Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on October 7 that NATO decided to expel eight Russians accredited to the alliance in response to a surge in Moscow's "malign activities," as the Kremlin warned the decision undermined "almost completely" any hope for improving relations.
NATO announced on October 6 that the Russian officials are to be deprived of access to the organization’s Brussels headquarters from the end of the month, saying they were undeclared members of Russia's intelligence services. NATO also halved the number of positions that Russia can accredit from 20 down to 10.
“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,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
Relations between the alliance and Moscow are currently at the “lowest point since the end of the Cold War…because of the Russian behavior,” he said, citing Russia’s “aggressive actions” against Ukraine and its “significant military buildup and violations of important arms control agreements.”
Official contacts between NATO and Russia have been limited since Moscow forcibly annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and stoked conflict in eastern Ukraine -- a deadly war that continues to this day.
The 30-member Western alliance is also concerned over Russia's nuclear missile development, aerial intrusions into NATO airspace, and the buzzing of allied ships by Russian fighter planes.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on October 7 accused NATO of duplicity and said hopes for better relations were almost totally compromised.
"There is an obvious contradiction in the statements of NATO representatives about the desire to normalize relations with our country in real action,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
“These actions, of course, do not allow us to have any illusions about the possibility of normalizing relations, or resuming dialogue with NATO," he said. “On the contrary, these prospects are almost completely undermined.”
The main forum for dialogue between the two sides, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), is stalled, having met only sporadically since 2014.
NATO invited Russia to take part in an NCR meeting more than 18 months ago, but Stoltenberg said Moscow has declined to take up the offer.
The move, which was apparently agreed on October 5 by all 30 alliance members, is reported to have come after revelations emerged in April about suspected Russian involvement in a deadly explosion at an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic, an alliance member, in 2014.
The expulsion was the second of its sort in recent years. In 2018, seven Russian diplomats were kicked out following the poisoning of former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in England.
At the time, NATO also reduced the size of the Russian mission to 20 from 30 people.