Tensions between the US, some European countries and Russia have been growing, but British Prime Minister Theresa May's accusation that Russia poisoned a former spy have brought them to a boil.

A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow on July 31.
A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow on July 31. (AFP)

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic moves as dozens of Russian diplomatic officials were expelled from the US, UK, and more than 20 other European countries following the March 4 nerve agent attack in the UK against Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. 

Several days after the attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats due to Russia’s alleged poisoning of the former spy, an act that was followed by the US, other EU countries and Canada as each expelled from a few to several dozen Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK. 

NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also said he would deny pending accreditation for seven of the Russian staff in the headquarters in Brussels, and would reduce the number of diplomats in Russia's mission would be limited to 20, instead of the current number of 30.

The US also imposed a new set of sanctions against the Kremlin.

Calling the attack an “indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom,” May said that the UK would not “tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

May, however, did not limit Russia’s alleged poisoning to this act, underlining that Britain saw this “against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” and that Britain was ready to take “much more extensive measures” against Russia than in the past.

In response, Russia also expelled British diplomats and also shut down the British Consulate in St Petersburg as the row between the two countries deepened, and has vowed to respond in kind to the countries that have taken such measures against Moscow.

While the expulsion of the diplomats has set off a new wave of tension and debates regarding Russia, the US, EU and NATO, these actions are the latest of similar brushes over the past few years as each of the big powers tries to project its influence along both historic and new lines.

“It is a clear indication that relations between Russia and the West are going worse,” said Tarik Oguzlu, who is a professor at the international relationships department at Antalya Bilim University. 

“The West is not happy with the foreign policy of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, regarding the Ukraine crisis, the Syrian conflict, and alleged Russian involvement in foreign elections,” he said.

'Blurred lines'

Some officials in the UK made a call to stay away from “hasty judgments” that could lead to a “new Cold War,” and on the same day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that NATO did not want a new Cold War. 

In the same speech, he listed Russia’s behaviour, namely one that “blur[red] the line between peace, crisis and war” as one of the challenges facing NATO. Listing several areas where Russia was active or involved, like Crimea, Georgia, Montenegro, Moldova and the Middle East, Stoltenberg also mentioned how NATO “strengthened [its] forward presence in the Black Sea region … Increased [its] resilience against hybrid warfare”, strengthened cyberdefences, began training in Iraq, increased co-operation with the EU to “unprecedented levels” and “welcomed Montenegro at the 29th member of the alliance.”

Some critics compared the latest incidents between Russia and the NATO bloc to Cold War era, while some others said the two periods had different characteristics.

“While the recent tension between a significant number of NATO members and Russia is very serious, it is not comparable to the Cold War era when there were two camps with competing ideologies which kept each other in check through the concept of mutually assured destruction,” said Ozgur Uluhisarcikli, Ankara Office Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. 

“Russia wants to be taken more seriously by the West, wants to play a bigger role in global politics and is increasing its military capacity towards this end, but it is still not the superpower which the Soviet Union was,” he said. 

Other areas of dispute 

As several countries in the Balkans like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro make preparations for EU accession, Bosnian magazine Zurnal revealed in January that mercenaries with links to the Kremlin were training Serbian militias in Bosnia, posing a threat to the fragile peace that came in 1995 after four years of war between Serbians, Bosnians and Croatians.

Ukraine

The conflict in eastern Ukraine began less than two months after Ukraine ousted its Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in April 2014. 

Moscow responded by annexing Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and then allegedly plotting the eastern insurgency to keep Ukraine under its thumb after its tilt toward the West.

The Minsk agreement was signed by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to take measures for appeasing the ongoing war in the region of Ukraine on February 11, 2015.

The peace deal helped reduce the scope of hostilities, but clashes have continued, which have so far claimed more than 10,000 lives. 

Western countries accused Russia of funnelling troops and arms across the border. Moscow has denied the accusations. 

However, it didn’t stop the US from imposing sanctions economic sanctions on Russian citizens and entities. 

The US has provided weaponry and economic aid to Ukraine against Russia since the beginning of the conflict. 

In 2015, NATO made a similar move after the annexation of Crimea and reduced the size of Russian mission from 60 to 30. 

Syria

The US at first supported moderate opposition groups in a bid to bring down regime leader Assad. But as its attention switched to bringing Daesh down as it grew in power in Syria, it began to support the YPG whom the US said was the most effective fighting force in Syria against Daesh. 

Russia, on the other hand, has supported Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, which is one of the main reasons why Assad has survived the uprising.

Russia and the US have since avoided direct clashes, but there have been close calls.

A US military spokesman once said there was little chance that the US and Russia would be in direct conflict in Syria. 

"Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” said US Colonel Ryan Dillon, after reports that US forces had killed Russia mercenaries. 

However, at the beginning of February, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces attacked a prominent US military base in Deir Ezzor. Among those forces were Russian mercenaries, a fact both the US and Russia have acknowledged. 

Since January, a number of Russia-backed regime soldiers were reportedly killed in US-led coalition air raids.

Source: TRT World