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Commentary | 18 October 2021

Network reactions: Russia’s response to NATO expulsions

Image of Madeleine Moon

Madeleine Moon |Former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and Politician

NATO Russia Russia-West Relations ELN

Dr Stefanie Babst, ELN Senior Associate Fellow and former NATO Assistant Secretary-General, Germany

Sadly, NATO-Russia relations have reached another low point. Only a few weeks ago the two sides had their most recent diplomatic encounter. NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in late September. While little is known about their short discussion, one can safely assume it was probably another icy exchange, focussing on areas of divergence rather than convergence between the Alliance and Russia.

After NATO had asked eight Russian diplomats to leave Belgium, saying they were undeclared intelligence officers, the Kremlin has now responded in kind: Foreign Minister Lavrov, in his typical coolness, announced the closure of Russia’s Mission to NATO and the withdrawal of diplomatic credentials from emissaries working in NATO’s military liaison and information office in Moscow. The Alliance, Lavrov argued, “didn’t show any interest in equal dialogue or joint work.” Hence there was no need to “go on pretending that in the foreseeable future anything will change.”

The timing of Moscow’s announcement is not a coincidence. While NATO has just kicked off its annual deterrence exercise “Steadfast Noon”, aimed at practising the defence of European allies, Russia seeks to display its political weight and military might elsewhere in the world. Together with China, it just completed a large-scale naval drill in the Far East. “Joint Sea 2021” also included a joint passage of Russian and Chinese vessels through the Tsugaru Strait between Japan’s Honshu and Hokkaido islands, a novelty raising concerns in the region and Washington. Earlier this week, Russia completed a week-long military exercise with the Serbian air defence forces “Slavic Shield 2021”. And while NATO is trying hard to turn the page on the deplorable Afghan chapter, thousands of Russian troops are conducting a military exercise alongside Tajik and other forces from Central Asia on the Afghan border these days. And, as if it wasn’t enough, on 11 October, Algerian and Russian military forces concluded a joint exercise in Russia’s southwestern city of Ossetia that included simulations on “storming cities where militants are holed up, organising ambushes, observation points and camouflage.” There is little doubt: Russia is busy elsewhere.

Why is all this relevant for the current exchange between NATO and Russia? Because Russia today feels strong, both as a regional and global player. True: from a military perspective, the Kremlin still eyes NATO’s posture at its western borders as a threat to Russia’s national security.  But Moscow’s recently held ZAPAD-21 exercise was a valuable way to exercise its troops’ deployability and mobility along the borders to NATO territory. Yet politically speaking, Moscow considers NATO as weak and divided. Lavrov’s message, therefore, could be translated as: ‘Listen, we don’t need you (NATO). We’d rather do business bilaterally with allies where Russian interests can be met. And we show military strength where it matters from a geostrategic perspective.’

The net result of the latest deterioration in the NATO-Russian relationship is both dangerous and deplorable at the same time. Dangerous because there is now hardly any line of communication between the two parties left. With the number of military activities in all domains and exercises on all sides increasing, the risk of miscalculation or accidental military encounters has substantially grown. And deplorable because there doesn’t seem to be any political way forward. While NATO’s criticism of Russia’s multiple malign activities and behaviour is correct, the Allies’ prevailing formula of deterrence and dialogue has cemented nothing but a status quo with Russia.  A Kremlin suggesting that it does not regard NATO as a serious political actor may feel even more inclined to forgo its way in the future.

Dr Andrey Kortunov, ELN Senior Network member and Director General, Russian International Affairs Council, Russia

After NATO revoked the accreditation of eight employees of the Russian mission to the alliance and reduced the number of accreditations for the Russian Federation to ten, the Russian reaction was easy to predict. Moscow apparently lost its last hopes for restoring a substantive dialogue with NATO in Brussels and retaliated by suspending the work of its permanent mission in the alliance, including the work of the chief military representative. On top of that, the Russian side suspended the activities of the NATO military liaison mission in Moscow and terminated the work of the NATO information office. These actions might look dramatic or excessive, but they have their own logic and reflect the unfortunate dynamics of the NATO-Russia relations.

For a couple of years, Russia has tried to relaunch the military dimension of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), insisting on reactivating military-to-military contacts at the operational level. From the Russian viewpoint, these contacts would not constitute a precedent for the “business as usual” that NATO says it is unwilling to return to, nor explicitly violate the NATO decision of 2014 to stop its military cooperation with Moscow. However, without the military dimension, the operations of the NRC would be essentially limited to a formal exchange of official positions on divisive international problems. The NATO side has never accepted Russia’s proposals; moreover, as the language of the final communique of the June 2021 NATO summit suggests, deterring Russia (not China) remains the main raison d’être of the Atlantic Alliance, and a dialogue with Moscow for NATO today is more a general political slogan rather than a practical action plan.

The NATO decision on Russian diplomats was seen in Moscow as the last straw to break the camel’s back. The Kremlin sees no need in pretending that dialogue with NATO still exists when the two sides are past talking. Both Russia and NATO will try to impose full responsibility for the termination of the dialogue on the other. Both seem to be convinced that the risks associated with the final breakdown of communication lines between them are affordable. We can only hope that they are right because if they are wrong, we will all be in big trouble before too long.

Ms Madeleine Moon, ELN Senior Network Member and former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, United Kingdom

Two weeks ago NATO expelled eight members of the Russian delegation to its headquarters for working as spies, with Jen Stoltenberg stressing that NATO remained open to “meaningful dialogue”.  In response, the Russian Federations removed all its diplomats from NATO HQ and revoked the accreditation of NATO’s delegation to Moscow.

As grey zone attacks that seek to burrow beneath the walls of our common democratic values, solidarity and social cohesion increase, NATO defence ministers are meeting to agree a path forward. Meanwhile, the priorities of NATO member states populations are mostly focused on domestic issues.

Now is the time to be honest that we need more than military hardware to resist and respond not only to this diplomatic disengagement.

We must increase the whole-of-society awareness of the attacks we face. It is necessary to be frank with the public, business, academia, and civil society that they are now part of the front line of national defence.

There have so far been few consequences to the daily multi-level attacks we face. We should acknowledge that de-escalation of grey zone attacks is not possible when an opponent is limited only by imagination, in their ability to successfully destabilise every aspect of our daily life.  However, trust, cohesion, mutual solidarity and the rule of law can be as powerful as all our kinetic weapons. We must find a way of building societal resilience by emphasising the part we all can play, in protecting what others seek to destroy. A strong military is not enough: we need to also strengthen and empower our societies.

Sir Graham Stacey, ELN Senior Consulting Fellow and former Chief of Staff of NATO Transformation, United Kingdom

As recently as 7 Oct 21, during a press conference at the end of the North Atlantic Council meeting with National security Advisors, NATO Sec Gen Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that:

“NATO’s position, and approach to Russia is consistent and clear, we base it on our dual-track approach: deterrence-defence and dialogue. We are ready to engage in meaningful dialogue with Russia”.

Yet the reality on the ground, including the recent removal of accreditation of members of Russia’s delegation to NATO and the pausing of the work of Russia’s Mission to NATO and NATO’s Information Offices in Moscow, means that we are further away from meaningful dialogue than ever.

A dual-track approach that has one track void of activity is inherently unstable and risky. It is a breeding ground for misunderstanding, miscalculation and ultimately conflict. It is imperative that both sides urgently seek mechanisms and protocols to break through the deadlock of inactivity and resume meaningful dialogue.

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The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Mailtoanton