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NATO Expulsions of Russian Diplomats Will Likely Trigger Moscow Response

FILE - Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of the new NATO headquarters during the move to the new building, in Brussels, Belgium April 19, 2018.
FILE - Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of the new NATO headquarters during the move to the new building, in Brussels, Belgium April 19, 2018.

NATO is expelling eight Russian diplomats and plans to halve the size of Russia's observer mission to the Western alliance in response to alleged malign Russian espionage activities in Europe, which have included killings, attempted assassinations and explosions, say European officials.

The diplomats have been told to leave Brussels by the end of this month. Two other Russian diplomatic slots currently vacant at NATO headquarters will not be allowed to be filled, NATO officials told VOA.

The stripping of the accreditations of the eight Russian diplomats, first reported by Britain’s Sky News, was denounced swiftly by Russian lawmakers. The lawmakers said the Kremlin would retaliate, although not necessarily with a tit-for-tat round of expulsions of Western diplomats based in Moscow, setting the stage for a further deterioration of relations between Western countries and Russia, reminiscent of the Cold War.

A NATO official said Wednesday, “We have reduced the number of positions which the Russian Federation can accredit to NATO to 10,” down from 20 previously. The official described the diplomats targeted as “undeclared Russian intelligence officers.”

“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,” he added.

NATO’s action Wednesday, came a day after Democratic and Republican senators in Washington urged US President Joe Biden to expel 300 Russian diplomats from the United States if Moscow refuses to issue more visas for Americans to represent the US in Russia. There are only about 100 American diplomats stationed in Russia, compared with 400 Russian diplomats based across the United States, the senators said.

“This disproportionality in diplomatic representation is unacceptable. Accordingly, Russia must issue enough visas to approach parity between the number of American diplomats serving in Russia and the number of Russian diplomats serving in the United States,” the senators wrote in a letter to Biden.

Troubled history

All 30 NATO member countries approved the decision to halve Russia’s observer mission, which was established two decades ago to help promote dialogue and cooperation in common security areas. The Russian diplomats based in Brussels are meant to meet with their Western counterparts in a forum known as the NATO-Russia Council, although there have been no formal proceedings for months.

This is not the first time NATO has expelled Russian diplomats based at the alliance’s headquarters. Seven Russian diplomats were expelled in 2018 after the poisoning in England of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who defected to Britain, and his daughter. The Kremlin denied any involvement in the attempted assassination but Britain has identified Russian intelligence officers it says were behind the poisoning.

Last month, Britain’s Metropolitan Police charged a third suspect, Denis Sergeev, an officer for Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU, over the poisoning.

In April, Czech officials said two of the Russian agents allegedly involved in the Skripal poisoning were behind a fatal blast at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014, which left two dead. Czech officials told local media that Russia orchestrated the blast to stop arms deliveries to Ukraine via Bulgaria. The Czech government subsequently expelled 18 Russian diplomats and the Kremlin responded by ordering 20 Czech diplomats to leave Russia.

The Czechs since then have been urging NATO to downsize the Russian mission in Brussels, a British official told VOA.

The NATO-Russia Council has hardly been operating in recent years, largely because of increasing disputes and rising tensions between Western powers and the Kremlin, fueled initially by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the support given to pro-Moscow separatists in the eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, accused NATO Thursday of being responsible for the deterioration of relations.

“The leaders of NATO yesterday spoke of the importance of de-escalating relations with Russia and spoke out in favor of a resumption in dialogue in the framework of the Russia-NATO Council,” he told Russia’s Kommersant daily newspaper.

“If anyone believed in the sincerity of those statements then today they don’t. Their real worth is clear to all. After the dramatic end of the Afghan era, how can they get by without the bogeyman of the ‘Russian threat.’ They can’t,” Grushko added.

Leonid Slutsky, a Russian lawmaker and chair of the Duma’s international affairs committee, told the Interfax news agency NATO’s move would damage dialogue between Moscow and the West and said he expected the Kremlin to respond with “asymmetric” measures. “The collective West is continuing its policy of diplomatic confrontation with Russia,” he said.

Some information from Reuters was used for this report