the region” by creating stressful situations and being “unfriendly.”

Second, the declining relationship. Responding to the Russian announcement, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “It’s more than just regrettable, this decision taken by Moscow will seriously damage the relationship.” Russia never replaced its latest ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, who had returned to Moscow in January 2018. The deteriorating relationship between the two has been quite evident in the past few years; member countries regularly battle a noncooperative Russia either at sea or via media. The Russia-NATO relationship only saw signs of worsening given the fact that NATO’s condition to return to normalcy was based on Russia leaving Crimea – a highly unlikely event, at least in the near future. Thus, the current scenario indicates the prolongation of tense relations.

Third, Russia as a threat. On 21 October, NATO defence ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss Moscow and the threat it poses, among other things. Despite stating that Russia was not being seen as an immediate threat, the ministers addressed these concerns by forming a master plan designed to counter the Russian “offensive”. Moscow, denying any untoward intention, accused NATO of sabotaging the unity and peace prevalent in the region with such provocative preparations. However, the alliance has been at the receiving end of endless Russian provocations – from their ships being attacked at sea to routine encroachments into their airspace; NATO is justified for being prepared before-hand.

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