NATO has expelled eight members of Russia’s mission to the alliance it said were “undeclared Russian intelligence officers”, a NATO official said, in a further deterioration of ties between western countries and Russia reminiscent of the Cold War.
The expulsion of the Russians was reported earlier by Britain’s Sky News, which said Moscow’s mission to the alliance headquarters in Brussels would be halved “in response to suspected malign Russian activities, including killings and espionage”.
NATO said on Wednesday that it had withdrawn the accreditation of eight members of the Russian mission and reduced to 10 the number of positions Moscow is able to accredit to NATO.
Sky News reported that NATO’s decision came after information was revealed in April about the fatal explosions at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that Prague says involved two Russian spies, who were also identified as allegedly implicated in the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.
Russia has long had an observer mission to NATO as part of the NATO-Russia Council founded 20 years ago that was meant to promote cooperation in common security areas, but it is not a member of the US-led alliance.
The Reuters news agency was not immediately able to confirm the reasons cited by Sky News for the reduction of the Russian delegation.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko accused NATO of duplicity and of using the idea of an alleged threat from Moscow as a bogeyman.
“The leaders of NATO yesterday spoke of the importance of de-escalating relations with Russia and spoke out in favour of a resumption in dialogue in the framework of the Russia-NATO Council,” Grushko told the Kommersant daily newspaper.
“If anyone believed in the sincerity of those statements then today they don’t. Their real worth is clear to all. After the dramatic end of the Afghan era, how can they can get by without the bogeyman of the ‘Russian threat.’ They can’t.”
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.
The West’s ties with Russia remain strained over a range of issues – from Ukraine to alleged Russian election meddling and the 2018 poisoning with a highly toxic nerve agent of Skripal and his daughter.
Since assuming office in January, US President Joe Biden has taken a much firmer tone with Russia than his predecessor Donald Trump and has pressed his European counterparts in the NATO alliance to take a similar approach.
The Interfax news agency cited Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s international affairs committee, as saying that Moscow would retaliate, but not necessarily in kind.
Slutsky was cited as saying that the position of Russia’s envoy to the European Union was currently vacant and that NATO’s move would damage dialogue between Moscow and the West.
“The collective West is continuing its policy of diplomatic confrontation with Russia,” Slutsky said.
Russia accuses NATO of provocatively expanding its military infrastructure closer to its borders.
The alliance says it is determined to reinforce the security of member states close to Russia in the wake of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Czech Republic-Russia blasts led to the mutual expulsion of dozens of EU and Russian diplomats and other embassy staff.