30th Nov 2021

Russia denigrates Nato by closing embassy

  • Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (Photo: CSIS)
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Russia has suspended its embassy to Nato citing a spy row, but some EU diplomats see it as part of a wider attack on multilateralism.

"As a result of Nato's deliberate moves, we have practically no conditions for elementary diplomatic work and in response to Nato's actions we suspend the work of our permanent mission to Nato, including the work of the chief military envoy, probably from 1 November," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday (18 October).

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A note on Russia's Nato-mission website said Russia would also close Nato's military-liaison and information offices in Moscow.

"The ambassador of the Russian Federation in the Kingdom of Belgium will be authorised ... to maintain emergency contacts. At the discretion of the alliance, one of the ambassadors of Nato-member countries in Moscow can perform similar functions," it added.

"Russia's harsh response ... effectively freezes Russia-Nato relations. The only channel of military-to-military communication remains the Russia-US one. Nato is out of the equation," Dmitri Trenin, a Russian former intelligence officer who now works for the Carnegie Europe think-tank in Moscow, also said.

The move came after Nato, some two weeks ago, cancelled the accreditation of eight Russian diplomats on grounds they were spies.

Its decision left 10 Russian diplomats dealing with Nato in Brussels, although Russia still has some 200 diplomats in Belgium working on the EU, bilateral affairs, and consular matters.

"We have taken note of minister Lavrov's comments to the media, however we have not received any official communication on the issues he raised," Nato spokeswoman Oana Lugnescu said.

"This decision ... will further prolong the difficult situation we're in [with Russia], this frosty period," German foreign minister Heiko Maas added in Luxembourg the same day.

"The world's gone mad", an EU diplomat also said.

But for other diplomats, the Russian move was part of a methodical attack on Western multilateralism, including the EU and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"The move is significant, as Russia is, after all, still Nato's biggest threat. If this was a move between two nation states, then cutting diplomatic ties is usually a prelude to war," another EU diplomat said.

But in this case, Russia's decision was aimed at denigrating Nato's importance, in order to force Berlin, Madrid, Paris, and Rome to deal with Moscow directly, making it easier for Russia to sow division in Europe, he added.

"Lavrov said Nato can deal with its Belgian ambassador [Alexander Tokovinin], not even its EU ambassador [Vladimir Chizhov] ... it's a bit like saying: 'If Nato wants to talk to us, it can call Mrs Krysia, who does the washing up in the ministry canteen'," he joked.

"It all plays into the current row between the EU and US over the US pivot to the Pacific, trying to show Europe that it needed 'strategic autonomy' and that Nato has become obsolete," he added.

Joking aside, the EU source said Russia's Nato decision was part of a wider pattern.

"It reminds me of when Lavrov said Russia should no longer deal with EU structures, shortly before he met [Josep] Borrell in Moscow in July, where he also belittled our foreign-affairs chief", the diplomat said.

OSCE attacked

At the same time, the OSCE was, last weekend, forced to suspend parts of its monitoring mission in east Ukraine.

It did so after Russia-controlled militants blockaded its staff at a hotel in the Russia-occupied town of Donetsk, also in an espionage row.

Ukraine had earlier captured a man it said was a Russian covert operative, with the Donetsk militants saying they would not back down until the suspect was freed.

"The detention of international observers by armed individuals is ... terrorism," the Ukrainian foreign ministry said.

"There are no acts of violence ... People express their resentment and, by the way, we understand them," Natalya Nikonorova, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed and Russia-controlled 'Donetsk People's Republic', said.

The OSCE did not comment, saying only that "patrolling from other ... locations continues as normal".

Russia, last month, also declined to extend the mandate of a separate OSCE mission observing border checkpoints on the contact line in Ukraine.

"It's all linked," the EU diplomat said.

"The West is firmly attached to international institutions and sees them as a way of constraining Russian behaviour, but Russia believes that by dismantling this architecture, it will have greater room for manoeuvre in Europe," he said.a

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