- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2021

The Kremlin on Monday said it will suspend operations of a key NATO military liaison mission and will revoke the credentials of NATO officers working in Moscow, marking the latest sign of a rapidly deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West.

The announcement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov comes just two weeks after NATO expelled a group of Russian diplomats from the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. NATO said the Russian officials actually were undeclared intelligence agents, though Moscow denied that charge.

The timing of Monday’s announcement from the Kremlin appears intentional. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is visiting neighboring Georgia and Ukraine this week to bolster those countries’ security ties with Washington.

Mr. Lavrov’s comments came at roughly the same time Mr. Austin appeared alongside Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze, where the two discussed a new memorandum of understanding to deepen military cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia in the face of Russian aggression.

Russia, meanwhile, said its decision is a direct response to NATO moves earlier this month.

“In response to NATO‘s actions, we are suspending the activity of the NATO military liaison mission in Moscow and will recall the accreditation of its staff from Nov. 1 this year,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to Russia‘s state-run TASS News Agency.

The NATO liaison mission in Moscow was headquartered at the Belgian embassy. The office is meant to keep open military channels of communication between the two sides to help avoid miscalculation and inadvertent conflict.

With the office now suspended, direct communication between Russia and NATO will be more difficult.

“If NATO has some urgent matters, it may contact our ambassador in Belgium on these issues,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Monday’s move will come as little surprise to NATO officials who have warned that relations between the alliance and Russia are rapidly deteriorating amid clashes on issues ranging from energy policy and Belarus to military buildups on both sides of Russia‘s western border with Europe.

“We have to realize the relationship between NATO, the trans-Atlantic family, and Russia is at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a speech at Georgetown University earlier this month.

Also Monday morning, Mr. Austin blasted Russia‘s continued military support of separatist enclaves inside Georgia, which began with Moscow‘s brief 2008 border war with its much smaller neighbor.

“The United States condemns Russia‘s ongoing occupation of Georgia and its attempts to expand influence into the Black Sea region through military coercion and malign activities,” Mr. Austin said during his meeting with Georgian defense officials. “It is an important region and security and stability are crucial to fully realize the vision that we share of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.”

Mr. Austin also said over the weekend that there is an “open door” to NATO membership for both Georgia and Ukraine — another statement that surely rankled Moscow, which vehemently opposes its neighbors joining the alliance. Mr. Austin will travel to Kyiv later in his trip for talks.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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