NATO has expelled eight Russian diplomats over espionage allegations, with Moscow lambasting the extraordinary decision for undermining efforts to normalize ties between the US-led military alliance and the Kremlin.
In a press conference on Thursday, NATO head Jens Stoltenberg announced that the military alliance withdrew the accreditation of eight Russian officials to the organization in response to what he claimed a rise in “malign activities” by Moscow.
“This decision is not linked to any particular event, but we have seen over some time now an increase in Russian malign activity, and therefore we need to be vigilant,” he said.
“The relationship between NATO and Russia is at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War. That’s because of the Russian behavior. We have seen their aggressive actions, not least against Ukraine, but also the significant military buildup and violations of important arms control agreements,” Stoltenberg went on to say.
He also noted that the expulsion of the Russian diplomats, who were operating as representatives for Russia’s Mission to NATO, “was done based on intelligence, was done because these are undeclared Russian intelligence officers.”
The NATO chief said the US-led alliance must act when Russian delegation members “conduct activities which not in line with their accreditation.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denounced the provocative expulsion.
"There is an obvious inconsistency in statements by NATO representatives about their desire to normalize relations with our country and in their actual actions,” he told reporters.
Peskov said NATO's actions did not suggest relations could be normalized and dialog resumed. “In fact, these prospects are almost completely undermined,” he said.
An unnamed NATO official was quoted as saying Wednesday that the decision was made “in response to suspected malign Russian activities, including killings and espionage.”
The official said the move would halve the size of the Russian mission to NATO in Brussels, where the alliance is headquartered, and that the expelled Russian diplomats “were undeclared Russian intelligence officers.”
"We can also confirm that we have reduced the number of positions which the Russian Federation can accredit to NATO to 10,” the official added.
The move can further reduce the capacity for communication between NATO and the Kremlin and further deteriorate the already strained ties between the two sides.
The eight Russian diplomats were expected to leave the Belgian capital by the end of the month. Two other positions, which are currently vacant, would also be abolished.
It is the first time that NATO has taken such an extraordinary action against Moscow since the alliance expelled seven Russian diplomats from the mission in the aftermath of Salisbury alleged spy poisonings in the United Kingdom in 2018.
Following the report of the expulsions on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko slammed NATO's duplicity and use of an alleged threat from Moscow as a bogeyman for its own purposes.
"The leaders of NATO yesterday spoke of the importance of de-escalating relations with Russia and spoke out in favor of resumption in dialog in the framework of the Russia-NATO Council,” he 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,” Grushko said.
Leonid Slutsky, head of Russia’s lower house of parliament's international affairs committee, said Moscow would retaliate against NATO's decision but not necessarily in kind.
Russia has repeatedly protested NATO’s provocative expansion of military infrastructure closer to its borders.