Payback, apparently, for the Western alliance's recent expulsion of two alleged Russian spies.
But the spy spat is part of a bigger issue.
Moscow's displeasure appears mostly focused on NATO-sponsored war games in Georgia, which opened on Wednesday. The military exercises began despite the defections of four Russia-friendly countries that were to have participated and a major Russian PR offensive aimed at convincing the Western alliance to cancel them.
It's the war games issue, some experts say, that could turn a fairly routine spy scandal into a possible deal breaker for Russian-NATO relations.
"These [espionage] things are always going on," says Pyotr Romanov, a prominent political commentator with the official RIA-Novosti news agency in Moscow. "But this coincides with a tense moment in relations, so it's a complicated mix with many ingredients coming to a boil."
Russia's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday summoned Canadian Ambassador Ralph Lysyshyn to inform him that the two Canadians – employees of the NATO Information Office in Moscow – were being expelled in response to "an unfriendly act on the part of NATO in relation to staff at the Russian mission to NATO."
The Western alliance ejected two Russian envoys from its headquarters in Brussels last week over the alleged illicit acquisition of thousands of classified documents. On Wednesday, NATO issued a statement that Moscow's measures were "unfortunate and counterproductive to our efforts to restore our dialog and cooperation with Russia. Thus NATO very much regrets the Russian action and does not consider there to be any justification for it."
The cold war-style tit-for-tat espionage accusations are serious – and unexpected – vexations for a relationship that was supposed to be getting back on track after several months of deep freeze following Russia's lightning war with Georgia in August.
Russia has repeatedly demanded that NATO cancel the month-long exercises, to be held at a former Russian military base in eastern Georgia. About 1,000 troops representing a dozen NATO states participating in the Partnership for Peace program – a loose grouping for potential members of the alliance – are participating. In recent weeks, Russian friends Armenia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, and Moldova have pulled out of the exercises to avoid offending Moscow.
Moscow says that NATO should have dropped the year-old plan to stage the games after Georgia attacked the breakaway statelet of South Ossetia in August, precipitating a five-day war that was handily won by Russia.
"NATO had to take into account that there are zones of dangerous conflict nearby, to say nothing of the instability in Georgia itself," underscored by the brief mutiny of a Georgian tank battalion on Tuesday, says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee.
"It looks to us like NATO has taken leave of its senses and is only going on with these military exercises out of mulish obstinacy," he adds.
Underlying the complaint about "Georgian instability" is Russia's profound objection to any further expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union, especially the alliance's stated commitment to eventually induct Georgia and Ukraine into its ranks. Last summer, following the brief war with Georgia, President Dmitry Medvedev spelled out Russia's claim to a "sphere of influence" in the former USSR – something akin to the Monroe Doctrine – and announced that Russia would oppose efforts by its closest neighbors to continue on a path to Western integration (click here for more).
The message from Moscow appears to be that NATO must make a strategic choice between warmer relations with Russia and its long-term goal of drawing in post-Soviet states, such as Georgia and Ukraine. Right now, if NATO wants better ties with Moscow, it should start by ditching Georgian leader Mikhael Saakashvili, according to the not-so-subtle indicators from the Kremlin.
"Our fundamental position is that we want a normal partnership with the North Atlantic alliance, based on mutual respect and mutual benefit," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a Moscow news conference Wednesday.
Mr. Lavrov denied any link between the expulsion of the two Canadian NATO workers and the opening of NATO-led military exercises in Georgia, but he left journalists to mull over a seemingly contradictory point: "This [NATO] policy of indulging the Tbilisi regime is harming NATO itself. It is very worrying to us."