The expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the nation’s mission to NATO will surely put a damper in recent attempts to thaw relations. Yesterday’s confirmation of the action comes only one day after the first resumption of formal talks between NATO and Russian representatives since last summer’s war with Georgia. The talks were meant to ease tensions, but, so far, have only proved to escalate them.
According to the BBC, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, has revealed the identity of the two diplomats as Viktor Kochukov, a senior counselor at the Russian mission and the head of its political section, and Vasiliy Chizhov, a lower-level attache and the son of Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s envoy to the European Union.
Previous worries about Wednesday’s meeting had centered on differences concerning the military exercises planned by NATO for May 6 to June 1 in Georgia, as previously discussed in the New Atlanticist. The Deutsche Welle also explains: “Russia strongly opposes Georgia’s desire to join NATO and sees the anti-terrorism and peacekeeping exercises as a step in that direction.”
These concerns, however, were quickly overshadowed by the expulsion scandal.
NATO diplomats claim that the two men were undercover intelligence agents that are somehow connected to Estonian official Herman Simm. TheFinancial Times:
Herman Simm, the Estonian official, was convicted of treason in February and jailed for 12 years by an Estonian court for passing Nato and other defence and diplomatic secrets to Russia. Investigators called the case “the biggest spy scandal in Nato history”. Mr Simm, 61, handed over more than 2,000 pages of information to his Russian handlers, investigators found.
Simm was arrested last September and convicted of treason. The scandal was an embarrassment to the former Soviet-ruled NATO member. Interestingly, the Financial Times report concludes that, “The two expelled Russian diplomats were not directly involved in the Estonian spy affair. But Nato sources said the scandal had caused such damage to the alliance’s security that it had to deliver a hard response.”
The BBC, despite stating that NATO diplomats have claimed the two men were spies, reports that, “A Nato spokesman said he could not confirm the story because he could not comment on intelligence matters.”
While the NATO response to the expulsions has been somewhat cryptic, the Russian response has been more than clear. The BBC reports that Russia’s foreign ministry believes the move to be unjustified. The ministry continues: “A crude provocation has been made in relation to two employees of Russia’s permanent mission to Nato on an absolutely trumped up pretext without any clear explanation.” The report also quotes Mr. Rogozin’s forewarning: “There will be a response to such steps, which Nato will learn about shortly,” he warned, adding that “someone in the West strongly dislikes how relations between Russia and individual countries of Western Europe are developing.” The Deutsche Welle also captured the foreign ministry’s unhappiness: “This outrageous action fundamentally contradicts statements by NATO’s leadership on its readiness to normalize ties with Russia.” The Manchester Guardian also caught the language of Rogozin in an interaction with Russian news agency, Interfax: “They are being charged with espionage, which is incompatible with diplomatic status.” He continues to state that, “Nato officials should be aware that these diplomats were not involved in any activity incompatible with their professional status.” Rogozin found the accusations to be “invented, irresponsible, and provocative”, as well as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the recent thaw in relations ahead of a crucial meeting of the Nato-Russian council on 19 May.
Wednesday’s meeting was held under the framework of the NATO-Russia Council (NCR), which is meant to ease tensions between the two. With its resumption marked by the expulsions, however, it is once again clear that the road ahead is not going to be easy.
The Deutsche Welle recorded the high hopes of alliance spokesman James Appathurai for the meeting before it began: “The meeting opened with a shared view that the time has come to take the next step.” He continues to argue that, “There was a shared desire to focus on areas where we can be productive and not be backward looking”. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was also found to be in a positive mood, as reported in the same Deutsche Welle article: “The NATO-Russia Council is not a fair-weather body.” Scheffer continues: “But we also have a great number of issues, I think, where we can have a fruitful discussion. Let me mention Afghanistan. Let me mention the fight against terrorism.” Not surprisingly, the Secretary General did not mention espionage as an issue that could create fruitful discussion.
As more details emerge about the expulsions, and the Russians unveil their response as forewarned by Rogozin, we will see exactly how “fair-weather” of a body the NCR actually is. The formal resumption of meetings lasting only one day would certainly not be a good sign.
Valerie Nichols is a web editor at The Atlantic Council.