NATO and Russia, are we approaching the point of no return?

Diplomatic relations between Russia and NATO hit a new record low as Russia announces to suspend the work of its permanent mission to the Atlantic Alliance in Brussels and that of NATO diplomats in Moscow. Is this part of the usual ‘tit-for-tat’ or will it be game over?

As of November 1, 2021, Russia will suspend its permanent mission to NATO due to a lack of "proper conditions for basic diplomatic activities". Viceversa, diplomats of the Atlantic Alliance to the Military Liaison Mission and information office in Moscow will see their accreditation revoked. This was stated on Monday, October 18, by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, after having previously notified the international secretariat of the Alliance.

The Kremlin's decision comes in response to NATO's expulsion of eight Russian diplomats at the beginning of October, under the accusation of working as “undeclared intelligence officers”.

The news floored Minister Lavrov, given that a few days earlier he had had a meeting with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in New York, where the improvement of mutual relations was discussed.

On October 7, the day after NATO communication, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov affirmed that this is a sign of the dual and contradictory approach of the Alliance, which in words hopes for a normalization of relations with Russia, but in actions behaves differently.

On the same occasion, the spokesman said that Russia is disillusioned about future prospects, as they have been "completely undermined" by NATO's actions.

In fact, Peskov himself called next month's cut-off of diplomatic relations with NATO a mere formal legalization of an already existing situation.

In any case, it is not excluded that the action taken by the Kremlin might also depend on the journey undertaken in Eastern Europe by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this very week. Indeed, among the stops of this trip were Georgia and Ukraine, countries who aspire to become NATO members and have long shown a desire to move sharply away from the Russian sphere of influence.

The defense secretary stated that the doors of the Alliance are open for both, but Moscow’s strong historical interest in these countries is well known.

Austin's words have alarmed the international community, mindful of Peskov's recent statements on French TV: for the Kremlin's spokesman, the access of Ukraine to NATO would represent a "red line" that would force Russia to take "active measures to ensure its own security".

What bothered Moscow most of all were the exercises of Western troops held along its border, which were only then followed, in Peskov's words, by the deployment of Russian troops in the region.

Regarding the most recent developments, while Russia has given no sign of retracing its steps, NATO reaffirmed its willingness to remain open to dialogue, also within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council. However, we must recall that this Council had been created in 2002, in the blossoming of relations between the two, but has only met sporadically since 2014.

Indeed, while some 20 years ago, Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Bill Clinton discussed Russia's possible entry into NATO, the 2014 incorporation of the Crimean Peninsula into the territory of the Russian Federation led to the end of practical cooperation.

Moreover, in 2018, NATO has already reduced the number of Russian delegates within the country’s Mission, bringing it from 30 to 20, as an act of hostility following the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal.

Nevertheless, throughout these events, channels of dialogue had always remained open.

These days, instead, relations between the two sides have hit a new record low, and the question arises, "Is it the same old tit-for-tat, or this time it’s game over?"

If on the one hand this escalation of tensions between Russia and NATO raises concerns about the freezing of communications, optimists suggest that the Kremlin's maneuver of suspending the work of diplomatic offices at NATO, rather than eliminating them altogether, should be considered comforting. In support of this thesis there would also be Lavrov’s declarations, according to which, for urgent matters, NATO can always turn to the Russian Embassy in Brussels.

The implications of this situation remain to be seen. What is certain is that, if the Kremlin's intent was to send a message to the West, this time it has taken on an unprecedented form and vigor.

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