Do escalating tensions spell the end for the NATO-Russia Council?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 20 Oct 2021

The NATO-Russia Council has been an opportunity to keep communication open since the 1990s, but recently both sides expelled their diplomats deepening the rift.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dec. 4, 2013. ( Virginia Mayo / AP Archive )

Political tensions between Russia and NATO have increased as both sides expel diplomats in Brussels and Moscow, who ironically, were there to coordinate better communication between the two sides. 

Prior to the recent tit for tat, both Russian and NATO diplomats worked under the NATO-Russia Council, a post-Cold War organisation to track relations and differences between the two political camps. 

The confrontation is not surprising as NATO and Russia are not exactly friendly entities and have been at loggerheads over various issues from the Ukraine crisis to the Syrian conflict. 

“NATO-Russia Council was established to address political conflicts rooted in the Cold War. This platform has been used to address those conflicts until the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based political analyst on Eurasia. 

Since the annexation of Crimea, which was part of Ukrainian territory, Russia-NATO relations have worsened in parallel to the Ukrainian crisis. After double-agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Britain in 2018, things got much worse as both sides ratcheted up accusations, bringing relations to a historic low.

On October 6, when NATO refused to renew the accreditation of eight Russian diplomats deployed to NATO’s headquarters in Brussels on the grounds that they are “undeclared intelligence officers”, it was clear that ties had hit rock bottom. 

Two weeks after that, the Russian foreign ministry announced that Moscow’s permanent mission in NATO will be shuttered, withdrawing the rest of its delegation from the Western alliance’s headquarters. Russia also shuttered NATO’s office in Moscow. 

“Russia shows that it will not be deterred by NATO measures like expelling its diplomats from Brussels. In his recent press conference, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov used an analogy of tango saying that it is a two-sided dance, as a result, if NATO does not want to play it that way, Moscow will also not do it,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World

It also means that Russia will go its own way against NATO threats - be it in Ukraine or other places - according to the Moscow-based analyst. 

NATO-Russia Council

Since the end of the Cold War, Moscow and the transatlantic alliance have kept channels of dialogue open by creating a political framework in 1997 to coordinate ties. The next year, both countries deployed their respective diplomats to Brussels and Moscow.

In 2002, this framework became the NATO-Russia Council. But the recent tit for tat shows that an important channel of dialogue will likely not function as it used to. In the absence of diplomats, the council might lose its political merit. 

The NATO-Russia Council was termed “pointless” by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his meeting with Jens Stoltenberg in New York in September 2021, according to TRT World sources. Lavrov speaks during a past council meeting in Brussels.(AP Archive)

But Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat to Azerbaijan and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes that “Russia is not interested in any dialogue with NATO in Brussels. It’s interested in intelligence operations.” 

As a result, alongside other reasons like the recent dispute between NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the alliance decided to send Moscow’s diplomats home, Bryza tells TRT World. The NATO-Russia Council was termed “pointless” by Lavrov during his meeting with Stoltenberg in New York last month on the margins of the UN general assembly, according to Bryza. 

“It’s clear that Russia does not have any real interest in maintaining the facade of a positive official relationship between Russia and NATO,” the former diplomat said. But relations between the two sides will continue through other channels as Lavrov also stated, Bryza says. 

Russia’s closure of the NATO liaison office in Moscow is not a big deal to the US, according to Bryza. It’s “symbolic” in its nature, and a “political gesture”.

Russian thinking

Yalinkilicli thinks that NATO’s pressure over Russia on a number of issues from Ukraine to Syria has not produced concrete results, aside from deteriorating relations and undermining structures like the NATO-Russia Council. 

“NATO could not do anything when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine like Moscow’s operation to Georgia back in 2008. Western sanctions on Russia are also not effective in changing Moscow’s political positions, even making the country’s establishment more hawkish,” Yalinkilıcli observes. 

“Russia acts in a way which says that ‘if hard power is the ultimate decider of international relations, my hard power is more omnipotent than yours’. In its international policy, Russia relies on its military power more than anything else,” the analyst views.

A member of Russia's FSB security service escorts a detained Ukrainian navy sailor (R) before a court hearing in Simferopol, Crimea November 27, 2018.(Reuters)

“In order to retake Crimea from Russia, NATO needs to dare for a possible WWIII, which is a risk Moscow believes the Western alliance cannot take it at all,” Yalinkilicli says. 

Lavrov’s reaction to NATO’s expulsion of the country’s diplomats also shows that it doesn’t bother Moscow.

“If NATO has any urgent affairs, they might address our ambassador to Belgium on those matters,” Lavrov said Monday, signalling that Moscow’s NATO office was one of several communication channels and if NATO wants to communicate with Russia, there are still other channels for doing that. 

Moscow has long been nervous about NATO's eastern flank activities and its expansion across Russian borders. Also the Russian political elite believes that NATO’s continuing expansion is a continuation of the American containment policy against Moscow. 

As a result, the Russian establishment interprets the US-led alliance’s expansion as aggression despite the fact that Russia dismantled the Warsaw Pact, a communist alliance, at the end of the Cold War. 

American thinking

On the other hand, the Americans believe that in the last two decades, Russia has been the aggressor from Georgia to Ukraine because of President Vladimir Putin’s desire to maintain power domestically. 

“He needs to show Russian voters that he’s restoring Russia’s greatness, leading to Russian involvement, for example, in Syria, keeping Bashar al Assad regime alive,” says Bryza. 

“Those sort of actions show the Russian people that Russia is a regional power as the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea show,” Bryza says. 

But after the annexation of Crimea, NATO and the European Union decided to act against Russia, imposing sanctions on Moscow and deploying forces in three Baltic states and Poland along the Russian border for the first time ever, to deter Moscow from taking any actions against NATO allies, Bryza says. 

“Russian military doctrine states openly that the US and its allies are enemies of Russia,” keeping Moscow in a constant state of “hybrid warfare against NATO” according to Bryza. 

But NATO will not escalate tensions further, he adds.