Image: Ralph Lysyhyn
Ivan Sekretarev  /  AP
The Canadian ambassador, Ralph Lysyshyn, enters Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on Wednesday. Russia will expel two Canadian diplomats in retaliation for NATO's recent expulsion of two Russian envoys from the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.
updated 5/6/2009 4:59:57 PM ET 2009-05-06T20:59:57

Russia and NATO sought to limit damage to their relationship Wednesday, after expelling each other's envoys and despite Moscow's criticism of military exercises in former Soviet Georgia.

Russia had said NATO's war games amounted to Western meddling in its sphere of influence, and called NATO's expulsion of Russian diplomats from alliance headquarters last week a provocation. On Wednesday, Russia kicked out two Canadians who were working for NATO in Moscow.

"We naturally were forced to react," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised comments, adding that Russia was just playing by the "rules of the game."

But he took pains to emphasize that Moscow wanted normal relations with the Western alliance, despite objections over NATO expansion into former Soviet republics.

"We want a normal partnership with the North Atlantic alliance, based on mutual respect and mutual benefit," Lavrov said.

Russia's relations with NATO have been fraught with tension for years over the alliance's eastward expansion. Tiny Georgia and its aim of joining NATO have become a major irritation.

On April 29, NATO and Russia resumed formal contacts suspended over Russia's five-day war with Georgia in August. Russia and NATO — which have cooperated in recent months on matters including shipments to Afghanistan — planned a meeting of foreign ministers later this month.

A day later, however, NATO revoked the accreditation of two Russian envoys to alliance headquarters in Brussels. NATO did not give details, but Russia suggested the move was tied to a February espionage scandal in which Moscow was accused of accepting NATO secrets from a spy.

Canada wants explanation
Russia responded Wednesday by expelling Isabelle Francois, the head of NATO's Information Office in Moscow, and her deputy. The two were the office's only foreign staff, the alliance said.

NATO called the move "counterproductive to our efforts to restore our dialogue and cooperation with Russia," but it said its decision to re-engage with Russia "stands."

Canada, however, demanded an explanation from the Russian ambassador. "We're greatly concerned, given that fact that there is this reengagement that is taking place," Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper justified NATO's expelling the Russians, saying NATO would take whatever action necessary "when it comes to spying."

"It's true at NATO we talked of reconciliation, but ... we are concerned about Russian behavior on a number of fronts," Harper said during a visit to Prague. "I don't want to say this is a Cold War, but it's not an ideal situation."

But analysts suggested the retaliatory expulsions amounted to diplomacy as usual for Moscow, and said they would likely have little lasting impact on Russia's relations with the West. During the Cold War, expulsions of Soviet and NATO alliance diplomats were routine.

"We have seen several expulsions in the past," said Alexander Konovalov, head of Moscow's Institute for Strategic Assessment. "It's normal practice, more or less."

Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin said the two sides should put the dispute behind them and "consider this issue closed," according to Interfax.

Russia has also loudly complained about NATO military exercises that began Wednesday in Georgia, though NATO has encouraged Russia to join the war games and says they pose no threat.

War games
Russia has said it is inappropriate to hold the monthlong military exercises in a country that recently fought and lost a war.

Exacerbating tensions, hundreds of Georgian troops staged a daylong mutiny Tuesday at a tank battalion headquarters near Tbilisi. The rebellion ended with the soldiers surrendering without incident. Russia angrily denied Georgia's initial claims that Moscow orchestrated the mutiny in hopes of overthrowing the government.

Georgia quickly backtracked and said the mutiny was aimed at disrupting the NATO exercises. Some Georgian opposition members called the mutiny a charade cooked up by Saakashvili to rally support after weeks of opposition protests.

"We are an established state and showed it yesterday, and we won't let anyone act this way," Saakashvili said Wednesday in an address to military officers. He said a former Georgian envoy to NATO was charged Tuesday with spying for Russia and allegedly passed information about Georgian military movements to Russia during the war.

Russia has dismissed the idea of taking part in the NATO exercises in Georgia. Participants were holding meetings until at least May 11, after which battlefield maneuvers would begin, Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman David Dzhokhadze said. Some 15 countries were taking part, after Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia and Armenia bowed out.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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