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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, centre, stands with NATO defence ministers for a group photo on the first day of the ministers' meeting in Brussels on Oct. 21, 2021.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

There was shock across Europe this week when Russia announced it was closing its mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels and ordering NATO staff to leave Moscow. After all, such direct contacts between the Kremlin and the Western military alliance had been established at the end of the Cold War to prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflict.

But these days, misunderstandings are the norm, and both sides see themselves engaged in a low-level, undeclared conflict that began seven years ago with Russia’s seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. For the Kremlin, ending the pretense of co-operation with NATO was simply acknowledging reality.

“To pretend that we still co-operate, while we don’t, was not very helpful,” said Sergey Utkin, the head of strategic assessment at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which is part of the state-funded Russian Academy of Sciences. Mr. Utkin called Russia’s break with NATO “a kind of a conclusion to a 30-year-long attempt to build co-operation in spite of differences.”

NATO to agree on master plan to deter growing Russian threat

Russia suspends its mission at NATO, orders closing of alliance’s office in Moscow

Those differences were on display this week, as NATO officials bemoaned the unilateral announcement as further damaging ties and increasing the chances of a military escalation. “There is nothing to ‘worsen’ in the NATO-Russia relations unfortunately,” Mikhail Ulyanov, a senior Russian diplomat, retorted on Twitter. “Everything has already been spoiled.”

Moscow and the West also have very different narratives about who is to blame for the collapse. Moscow says the original sin was the United States and its allies bringing former Warsaw Pact states into NATO in the 1990s and early 2000s without inviting Russia to join the group. Western governments point to a series of more recent Russian transgressions, including the annexation of Crimea and a string of assassinations and attempts targeting foes of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Europe. Among those was the 2018 attack on KGB defector Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in the English city of Salisbury with a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union.

“We’ve seen more and more things that in normal times would be considered acts of war,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. He added a massive explosion in 2014 at a Czech munitions depot, later blamed on Russian agents, and numerous cyberattacks on European GPS networks to the list of Moscow’s alleged crimes.

On Thursday, NATO – which in recent years has increasingly focused on the threat posed by a rising China – announced it had agreed to a new master plan to defend alliance members against Russian aggression. The details are to be kept secret, but Reuters reported it would involve preparations for simultaneous strikes targeting both the Baltic and Black Sea regions “that could include nuclear weapons, hacking of computer networks and assaults from space.”

Speaking after a Thursday meeting of defence ministers in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the ministers had endorsed “a new overarching plan to defend our alliance in crisis and conflict” that aimed “to have the right forces at the right place at the right time.” However, he said, NATO would not “not mirror Russia’s destabilizing behaviour” and deploy new land-based nuclear weapons in Europe.

NATO’s redesignation of Russia as the primary threat to its members capped a month that has seen the two sides repeatedly trade allegations of espionage. Russia has also been accused of using its abundant natural resources as a weapon by refusing to increase supplies of natural gas to Europe at a time of skyrocketing energy bills on the continent.

Tensions have simultaneously built up along the borders between Belarus, an authoritarian ally of Russia, and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, furious over Western support for the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, has allowed thousands of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere to land in Minsk on the condition that they proceed directly to the border. Mr. Lukashenko has been accused of trying to widen divisions within the European Union by igniting a new refugee crisis.

In response, Poland has closed its border and declared a state of emergency in the region, deploying thousands of additional Polish troops to the area. On Wednesday, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the growing NATO presence in Poland and the Baltic states had compelled Russia and Belarus to further develop an integrated defence strategy. (The presence of additional NATO troops in the area, including a Canadian-led battle group in Latvia, is itself a response to the annexation of Crimea.)

But Ukraine remains the most dangerous potential flashpoint – and the key obstacle to improved relations between Moscow and the West.

Since 2014, Russia has funded and equipped a “separatist” army that controls much of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine. The conflict there has killed more than 13,000 people, and while the front line has remained largely stable for the past six years, the two sides continue to exchange fire on a daily basis. This week alone has seen dozens of ceasefire violations – the Ukrainian military on Wednesday accused the Russian side of using mortars, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles – and monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were prevented by separatists from leaving their hotel in the city of Donetsk.

Earlier this year, Russia massed an estimated 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, a situation that was defused only when U.S. President Joe Biden offered Mr. Putin a face-to-face summit meeting.

This week, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv to restate American support for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO. Mr. Putin has called Ukraine joining NATO a “red line,” and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Andrei Rudenko, warned Thursday that such a step would have unspecified consequences.

Mr. Giles of Chatham House said the Kremlin’s threats revealed Mr. Putin’s “19th-century” approach to international relations – the root cause of the renewed tension between Moscow and the West. “Putin is trying to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful place and power. A lot of the symptoms of that look like restoring the Soviet Union.”

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