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Russia and the West have a very bad day

NATO-Russia relations are further damaged amid spy accusations and a Russian treaty with separatist regions.

A soldier marches past a board during a graduation ceremony at the military training center Krtsanisi outside Tbilisi Jan. 23, 2009. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

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.