"We don't have proper conditions for basic diplomatic activities," announced Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Moscow blames NATO for not being interested in "equal dialogue or joint efforts to defuse military-political tension." The ruling came after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission earlier this month, stating they worked 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 proceeded to occupy partly.
"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," announced Austin in Tbilisi, before signing a defense security pact with Georgia. Next, the Secretary assured Ukrainians they could 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 worked as U.S. Ambassador to both NATO and Russia, states Ukraine is still 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 Austin's visit could have influenced Moscow's decision to suspend its NATO mission. Georgia and Ukraine are "the targets of Russian aggression and Russia wants them to be drawn back into Russia's sphere of influence," he stated.
The former deputy secretary-general further says Austin's visit to the region is necessary 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."
NATO is now attempting 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."
For Hodges, Russia's actions are not isolated events in a vacuum yet part of bigger plans. He explains 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."