Nato chief says move sends ‘clear and very strong message that there is a cost to Russia’s reckless actions’
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Nato has announced it is cutting the size of its Russian mission by a third, removing accreditation from seven Russian staff and rejecting three other pending applications.
The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the permanent size of the Russian mission would be cut from 30 to 20 people, adding the announcement was “a clear and very strong message that that there was a cost to Russia’s reckless actions” in poisoning the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury earlier this month.
He claimed Russia had underestimated Nato’s resolve and said the announcements would reduce Russia’s capability to do intelligence work across Nato.
The move came after more than 20 western allies ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack in the UK, in a show of solidarity that represents the biggest concerted blow to Russian intelligence networks in the west since the cold war.
Speaking in Brussels at the end of consultations with Nato allies on Tuesday, Stoltenberg added that he did not think Russia had expected the west to show such resolve, pointing to the increased Nato military presence on the Russia border, higher defence spending and continued sanctions for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
He said the Nato response was aimed not just at the poisoning in Salisbury, the first use of a nerve agent on Nato territory, but a response to a broader pattern of unacceptable and illegal behaviour.
Earlier on Tuesday the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed America had used “colossal blackmail” to force European and other western powers to expel Russian diplomats, and promised Moscow would respond harshly to the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats worldwide.
Speaking at a conference on Afghanistan in Tashkent, Lavrov said: “When one or two diplomats are asked to leave this or that country, with apologies being whispered into our ears, we know for certain that this is a result of colossal pressure and colossal blackmail, which is Washington’s chief instrument in the international scene.”
Briefing the UK cabinet on Tuesday, the British prime minister, Theresa May, reported that 23 countries had expelled more than 115 Russian intelligence diplomats. She told her cabinet colleagues this represented an unprecedented series of expulsions that has demonstrated to the Kremlin that we will not tolerate their attempts to flout international law, undermine our values or threaten our security.”
She added allies were not only taking these actions out of solidarity with the UK but also because they recognised the threat that these Russian networks pose to the security of their own countries and the pattern of aggression that had affected every country.
Only a handful of EU countries including Austria, Portugal, Greece and Malta, have declined to take any steps. Many countries have confined themselves to a tokenistic expulsion of a single diplomat, a move designed to register support for the UK, as opposed to disruption of the Russian state.
Britain is now waiting to see if other states follow May’s example and announce they will not be sending official delegations, as opposed to sporting teams, to the World Cup in Russia this summer. British officials acknowledge that public opinion in many countries, notably Germany, is not hostile to Russia, and there is a strict political limit to the sanctions the EU collectively is willing to take.