Russia suspends its NATO mission as Defense Secretary visits NATO aspirant countries

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Georgia and Ukraine this week, two NATO aspirant Black Sea neighbors

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The U.S. Defense Secretary's itinerary to Eastern Europe was bound to anger Moscow, which announced it was shuttering its NATO mission and kicking NATO diplomats out of Moscow.

"We don't have proper conditions for basic diplomatic activities," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  Moscow blames NATO for not being interested in "equal dialogue or joint efforts to defuse military-political tension." The decision comes after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission earlier this month, saying they were working as undeclared intelligence officers.

En route to NATO this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Georgia and Ukraine, two NATO aspirant Black Sea neighbors that the Russian military invaded and continue to partly occupy. 

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran share a word as they attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Gleb Garanich/Pool Photo via AP)

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran share a word as they attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Gleb Garanich/Pool Photo via AP)

"The United States condemns Russia’s ongoing occupation of Georgia and its attempts to expand influence in the Black Sea region through military coercion and malign activities," said Austin in Tbilisi, before signing a defense security pact with Georgia. Next the Secretary assured Ukrainians they can count on the United States’ continued support "that includes Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO" if it carries out certain reforms.

The former Deputy Secretary General of NATO - Alexander Vershbow, who served as U.S. Ambassador to both NATO and Russia, says Ukraine remains the biggest flashpoint. 

"The Russians under Putin like to be unpredictable. They don't seem to care one bit about stability if it gets in the way of trying to dominate their neighbors," says Vershbow, adding that Moscow’s decision to suspend its NATO mission could have been influenced by Austin’s visit. Georgia and Ukraine are "the targets of Russian aggression and Russia wants them to be drawn back into Russia's sphere of influence," he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, shakes hands with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, shakes hands with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

The former deputy secretary general also says Austin’s visit to the region is important because: "If Russia succeeds in subjugating Ukraine and Georgia, we're going to have a much more dangerous situation in Europe going forward than we already have now."

RUSSIA IS SUSPENDING ITS MISSION TO NATO: RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER

NATO is now trying to regain the upper hand with new, more aggressive tactics to deter further Russian expansion and the return of another Cold War, that's growing increasingly hot. The former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, blames years of naivete:

"My biggest concern is that we, the West, still find it hard to believe that Russia has bad intentions. We continue to be surprised that they actually do certain things and they're allowed to get away with this fairy tale narrative that somehow they're the ones that are being encircled."

Lt Gen Ret US Army Ben Hodges delivers a speech at the Lviv Security Forum 2018, Lviv, western Ukraine, October 25, 2018. Ukrinform. (MARKIIAN LYSEIKO / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Lt Gen Ret US Army Ben Hodges delivers a speech at the Lviv Security Forum 2018, Lviv, western Ukraine, October 25, 2018. Ukrinform. (MARKIIAN LYSEIKO / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

For Hodges, Russia's actions are not isolated events in a vacuum, but part of bigger plans. He says Russia invaded Crimea because, "Crimea is the platform for all of the malign influence they export around the Black Sea region, but especially down into Syria."  

Hodges hopes the 2030 strategic concept that NATO is working toward will be different from the one "where we thought Russia was going to be a partner."

Austin’s last stop before NATO is Romania, one of the few NATO nations that spends more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense with 20 percent going toward modernization, key NATO goals.

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In Brussels, Secretary Austin will participate in THE NATO Defense Ministerial, the first in-person ministerial since the COVID-19 pandemic began.