Russia stages break with NATO, opens new chapter in relations with the West

Russia's diplomatic chief Sergei Lavrov announces the dismantling of the Russian embassy to the Atlantic alliance
Sergei Lavrov

AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI  -   Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament on 25 February 2020 in Geneva

Despite not having been a 'de facto' part of the Atlantic alliance in its more than seven decades of history, Moscow maintained close cooperation in areas of common interest with NATO from the late 1990s until 2014. However, the Eurasian nation has broken bridges with the military coalition after years of countless frictions and a long list of competing interests.

The head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, said on Monday that the country's embassy to NATO will suspend its operations as of 1 November "in response to the organisation's actions". This unilateral decision opens a new and uncertain chapter in Russia's relations with Western powers.

Lavrov added that NATO's military liaison and intelligence offices in Moscow will also be closed, with staff accreditations withdrawn within a month. Although the veteran diplomat acknowledged that the planned date for implementing the measure could take "a few more days". Lavrov also stated that contact between the Atlantic alliance itself and Russia could take place through the Russian embassy in Belgium. 

The foreign minister, in office since 2004 and one of Vladimir Putin's strongmen, said that the decision was in response to the expulsion of eight diplomats from the Russian mission to NATO on Wednesday, suspected of having committed acts of espionage against the organisation. In addition, the Atlantic alliance reduced the number of members that Russia could give access to its headquarters from 20 to 10.

Jens Stoltenberg
PHOTO/AFP  -  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

An anonymous NATO member admitted that members of the Russian delegation "were undeclared intelligence officers", according to The Guardian. These facts were censured by the Secretary General of the Atlantic Alliance, the Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, who warned that NATO should be attentive to Russia's movements. For Stoltenberg himself, Western relations with Moscow are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Lavrov shied away from self-criticism and blamed the organisation for the lack of understanding: "All this confirms that NATO is not interested in any dialogue on an equal footing or in any joint work. Therefore, we see no need to continue to act as if a change is possible in the future, because NATO has already declared the impossibility of such changes. 

"NATO's policy towards Russia is becoming more and more aggressive. The so-called Russian threat is exaggerated in order to strengthen the internal unity of the organisation and create the appearance of its necessity in the current geopolitical situation," reads a statement issued by the NATO Foreign Ministry, which considers the military alliance to be "an anti-Russian bloc".

Despite the Russian foreign minister's harsh statements at the press conference confirming the break-up, NATO had not yet received "any official communication" on the matter. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance had "taken note" of the Kremlin's intentions.

Vladímir Putin
PHOTO/AFP  -  Russian President Vladimir Putin
Competing interests

Cooperation between NATO and Moscow began in June 1994, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, with NATO joining the Washington-driven Partnership for Peace programme, under which Russia deployed peacekeeping forces to the Balkans in the late 1990s. It was not until 1997, however, that bilateral relations were established through the creation of the NATO-Russia Permanent Council.

In the memorandum, the parties agreed to cease to regard each other as adversaries and pledged to maintain "a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security". Aspirations that began to fade with Putin's arrival in the Kremlin two years later.

Military cooperation, focused on counter-terrorism and nuclear arms reduction, was maintained during the first decade of the 21st century. Not only that, but it was reinforced by the creation in 2002 of a new bilateral council that allowed Moscow to intervene in the alliance as a virtual member. However, interests began to diverge as soon as Putin launched an external strategy to restore Russia's superpower role.

Moscow's ties with NATO had become a liability. An interpretation that became clear when NATO cancelled formal bilateral Council summits in August 2008 after Russian military action in Georgia, where Russian tanks moved in to support separatists in South Ossetia, a region from which Putin's army expelled Georgian forces and launched an offensive against Tbilisi's neighbourhoods. Both sides committed "war crimes", according to Human Rights Watch.

PHOTO/Press service of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine via REUTERS  -  Tanks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are seen during exercises at an unknown location near the border of Russia-annexed Crimea, Ukraine, in this handout image released by the press service of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine April 14, 2021

To date, NATO members have demanded that Russia backtrack on its recognition of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, a historic conflict where Moscow wants to assert its influence at all costs.

But it was the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in February 2014 that was the event that sent NATO-Russia relations into a tailspin. This military action was intended to dampen expressions of Ukrainian nationalism and re-establish the Kremlin's authority after the fall of pro-Russian President Yanukovych. The occupation continues today despite the demands of Western powers for a return of the territory to Kiev.

"Concerns about Russia's continued destabilising military activities and aggressive rhetoric go far beyond Ukraine," NATO says. The Atlantic alliance is concerned about Russia's "provocative military activities from the Baltic to the Black Sea, its irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, and its military posture". As well as the Kremlin's crusade against dissent, with the example of the poisoning and subsequent arrest of Alexei Navalny.

NATO had been pursuing a twin-track approach towards Russia, as recognised by the organisation, based on the principles of deterrence and defence. However, Moscow's formalised unilateral break with Russia forces Western powers to implement a coordinated response.