Why NATO and Russia are playing a Cold War game of hotlines and spooks

Hey sup. EPA/Alexei Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/Kremlin

To pick up the papers these days, one would think that everyone is spying on everyone. And of course, they are – because they always have, despite political leaders’ feigned shock at these “revelations”.

Friends spying on friends aside, concerns have been steadily growing over Russia’s increased willingness to use espionage as one tactic of its wider hybrid approach to foreign and security policy – especially since it annexed Crimea in 2014. As the Guardian recently reported, this has led NATO to revive “cold war-style hotlines” and to rid its headquarters of “dozens of Russian spies”.

This sort of espionage was of course a central (if somewhat romanticised) feature of the Cold War landscape, but it seems to be enjoying a revival. Reports of old-style espionage have been on the increase since long before the Ukraine/Crimea affair began: in 2009, NATO “expelled” two Russian diplomats over accusations of espionage. This came at a time when ruptures in the NATO-Russia relationship were, at least on the face of it, beginning to mend after the Russia-Georgia War.

But still, this type of activity has clearly been increasing since Russia got involved in Ukraine.

I spy, you spy, we spy

According to one report, an Estonian security service agent was abducted from an Estonian border post by Russian agents on September 5 2014 (Estonia is a NATO member state).

Then, in January 2015, members of a “purported Russian spy ring” were apprehended and detained near a NATO airbase in Lithuania.

The NATO-Russia Council has been suspended since April 2014 due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued support for the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Given the fact that many NATO officials apparently believe that Russia will soon renew its invasion of the region, it’s hardly surprising that the Alliance is taking further measures to reduce the threat of espionage at the HQ.

NATO’s Civilian Intelligence Committee, the unit responsible for civilian intelligence issues at NATO, concluded that Russian intelligence agents were embedded in the Russian’s delegation to NATO. This is a delegation numbering more than 50 staff, of which half are apparently presumed to be working for their country’s intelligence services.

Again, while this should come as no real surprise, steps have been taken to diminish the threat. In April 2015, NATO decided to reduce all non-NATO delegations to a staff of 30 – and although NATO officials have suggested that this decision applies to all delegations, only Russia is affected, as it is the only delegation numbering over 30 staff. Furthermore, only four members of the delegation are allowed to move around NATO HQ without an escort.

And yet, even as all this effort is going into reducing communication between Russia and NATO, other Cold War-era practices to keep channels between them open are being revived.

Hooked up

On August 30 1963, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to set up a White House-to-Kremlin “hotline”, which could send confidential text between the two superpowers.

This was perhaps the Cold War’s deadliest point. The previous year had seen the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest thing to nuclear war we have ever seen, and the threat of invasion and espionage hung over all of European politics. Communication at the highest levels was a vital way to improve information when so much misinformation was abundant.

The hotline was first used during the Six Day War of 1967, and then on a somewhat regular basis until the end of the Cold War.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. EPA/Martijn Beekman

The growing rift between Russia and the transatlantic alliance, has us in dangerous waters once more, and so NATO announced in May 2015 that it was establishing a hotline between NATO HQ and the Kremlin. Once again, the need for communication is especially acute now Russia has withdrawn from the NATO-Russia Council, even though it still remains a “partner” country to NATO and sends an ambassador there.

The new hotline also comes after Russia suspended the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and most recently the Open Skies Treaty, both of which monitored and regulated conventional (non-nuclear) forces in Europe. To date, the OSCE remains the only forum for communication between Russia and all of the NATO states.

The restored NATO-Russia hotline is a direct result of this breakdown in relations. It imitates the old US-Soviet/Russia hotline that still exists today, though it’s not a direct line, simply a database and protocol of Russian military contacts and NATO alliance contacts. Rather than a Cold War-style device to be used in emergencies, this is an attempt to reopen the political-military channels that were still functioning before events in eastern Ukraine got out of hand.

But the re-establishment of the hotline also points to the resurgent role of espionage in sharing information. To maintain a stable relationship in uncertain times and make sure their sources are reliable, Russia and the West need to be in regular contact.

With the suspected Russian spies now excluded from NATO HQ, no wonder another means of keeping tabs on each other has been set up.

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