On Wednesday, April 29, on the same day that NATO and Russia formally resumed contacts since they were broken off eight months ago in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war, the accreditation of two diplomats from Russia's 50-member strong Permanent Mission to NATO was revoked and they were ordered to leave Brussels. The expulsion of Russian diplomats - senior adviser and political desk chief Viktor N. Kochukov and attaché and executive secretary Vasily V. Chizhov - was in retaliation for the spy scandal involving a high-ranking Estonian defense and intelligence official Herman Simm. Mr. Simm, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in February, was arrested last year for passing 2,000 pages of classified information to Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
It appears that Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin was personally informed about the expulsion of two Russian diplomats by the NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer after the ambassador-level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) on Wednesday. According to Rogozin, Scheffer told him that NATO was outraged over Russia's spying activities against the alliance and its member states. According to NATO sources, even though the two Russian diplomats were not directly involved in the Simm affair, NATO had to respond in kind. The expulsion of Russian diplomats carries special significance considering that one of them is the son of Russia's Ambassador to EU, Vladimir A. Chizhov.
Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the expulsion of Russian diplomats calling it a "crude provocation" and Rogozin vowed as yet unspecified but "harsh and decisive" response. The timing of the incident is rather peculiar as both NATO and Russia are trying to revive ties badly strained after last year's conflict in Georgia. Thus far there have been no indications by the Russian side that the NRC meeting at the ministerial level scheduled for May 19 would be called off due to the spat over the expulsion of the Russian diplomats from Brussels.
In an exclusive commentary for the Jamestown Foundation Blog an Estonian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, characterized the expulsion of Russian diplomats as a significant precedent. First, by making the expulsion public at the time of the NRC ambassadorial meeting, which was supposed to restart the official relations, NATO sent an unusually strong message to Moscow. According to Estonian official, the assertion of some analysts, who think that the announcement was not intentional and that the NATO security team simply did not consider the diplomatic implications of the timing of the expulsion, seems highly improbable. It is more logical that NATO indeed decided to tell the Russians that it takes its own security seriously.
Second, Moscow's reaction to the expulsion of Russian diplomats will be interesting to observe. In a traditional diplomatic tit-for-tat, the Russians usually respond by expelling the same number of diplomats of the "relevant" country. In this case, however, it is unclear, who the Russians should expel. There is only one NATO official in Moscow. The nominal country that expelled the Russians was Belgium and the case was investigated by the Estonians. Moscow's reaction will be a new and interesting precedent in intelligence affairs. The Kremlin is facing a conundrum. By expelling Estonians the Russians would tacitly admit the guilt in the Simm case. By expelling officials of a bigger NATO country, they would send a Cold War-type message that implies that any attempt to restore good relations with NATO is doomed to be stillborn from the outset.
The Simm affair and NATO’s subsequent retaliatory expulsion of Russian diplomats follow the latest trend of intensified Russian espionage activities in the U.S. and allied countries. Sources have informed The Jamestown Foundation that the level of Russian espionage activities in the U.S. has significantly escalated and now even surpassed the threshold established during the Cold War. One of the recent demonstrations of this was a little reported row over the appointment of Russian defense attaché in Washington, DC. In mid 2008, the Russian military attaché in Canada, First Degree Captain Viktor Nikitin was declared persona non grata for engaging in espionage activities incompatible with his status as a foreign diplomat and was ordered to leave Ottawa by the Canadian authorities. The Russian government then tried to transfer Nikitin to the U.S., but Washington refused due to the NATO-wide ban on foreign diplomats accused of espionage in allied countries. In response, in January of this year the Russian government asked the senior American defense attaché Brigadier General Henry J. Nowak to leave Moscow. Nowak has been reassigned since then and now serves as the Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Issues at the Office for Strategic Plans and Policy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It appears that the Russia and U.S. decided to let bygones be bygones and resolved the dispute by a mutual appointment of new defense attachés.