An unusual scandal is developing out of Brussels, where NATO headquarters is located, after officials there have confirmed the military alliance has withdrawn the credentials of eight members of Russia's mission to NATO.
Crucially and in a statement that quickly drew Russian fury and rebuke, the NATO statement deemed that the eight Russian diplomats are in actuality "undeclared Russian intelligence officers," as cited in Reuters.
Communications between the Kremlin and NATO had already been limited and severely strained since Ukraine events of 2015 and Russia's acquiring Crimea, which the West has deemed a 'hostile annexation'. It also follows a couple years of European countries expelling alleged Russian intelligence officers as well as military members.
"We can confirm that we have withdrawn the accreditation of eight members of the Russian Mission to NATO, who were undeclared Russian intelligence officers," the NATO statement said. "We can also confirm that we have reduced the number of positions which the Russian Federation can accredit to NATO [from 20] to 10."
The NATO official said further: "NATO’s policy towards Russia remains consistent. We have strengthened our deterrence and defense in response to Russia’s aggressive actions, while at the same time we remain open for a meaningful dialogue."
Russian officials responded swiftly on Wednesday with their own threats of escalation. The head of the country's lower house of parliament's international affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, was cited in Interfax as strongly suggesting the Kremlin would go beyond a mere equivalent reponse.
The senior lawmaker said "Russia will retaliate, and not necessarily in a symmetrical way."
Western officials and pundits have long accused Russia of merely using the NATO diplomatic mission as a 'spy shop' in the heart of Europe...
In the past, some were literally no-shows, accredited to represent Moscow at NATO but running around Brussels engaged in activities "inconsonant with their diplomatic status," as the saying goes.— Zach Dorfman (@zachsdorfman) October 6, 2021
The last time NATO undertook such a dramatic punitive move was in 2018 in response to the Skripal poisoning affair. Brussels had quickly expelled seven diplomats from the Russian mission at the time.
High level contacts at the NATO-Russia Council also appear to have stalled altogether, given the body hasn't convened in nearly two years. "NATO proposed to hold another meeting of the NATO-Russia Council over 18 months ago, and that proposal stands. The ball is in Russia’s court,” the previously cited NATO official said. Often the council would be setting for tense exchanges and accusations, however, at least to two sides were still talking - something seen as key to preventing escalation leading to inadvertent future conflict.