Friday, May 1, 2009

Two Russian Diplomats Lose NATO Accreditation

Via Yahoo News! (AP) -

A day after NATO and Russia closed their diplomatic rift over last year's war in Georgia, the alliance kicked out two Russian diplomats in apparent retaliation for a spy case that rekindled memories of the Cold War.

Two Russian diplomats — senior counselor Victor Kochukov and Vasily Chizhov, a junior attache — will lose their accreditation to NATO's headquarters in Brussels, where Russia maintains a permanent mission, Russian ambassador Dmitry Rogozin said.

It was not immediately clear how NATO's move would impact relations with Russia, which have improved significantly since President Barack Obama eased the Bush administration's confrontational stance toward the country. But relations remain prickly over issues such as Georgia and a proposed missile defense system.

Russia has complained bitterly about NATO's plan to hold a peacekeeping exercise next month in Georgia. But NATO says Russian officers were invited to take part in the two-week event and Russia is aware the exercise presents no threat.

Rogozin said he had been told by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer about the expulsions Wednesday evening, just hours after the first formal meeting of the NATO-Russia Council since ties were suspended in August. At the time, NATO accused Russia of using disproportionate force to eject Georgian forces that had occupied the capital of South Ossetia, a breakaway Georgian province.

Rogozin said de Hoop Scheffer mentioned a "spy scandal" in Estonia as justification for the expulsions.

In February, the Estonian court convicted Herman Simm, the former head of security at the Estonian Defense Ministry, of spying for Russia from 1995 until 2008, and sentenced him to 12 1/2 years in prison.

NATO spokesman James Apparthurai said Thursday he could not confirm whether any diplomat's accreditation had been withdrawn because he could not comment on intelligence matters.

Both sides said the NATO-Russia Council meeting between ambassadors Wednesday went well. A meeting between NATO's 28 foreign ministers and their Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov is now tentatively scheduled for the second half of May.

Rogozin reacted angrily to NATO's expulsion of the two diplomats, describing as it as "a lie" and promising quick retaliation.

"We will not be provoked, but the response will be harsh and decisive," he said, adding it was absurd to link Kochukov and Chizhov — the son of Russia's ambassador to the European Union — to the Estonian case.

A separate embassy statement said the move "creates a tense atmosphere and sets the wrong tone for the whole process of resuming Russia-NATO cooperation."

Expulsions of Soviet and NATO alliance diplomats were routine during the Cold War, but the latest move comes a surprise because NATO and Russia have been cooperating closely in recent months.

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