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NATO-Russia diplomacy at a new low

Teri Schultz
October 19, 2021

Dueling diplomatic downgrades by NATO and the Kremlin have brought relations to their lowest levels in recent memory. Teri Schultz looks at the implications for both sides.

A Russian national flag next to an empty chair and microphone
Russia's decision to suspend its permanent mission to NATO has removed a 'good avenue for communication'Image: Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Though high-level discussions between NATO and Russia have been few and far between in recent years, the Kremlin's announcement that it would shutter its mission to the alliance, force NATO military officials to leave Moscow and close the NATO Information Office (NIO) there still sent a chill through the already frosty channels.

Robert Pszczel was the last NATO diplomat posted to the Russian capital, and he left that post as the director of the NIO five years ago. The Kremlin had already cut off most communication with the NIO at that point but Pszczel still felt it was important to have a presence in Moscow. "We could show them that we don't eat children for breakfast, you know?" he laughed.

Currently a senior fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation in his native Poland, Pszczel told DW he now agreed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that there's an "absence of the necessary conditions for conducting diplomatic activities." 

Though Lavrov blames that on "NATO's deliberate steps" in expelling eight members of the Russian delegation accused of being intelligence agents, Pszczel said it had to do with the ways in which Russia engages the world.

Former NATO diplomat Robert Pszczel
Pszczel said relations with NATO 'would only change if Russia changes its policy'Image: NIDS/NATO

"There are extremely worrying developments almost every week," he said, with Moscow becoming "more and more aggressive, more provocative externally." He added that relations with NATO "would only change if Russia changes its policy — but that's just not happening."

Just switching channels?

Practical cooperation between NATO and Russia was cut off in 2014, after Moscow illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, so the "two sides haven't really been talking to each other very much, certainly not at the working level," Jamie Shea, who retired as NATO's deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges in 2018, told DW. Now with the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, Shea said he saw Russia's maneuver as "more symbolic than real" especially because the Kremlin suspended the diplomatic office and didn't completely eliminate it.

Shea said there was no mention of cutting off the "hotline" between NATO's top military commander, General Tod Wolters, and the head of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. However, the last time NATO reports that the two men spoke was April 2020, with the last face-to-face meeting two months earlier.

Still, Shea said, there's no reason to "make a mountain out of a molehill" following the latest announcement. "It's not as if Russian officials will never meet with a NATO official — that clearly isn't true," he said. "And Russia will continue to have a bilateral embassy in Belgium with a military attache, so if NATO and Russia wanted to use that channel, it's there."

Shea said NATO allies all had military attaches in Moscow who can conduct dialogue as well, so "it's not as if the Russian decision today totally freezes diplomatic relations with the NATO countries."

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Tod Wolters meets Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov
The last time NATO's top commander, General Tod Wolters, met Russia's General Valery Gerasimov was in February 2020Image: NATO

Communication cutoff

Not everyone is so nonchalant about the changes. One of Shea's former NATO colleagues, William Alberque, said the Russian decision to expel the three NATO military representatives in the Military Liaison Mission removes a "good avenue for communication, for risk reduction, prevention of misunderstandings."

Alberque, who is now the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program, said there was a "daily tempo of people calling each other, just knowing that you have someone at the other end of that phone that is valuable, even if none of that information ever reaches headlines."

Though the decision was surely meant as a "stinging political rebuke to NATO's actions" in expelling the suspected spies, Alberque said it was likely the Kremlin that would suffer the biggest consequences. "Practically speaking," he said, "it's cutting off their nose to spite their face." Having Russian-speaking NATO officers in Moscow, he said, had been an assurance for Moscow above all.

Justyna Gotkowska, coordinator of the Regional Security Program at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies, told DW that the Kremlin could be trying to send a broader political message with its decision — aimed not just at NATO but also at Berlin and the ongoing negotiations to form a new German government.

"With this move Russia counts on influencing the political elites in Germany and in Europe that are confined to an idea of a dialogue with Russia as a necessity to maintain peace in Europe," said Gotkowska. "The goal is to present offers of a deeper dialogue with Russia, both on a bilateral track [with Germany] and in NATO" as it develops its next Strategic Concept, planned for 2022. She doubts, however, that this calculation will be successful.

Maas: 'This will seriously damage relations'

Whatever the goals of Russia's retaliation, Robert Pszczel thinks back a bit wistfully on better days in the life of the NATO Information Office, two decades old as it goes into deep freeze. "A lot of time was spent explaining what NATO is not and is not doing," he chuckled, "but also, when the times were better, to try to promote we have been doing together when there was cooperation, to try to stimulate discussion and dialogue and bring in young people in particular.

"I'm not saying that one was able to convince everybody," he said, "but one could clearly see that there was a genuine sort of interest in pursuing this further." Pszczel said there was a time when both sides were hopeful about improved relations, but he can't guess when or even if that will be the case again.