Russia’s decision to end diplomatic engagement with NATO should have been a nonevent.

Responding to NATO’s decision to expel a number of Russian military officers serving at Moscow’s mission to the Atlantic alliance and to cut the size of the mission by half, Russia upped the ante. It suspended relations with NATO, recalled the staff of its mission from Brussels, ordered NATO liaison officers stationed in Moscow to leave, and required the NATO information office to close.

It would have sounded alarming, except that the relationship had been de facto broken off seven years ago in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Since then, NATO has fully reverted to its initial mission of deterring Russia.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center from 2008 to early 2022.
More >

Meanwhile, Russian and NATO officers had very limited access to senior officials on the other side, and no serious transactions were taking place at that level. Thus, Russia-NATO relations were suspended long before they actually ceased to exist.

Some Ties Remain

Even though NATO and Russia no longer have diplomatic representations to each other, this does not mean that all contacts have been severed. In Brussels, Russia keeps an embassy to Belgium (and a mission to the EU, although it is not relevant for this purpose); all NATO countries keep embassies in Moscow.

The founding act that governs the Russia-NATO bilateral relationship, while obviously a relic of a different era, is still in force. Nothing would prevent communication at the diplomatic level, should the need arise. Much more importantly, military communication is still possible. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) has a direct line to Russia’s Chief of the General Staff (CGS), and they actually meet in person from time to time at some neutral location.

Thus, the suspension of relations, while symbolic of the deepening confrontation between the two principal military structures in Europe, does not actually amount to a new crisis. Nor does it materially reduce the two sides’ capacity to deal with incidents and developments that could inadvertently lead to a head-on collision.

Russia’s View of NATO

For Moscow, NATO traditionally meant, above all, a platform for the U.S. military presence in Europe. In the post–Cold War period of the NATO-Russia partnership and related cooperation, this vision was broadened to include the U.S. European allies who had also become Russian partners.

But the situation has changed again with the return of U.S.-Russia confrontation. Russia’s harsh diplomatic response to the alliance’s move highlights a growing conviction among policymakers and their advisers in Moscow that, in a hardening confrontational environment, it does not make much sense to talk to proxies.

From that perspective, much of NATO’s international bureaucratic infrastructure—including the role of the secretary general, held by a European figure—is mere window dressing for the United States’ complete dominance in the alliance. Thus, why would Russia spend time on the subordinates? When one needs to talk, talk directly to the boss.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov may stop meeting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, but the line between the CGS and SACEUR, who is a U.S. general, will not be severed by either side. If there is confrontation, it has to be well managed.

This approach does not apply exclusively to NATO. Lavrov recently revealed that a few years ago Moscow offered, through then U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, to invite Washington to join the Normandy Format (a series of negotiations involving France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) to implement the Minsk agreement on Donbass. The Russian rationale was that the United States, rather than the European partners, wielded the most influence in Kyiv. So, the thinking went, the United States needed to be at the table if anything was to be achieved.

Kerry apparently was open to the idea, but it was vehemently opposed—and vetoed—by Berlin and Paris. Eventually the Kremlin, having concluded that talking to Kyiv was meaningless and that the Normandy Format does not really deliver, has engaged Washington in a dialogue on Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration currently has a policy of consolidating U.S. alliances, and the allies are willing to follow the leader after four years in the wilderness under former president Donald Trump. In this context, the case for Moscow’s diplomatic streamlining is compelling.