The latest spat between Russia and NATO is symbolic, not significant

After NATO's expulsion of 8 Russian 'spies', Moscow retaliated with the closing down of the permanent mission to NATO in the Russian capital. How bad is that? According to our columnist Mark Galeotti Moscow does not believe that multinational agencies have any real importance. It prefers bilateral contacts, like the talks between Putin and Biden. Nobody is looking for a grand 'reset' at the moment.  

lavrov nato suspensionAccording to Russian minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov 'NATO is neither interested in an equal dialogue nor in cooperation'. (picture Russian Foreign Ministry)

by Mark Galeotti

Following the alliance’s decision on 6 October to expel eight members of the Russian mission to NATO on charges of being ‘undeclared Russian intelligence officers,’ on 18 October the Kremlin retaliated. It is closing down what is – in context, ironically – known as the permanent mission to NATO while revoking the accreditation of the staff at NATO’s military mission in Moscow and closing its information office there, too. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made no attempt to hide the linkage, asserting that it had become clear that ‘NATO is not interested in equitable dialogue and joint work,’ and ‘if that's the case, then we don't see the need to keep pretending that changes in the foreseeable future are possible.’

Of course, this does not mean no contact will be possible in the future, but NATO will now have to communicate via the Russian ambassador in Brussels. Nonetheless, it would seem to constrict the channels of communication, at a time when relations are poor, points of contention many, and the scope for mutual misunderstanding considerable.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter all that much?

The limits of the Russia-NATO relationship

The presence of a Russian delegation to NATO and NATO offices in Moscow were essentially products of the 1990s. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security was, depending on whom you ask, either a ground-breaking act of outreach to an old enemy or a cynical sop to placate Moscow as the alliance moved towards enlargement eastward.

This created the Permanent Joint Council (again, there seems to be a tendency to tempt fate with these titles), which in 2002 was replaced by the NATO-Russia Council. Meanwhile, the NATO Information Office in Moscow had been established in 2000, followed in 2002 by the Military Liaison Mission Moscow. Of course, in the 2000s, Moscow and NATO had a complex and sometimes ambiguous relationship, but despite early talk of cooperation, especially in the ‘Global War on Terror,’ it quickly became tense, even hostile, culminating in Putin’s 2007 Munich speech in which he characterised the USA as seeking ‘unipolar’ hegemony and ‘plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.’

The debate over whether any kind of promises were made that NATO would not expand has become a kind of political and academic theology. To be sure, no formal, paper guarantees were made. However, the crucial point is that – rightly or wrongly, in this respect it doesn’t matter – many in Moscow believe they were misled, and that NATO’s continued existence is at best a sign of Russia’s ‘othering,’ at worse an actual threat.

Furthermore, as the European Union has discovered to its cost, Moscow does not really believe that multinational agencies have any real importance. Instead, they are considered arenas for national rivalry, or instruments of hegemony. That NATO is essentially the USA’s Warsaw Pact is an article of faith among many, if not most of those in Putin’s circle.

In this context, it is legitimate to wonder just how big a deal these latest moves really are. How far did Russia-NATO connections really add anything substantively different to the diplomatic process than existing bilateral links? Certainly the information office in Moscow has faced growing pressure that has had a major impact on its capacity to do its job there, and arguably became a source of friction more than mutual understanding.

If we presume that those eight Russians were indeed spies (NATO hasn’t presented any evidence or linked the expulsion to particular breaches), given that diplomatic missions are everyone’s favoured cover for intelligence officers and if the mission isn’t doing any real good, why wouldn’t Moscow place spies there?

Reality vs Symbolism

In other words, the question is whether this is about real politics, and how far it matters mainly as a symbol of wider tensions. Of course, in these fraught and fractious times, it is presumably the case that more diplomatic connections are better than fewer. But really, better better connections. In other words, the quantity is much less important than the quality, and the former doesn’t necessary guarantee the latter.

This NATO spat should not, after all, detract from the more important relationships which, for Moscow, are undoubtedly bilateral. The Putin-Biden Geneva Summit was important in unlocking future connections – it is easy to deride ‘talks about talks,’ but they are a necessary first step when no one is talking meaningfully about anything.

US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has, for example, just visited Moscow for two days of talks with senior Russian officials including Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak (currently ‘curator’ of the Donbas conflict), senior presidential aide for foreign affairs Yuri Ushakov, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Meanwhile, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his staff continue to maintain contact with their effective counterparts, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and his secretariat.

The aim is not some grand and quixotic ‘reset’, unlike past US administrations and would-be global powerbrokers such as France’s Emmanuel Macron. There will be no great coming together, no tearful final-reel reconciliation. This is not a film. Rather, the mundane and granular work of diplomacy, of finding specific issues in which there are common interests, and building on them. At worst, a few specific problems are addressed; at best, piece-by-piece the foundation for greater cooperation and even trust can be built, something that would take years of patient, two-steps-forward-one-back engagement, not a few quick initiatives.

In this context, then the latest spat over NATO can be considered no great issue. It is regrettable, in the way that every such clash is, but given the alliance’s decision to expel almost half the Russian delegation on pretty vague grounds – would the West be happy if Moscow expelled every diplomat whom they suspected of being an intelligence officer working under diplomatic cover? – then a Kremlin response was pretty much inevitable.

At the same time, though, there are hints of potential progress on the staffing of the US and British embassies in Moscow and, presumably, their counterparts in London and DC, which would undoubtedly lead to a greater breadth of depth of meaningful contacts. Furthermore, given that – whatever the Kremlin may think – NATO is not simply Washington’s European governorate but instead does represent to greater or lesser extents the views of its 29 members, by de-emphasising its role, this may help reduce some of the confusions and cacophony that can get in the way of communicating a clear and unambiguous message.

We therefore need to look beyond the immediate assumptions and emotive responses. The Russia-NATO relationship was, in many ways, the appendix in East-West diplomacy, an organ which may perform some useful service, but which is often prone to inflammation and can be removed without serious harm. In this context, the present (un)diplomatic spat may be petty and unhelpful, but really just epitomises more than exacerbates the underlying crisis.

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