25th Mar 2019

Spy row may undermine Russia's EU ambassador

  • A retired statue of Stalin in Lithuania - the spy row has something of the Cold War about it (Photo: wikipedia)

An escalating spy dispute between Nato and Russia could have a direct impact on EU-Russia relations by undermining the work of Moscow's ambassador to the union.

Russia on Thursday (30 April) confirmed that Nato has cancelled the accreditation of two officials at its mission to the alliance headquarters in Brussels, on charges of espionage.

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One of the two men, administration director Vasily Chizhov, is also the son of Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov.

With 21 out of 28 Nato states also being EU members and with the expulsion decision made at Nato's highest political level, the move has a quasi-EU stamp of approval.

The reaction of Russia's ambassador to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, augurs badly for east-west relations, with Mr Rogozin promising "harsh and decisive" action in return.

Vladimir Chizhov declined to comment when contacted by EUobserver.

But the family connection is not flattering. Diplomats tend to see themselves as a caste above the secret services, which often plant a few undercover staff in important embassies.

The stain of suspicion will undermine the ambassador's authority, whether speaking at a think-tank event in future or acting as his country's chief negotiator on a new EU-Russia strategic pact.

"The question will always hang over him, if he knew about his son's activities and condoned them. It will be more difficult for him to function," Polish liberal MEP and EU-Russia relations rapporteur Janusz Onyszkiewicz said.

"He is burned," another senior diplomat in Brussels said. "It would not be surprising if he is quietly replaced a few months from now."

Speculation is divided on whether Nato deliberately set out to damage Mr Chizhov senior.

On one hand, the ambassador is popular for his open style, fluent English and wry sense of humour. But on the other hand, he is seen as a dangerous master of spin and an enemy of EU projects, such as the Eastern Partnership scheme to build closer relations with ex-Soviet states.

"He [Vasily Chizhov] was expelled because of his own duties, not his father's duties. He is a big boy and children become independent of their parents at some stage," Kadri Liik, the director of Estonia's International Centre for Defence Studies told this website.

"It's interesting that they [Nato] decided to hit his son, out of all the people they could have chosen at the Russian mission, which has 30 or 40 staff," an EU official said.

The Nato expulsions come in the wake of the Herman Simm spy scandal. The Estonian defence official was in February jailed for passing Nato and EU secrets to Moscow over a number of years.

The European Commission in a leaked memo in February also warned staff to be on guard against "increasing" espionage levels, with spokeswoman Valerie Rampi at the time pointing the finger at Russia.

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