NATO, Russia in war of words over spying, Georgia (Lead)

April 30th, 2009 - 11:48 pm ICT by IANS  

Brussels, April 30 (DPA) NATO and Russia launched a war of words Thursday as the alliance expelled two Russian diplomats for spying and accused Moscow of destabilizing the South Caucasus, and Russia accused NATO members of sabotaging East-West relations.
The spat comes just as NATO diplomats said that they were hoping for a better relationship with Russia, and has the potential to bring an early frost to the hoped-for thaw in relations between Russia and the new US administration.

It blew up late Wednesday as NATO accused two Russian diplomats within the alliance - one of them the son of Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian Ambassador to the European Union - of spying, and declared them persona non grata.

Russian diplomats reacted with fury, saying that the move was a “gross provocation” on the part of the alliance and threatening to react “in line with the nature of our further relations with the alliance”.

According to the Financial Times, the two Russian diplomats were expelled in retaliation for a Cold War-style spying scandal.

In February, Estonian official Herman Simm was jailed for 12 years for leaking thousands of pages of secret NATO documents to Russia in a case dubbed “the biggest spy scandal in NATO history”.

Ironically, the expulsion scandal erupted just minutes after the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), the main format for talks between the two sides, since Russia invaded Georgia in August.

That meeting was “positive” and full of a “new energy”, NATO spokesman James Appathurai told journalists at the time.

Russia’s mission to NATO reacted furiously to the expulsions, saying that “some members of NATO” were trying to “provoke an international scandal on purpose, going all-out in their attempt to disrupt Russian re-engagement with (NATO).”

Russia has long claimed that new NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic States are trying to sour the alliance’s relationship with its former-Soviet foe. NATO diplomats and analysts say that this is simply an attempt to divide the bloc.

Appathurai, in his turn, had hard words for Russia on Thursday, following Moscow’s signing of a deal allowing it to guard the borders of the breakaway Georgian areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, entities whose independence NATO firmly opposes.

That deal is “in clear contravention” of ceasefire agreements brokered by the EU in the aftermath of last summer’s war, he said.

Russia’s actions “are not in the interest of long-term peace and stability for all the people of the South Caucasus region”, he said.

NATO has repeatedly accused Russia of violating the territorial integrity of Georgia - which is hoping to join the Western alliance - and of building up a strong military presence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Appathurai also criticized Russia for raising the tension over long-planned NATO military exercises in Georgia.

“Russia continues to claim that it has been surprised by the exercise in Georgia, even though it has been informed fully and from the beginning of the planning stages, and even if it continues to refuse the repeated invitations to this exercise,” Appathurai said.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to match the Russian rhetoric with what is happening on the ground,” he said.

The latest spats throw into question a meeting planned for May between NATO foreign ministers and their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Despite the incident involving his son, Russian ambassador Chizhov would remain in Brussels, sources in Moscow said.

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