After serving as the prime minister of Denmark for eight years, Anders Fogh Rasmussen was appointed secretary general of NATO in 2009. During his tenure, he has had to deal with three main issues: the winding down of the U.S.-led, NATO-run war in Afghanistan; NATO’s 2011 military intervention to protect civilians in Libya, which contributed to the downfall of the Qaddafi regime; and, most recently, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Foreign Affairs Deputy Managing Editor Justin Vogt spoke with him in Washington, D.C. on March 19, 2014.
Why do you think that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to occupy and annex Crimea?
It’s difficult to guess about motives, but let me try. [Putin has] stated that the fall of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of the century. And that reflects his basic thinking. I think he has a desire to restore Russian greatness and establish, or reestablish, a Russian sphere of influence in Russia’s neighborhood. In more concrete terms, I think there might be side motives. Through a number of “frozen conflicts” in this region — in Transnistria, in Abkhazia, in South Ossetia, and in a way also Nagorno-Karabakh — Russia tries to prevent countries from seeking Euro-Atlantic integration.
What’s your impression of Putin and his leadership?
I have dealt with Putin also in my previous capacity, as prime minister of Denmark, and during Denmark’s presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2002. Among other things, we had to negotiate the transit link through Lithuania to Kaliningrad on behalf of the European Union. It was a very, very tough negotiation between the European Union and Russia. And I’ve also been involved in other issues. My bottom line is that you shouldn’t underestimate Putin’s determination. He has a clear goal, he has a clear strategy, he has clear tactics. To match that, you need a firm stance and strong determination.
Each party to this conflict has its own narrative of how we got here. How would you characterize the events in Ukraine that precipitated all this?
I would characterize it as a broad, popular uprising founded on two things. The concrete step that provoked the upheaval was [Ukrainian President Victor] Yanukovych’s decision to cut links, or at least not sign the association agreement with the European Union, but instead seek economic support from Russia. The Ukrainian population clearly realized that would put Ukraine under Russian influence. And I think a huge majority of Ukrainians want to see Euro-Atlantic integration and more cooperation with European Union. But then on top of that, I also think the general feeling of corruption and inefficiency in government contributed to the upheaval.
The Russians, and some in Ukraine, see what happened as a coup and point out that the current government in Kiev is an unelected leadership. How do you respond to that?
First of all, let me remind you that President Yanukovych fled the country. I mean, that’s a fact. And then the parliament took over. And it’s also a fact that many or most members of President Yanukovych’s party left his party and joined the opposition in parliament. And a new political leadership was installed with a huge majority in the parliament. Members of parliament were elected in parliamentary elections that were considered free, fair, and transparent. So I think the Ukrainian parliament has legitimacy. And all decisions regarding the new government were taken with a very, very large majority. And this is an interim government that will prepare new elections in May. So I think all things taken into account, the Ukrainian democratic institutions took responsibility in a way that was legitimate.
Over the past 20 years, as more and more states in eastern Europe have joined NATO, critics of the enlargement have worried that it would provoke Russia into defensive acts of aggression. Is NATO enlargement part of what led to this crisis?
No. And let me stress that NATO has not at any point been a threat towards Russia. We have been very transparent. We have even included Russia in our partnerships. We declared already in 1997 that we do not consider each other adversaries. We declared that we will not use force against each other. NATO enlargement is not a threat against Russia. On the contrary: through enlargement of NATO — and by the way, also the European Union — we have established a zone of security, stability, and prosperity in eastern and central Europe. And Russia has profited significantly from that. When we look at trade and investment, you will see Russia having benefited enormously from economic growth in that part of Europe, thanks to the framework we have created within NATO, within the European Union. For centuries, Russia has strived for stability along its Western border. And that’s exactly what we have provided. And apart from all this, it’s not for Russia to decide whether an individual nation wants membership in NATO, or partnership with NATO, or a non-alliance policy. That’s for each specific nation to decide.
Georgia, for example.
It is no secret that Georgia seeks future membership in NATO. And actually, we decided at the NATO Summit in 2008, in Bucharest, that Georgia will become part of NATO, provided, of course, they fulfill the necessary criteria. We’re working on that. They do not fulfill all the criteria at this moment. But they have a clear aspiration. And we stand ready to assist them in fulfilling the necessary criteria. And that will not be changed by what we have seen in Ukraine.
But how will the plan for Georgia deal with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are occupied by Russia?
It is complicated. And we’re not there yet. We all know the problems. But I also think the Georgians realize that membership of NATO is not in the very near future. So we’ll see down the road how the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia can and will be addressed.
The United States and NATO are trying to reassure alliance members in eastern Europe, who have watched what Russia is doing with growing alarm, worried about Putin’s apparent expansionism. NATO has sent more F-16s to Poland, more F-15s to the Baltic states, increased AWACs flights over Poland and Romania, and begun conducting additional war ship exercises in the Black Sea. But some, including U.S. Senator John McCain, are calling for an even more aggressive response, including steps such as increasing NATO deployments to eastern and central Europe and speeding up the pace of NATO enlargement.
No one should doubt our determination to defend and protect our allies. And, of course, after what we have seen, we have an obligation to look into how we can strengthen our deterrence and how we can strengthen our collective defense.
I think what we have seen in Crimea is a wake-up call. And it goes to the core of what our alliance is about. So there is a strong determination to take necessary steps.
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty declares that NATO members will consider an attack on one to be an attack on all. But there is some ambiguity in Article 5: it requires each ally to take only “such action as it deems necessary” in the event of an attack on another ally. And NATO requires consensus before taking action. So how confident should the government of, say, Estonia feel that, if Putin decided to send Russian forces into Estonia on the pretext of protecting the large ethnic Russian population there, NATO would respond with force?
I am 100 percent sure that, in that case, Article 5 would be activated, and I have no doubt that the alliance as a whole would take action to ensure effective protection and defense of an ally that is attacked. … And actually, it’s part of our deterrence that you never know which decision we will take. Our potential adversary doesn’t know exactly how NATO will react.
You believe the ambiguity strengthens the deterrent?
It does. That ambiguity strengthens the deterrence, because a potential adversary would very much like to know exactly how NATO would react. Because then they can test NATO. Now, they don’t — and that’s part of the deterrence.
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that it wasn’t until 2009 that NATO developed a contingency plan for the Baltics. Is it now a solid plan?
As a matter of principle, we never comment on concrete contingency plans. But I can assure you that we have all plans in place to ensure effective defense and protection of our allies. But obviously, in light of what we have seen, it’s also relevant to review some of our plans.
You called the Ukraine crisis a wake-up call for the entire alliance. For the European members of the alliance, is the message to reconsider the cuts they’ve made to their defense budgets?
This crisis must lead to increased defense investment in Europe. We have seen declining defense budgets during the period of economic austerity, and I understand why. Governments have struggled with their budgets and, if a nation becomes too indebted, it’s also vulnerable. So it is actually sound security policy to pursue sound fiscal policies. But we have seen disproportionate cuts in defense expenditures. In some nations, it’s been up to 40 percent. And this cannot continue if we are to ensure effective defense. Whenever I meet American politicians, they ask me, “Couldn’t the Europeans contribute a bit more?” And I think the time has come now for Europeans to realize that we have to reverse that trend.
Since NATO’s inception, an unwritten rule has declared that the organization’s civilian leader, the secretary general, will be a European, and that its military leader, the supreme allied commander Europe, will be an American. Is it time for a European supreme allied commander?
I think the current arrangement serves the interests of all allies. We all know that the bulk of military contribution to our alliance is American. So I find it appropriate that the supreme allied commander is an American. But then there is an unwritten rule, at least, that civilian leadership is European. So, the secretary general of NATO is a European. I think that strikes the right balance.
Some commentators have argued that the crisis in Ukraine shows that the U.S.-led Western order is in retreat or decline, and claim that U.S. President Barack Obama has emboldened leaders such as Putin by not acting more firmly in Syria and elsewhere. Others contend that what’s happening in Ukraine shows the West’s strength: Putin might get Crimea, but Europe and the United States will get the rest of Ukraine and probably firmer links to the rest of the former Soviet states. What are your thoughts?
Clearly, we are winning the hearts and minds of people. You see that in the fact that nations are queuing up to become members of the European Union and NATO, or strengthen their friendships with the European Union and NATO. So it may well be that President Putin plays hardball, and it may be that he annexes Crimea, but he leaves behind a lot of concerns among Russia’s near neighbors. We know that they are seeking closer ties with the European Union and NATO because we are attractive, because of our ideas, our values, our principles, the economic opportunities. Russia is only capable of using force to enlarge its sphere of influence. I feel confident that our values and principles are the strongest and will prevail.
It seems pretty certain that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not going to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States that would permit some U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan past this year. In your best guess, will there be a full withdrawal of U.S. troops this year?
No. I think the bottom line is that we will get the signature. I agree that Karzai probably won’t sign. But I expect a new president to sign, because a lot is at stake for Afghanistan. That bilateral security agreement and a NATO status of forces agreement, which would follow, are prerequisites for a deployment of a NATO-led training mission to advise and assist the Afghan security forces after 2014.
If there is no international troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014, it might be difficult to generate financial resources to sustain the Afghan security forces. They have reached the level of 350,000 soldiers and police and obviously the Afghan government will not be able to pay salaries. They will need international financial assistance. And the Afghans know that; they know what is at stake. That’s why I believe a new president will sign and we will be able to deploy after 2014.
What’s your assessment of Karzai?
It’s a somewhat mixed picture. First of all, let me stress that I have an excellent personal relationship with President Karzai which dates back to when I was prime minister of Denmark. I also consider him an excellent representative for his country. He speaks eloquently and he’s able to express his views in a way that gets the message through.
But having said that, I also have to say that, during recent months, he has issued statements that have undermined trust and confidence in troop-contributing countries. Many of his statements have been considered [to show] a lack of gratitude for our sacrifice in blood and treasure. And some of his statements have contributed to undermining public and political support for our continued presence in Afghanistan. It may well be that his statements should be seen in a domestic political context, but I think he has underestimated the damaging effects in troop-contributing countries.
You and others have held up the 2011 NATO operation in Libya as something of a model for international intervention. But the country is now coming apart at the seams. Was there anything that NATO could have done differently to help avoid this outcome?
First, let me stress that NATO is not part of the post-conflict situation. We had a clear mandate from the UN Security Council to protect the civilian population in Libya. It was part of that mandate that we didn’t have troops on the ground. So it was an air campaign solely. And once we had carried out our tasks within that mandate, we concluded our mission on the 31st of October, 2011. So it was a seven-month campaign. Our responsibility didn’t go, and doesn’t go, beyond that.
Now, you point, of course, to some post-conflict problems. But I consider them a challenge not for NATO but for the whole of the international community. In retrospect, the international community as a whole should have done more to help the new Libyan authorities in building capacity and security. Having said that, such assistance requires a request from the [local] authorities. We can’t just go in. Last May, NATO received a request from the Libyan authorities to assist them in modernizing their defense sector and building a security architecture. And we responded positively. But it was not until last year that we got that request.
In the future, should NATO get into situations where it’s mandated to intervene but has no post-conflict responsibility? Is it OK to just say, “Whatever happens afterwards, we’re not involved?’”
That’s a good question. But I think it’s more a question about how Security Council resolutions are formulated.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.