MOSCOW — It was meant to be a day of fresh starts, as officials from Russia and NATO sat down for their first formal talks since breaking off relations last summer in the midst of the Georgia war.
Instead, NATO expelled two top Russian diplomats after accusing them of spying and Russia signed a treaty strengthening its ties with the separatist regions at the center of the controversial war. Are Russia’s relations with the West doomed to fail?
The expulsion on Wednesday of two high-ranking members of Russia’s permanent mission to NATO prompted a harsh response from Moscow, with the foreign ministry calling the move a “crude provocation.”
“This outrageous action basically runs counter to statements by NATO’s leadership on its readiness to normalize ties with Russia,” the ministry said in a statement Thursday.
NATO expelled the two men — identified as political desk chief Viktor Kochukov and attache Vasily Chizhov, the son of Moscow’s ambassador to the EU — after accusing them of working as undercover intelligence agents. Russia denied the charge.
In Brussels, it is understood the move was designed to punish Russia for its involvement in a massive spy affair that unfolded last year. Herman Simm, a top official in the Estonian defense ministry, was arrested in September on suspicion of passing NATO secrets to Russia. An Estonian court convicted him of treason in February, and it is believed the affair seriously compromised NATO security. Kochukov and Chizhov are not said to have been directly involved in the case, but their expulsion will serve to punish Russia for its role in one of the largest spy scandals in the military alliance’s history.
Russia promised its response to the expulsions would be “harsh and decisive.” “We urge all NATO members to think of the consequences of what is happening,” the foreign ministry statement said.
As events were unfolding in Brussels — where Russia’s envoy to NATO, nationalist politician Dmitry Rogozin, met with ambassadors from the alliance’s 28 member states for the first time since relations were frozen in August — Russia took its own steps towards ensuring a deterioration of relations with the West.
President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday welcomed the presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s two separatist regions, and signed a treaty that gives Moscow control over the republics’ borders with Georgia.
The treaty essentially formalizes the presence of thousands of Russian troops who have lined the republics’ borders since the five-day war with Georgia in August, and allows Moscow to patrol the strategic waters off Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast.
The U.S. State Department said the treaty violated the terms of the cease-fire that ended the war.
Russia says it invaded Georgia to repel a military attack ordered by Tbilisi on South Ossetia. After the war, it recognized the independence of the two republics, but that move has been followed by no country except Nicaragua.
“The action contravenes Russia’s commitments under the Aug. 12 ceasefire,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a statement. He said the U.S. was expressing “serious concern” and that the move “violates Georgia's territorial integrity.”
So why all the fuss now?
Some analysts say the timing of the deal was meant to coincide with NATO exercises in Georgia due to start next week.
Russia has demanded NATO cancel the exercises. “The planned NATO exercises are provocative, no matter how hard our western partners try to persuade us of the opposite," Medvedev said Thursday after signing the border deal.
Russia views negatively any western inroads into what it sees as its backyard, and a central pillar of its foreign policy in recent years has been ensuring that Ukraine and Georgia, both of whom hope to join NATO, remain outside of the military alliance.
Sergei Markov, a deputy in the State Duma who is very close to the Kremlin, said relations with NATO would only improve if the military alliance undergoes a radical transformation.
“NATO has lost its mind, they want another Crimean war,” Markov said in a telephone interview. “We think we ended the Cold War and forewent communism for democracy. NATO thinks they won the Cold War and should relate to us as victors.”
“They suffer from an intense psychological complex of Russophobia,” he said.
While the U.S. and Russia work to “reset” relations, it looks like a similar path with NATO will be difficult to achieve, as Moscow continues to view the alliance in its historical anti-Soviet framework.
More GlobalPost dispatches on Russia: