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Anders Fogh Rasmussen - interview transcript

Anders Fogh Rasmussen served as Secretary-General of NATO from 2009 to 2014. In conversation with Todd Benjamin, he spoke about the renewed threat of Russia, the serious nature of cybercrime and the major security challenges of the early 21st century.

Todd Benjamin: There is one country that has, in a sense, dominated the geopolitical headlines for the last year and a half, and that’s Russia. I’m going to ask you a very straightforward question – are we in a new cold war?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Well, there are similarities, and there are also differences. Obviously, one difference is that you don’t have a communist camp versus a capitalist camp; today, almost everybody considers themselves capitalist, even the Chinese, though with a socialist touch. But you do have Russia as what I would call a
geopolitical spoiler, exercising coercion very much in the Soviet style. So that’s why there are also some similarities between the current situation and the Cold War.

TB: You labelled Russia a geopolitical spoiler; what should NATO have done that might have stopped you using that label?

AR: Seen retrospectively, I think we have done the right thing. Sometimes I have even been asked if we were a bit naïve to try to include Russia in our Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Because the fact is that we have done a lot to reach out to Russia. I can tell you that back in 1997, we adopted a joint
NATO-Russia document called the Founding Act. And one of the more visible initiatives in that Founding Act was to allow Russia to establish a kind of embassy: a permanent representation in the middle of NATO headquarters in Brussels.

It grew to become the second largest representation next to the United States, but it was a confidence building measure. And in 2002 we established something very special, namely a NATO-Russia council to act as a framework for consultation and joint decisions. So, I think we have done what we could to include Russia in a constructive partnership.

You do have Russia as what I would call a geopolitical spoiler, exercising coercion very much in the Soviet style

TB: What do you wish you knew then that you know now about Putin and his psychology?

AR: I have met President Putin on several occasions, and concluded that the best approach to the Kremlin is to demonstrate unity and cohesion within the Western block and maintain a firm stance, because that is the language that is best understood in the Kremlin.

TB: Now, that could be interpreted in different ways. There was basically a coming-together over sanctions because of what they’ve done in the Crimea and the Ukraine. Now we have Russia, at the invitation of Assad, in Syria; and that’s complicating what’s going on there. Besides keeping Assad in power, what game is Putin, for lack of a better word, playing in Syria and what’s happening in Turkey?

AR: Yes, there might be some side motives, but, of course, the primary goal of the Russian engagement in Syria is to save the Assad regime. And, I agree with you, that has complicated the whole situation because you cannot fight ISIS and, at the same time, save the Assad regime. The Assad regime is not a bulwark against ISIS. On the contrary, the brutality of the Assad regime fuels the recruitment of fighters for ISIS. So the primary goal is to save the Assad regime.

Now, Russia may have some side motives, one of them being to send a clear signal to Turkey that a no-fly zone is a no-go policy. You may know that Turkey has advocated the establishment of a no-fly zone near the Turkish border as a refuge for Syrian refugees. But Russia has now sent a clear signal through the violation of Turkish air space, that if you are to exercise a no-fly zone, there is a clear risk that you will have to shoot down Russian aircrafts because we reserve the right to fly everywhere. And that would, of course, dangerously escalate the whole conflict. So that might also be a motive.

TB: There are a couple of potential triggers where this could escalate further. One is Turkey, a NATO member; another is if there was an escalation ladder out of the Ukraine, into the Baltics. We have a lot of people sitting in this audience from Eastern Europe who are quite nervous. What probability do you assign that Putin would make an incursion beyond Ukraine, or into Turkey,  that would trigger some NATO response militarily?

AR: It is, of course, a matter of concern. In particular after witnessing the Russian aggression against the Ukraine; it is a wake-up call, a reminder that we cannot take security and stability in Europe for granted. And there is a clear risk that Russia might proceed to other fronts, including the Baltic States, because the Putin doctrine states that Russia preserves the right to intervene in other countries to protect what they consider the interests of Russian-speaking communities. And that’s a matter of concern, particularly in Estonia and Latvia.

Now, you asked me about the risk of an open conflict. I think, thanks to their membership of NATO, the Baltic States are protected against an open Russian attack, because an open attack against the Baltic States would lead to an invocation of NATO Article 5 – the famous solidarity clause, that we would consider an attack on one, an attack on all.

TB: I understand Article 5, but my question is how likely is it that Putin would make this type of confrontation that would trigger a response with NATO, be it either in the Baltics or in Turkey?

AR: I gave you a clear answer: that the probability is very low thanks to the membership of NATO, but, having said that, I think there is another risk with a higher probability, and that is what we would call hybrid warfare. Exactly what we saw in Crimea, this combination of small green men, sophisticated propaganda and disinformation campaigns; intimidation of Russia’s neighbours. We saw the abduction of an Estonian officer last year. We saw the detention of the Lithuanian ship. We have seen numerous violations of Baltic airspace. So, these examples of intimidation represent a high risk.

The Assad regime is not a bulwark against ISIS. On the contrary the brutality of the Assad regime fuels the recruitment of fighters for ISIS

TB: How do you see the situation in Syria ultimately playing out? Does Assad leave at some point? What will the political landscape look like in the Middle East in one to two years from now?

AR: Well, first of all, I can’t imagine Assad and his regime as an integrated part of a long-term sustainable solution in Syria because he is the source of the problems. He provoked the civil war in Syria due to the brutality of the Assad regime. So you cannot save the Assad regime and stop the bloodshed in Syria. Now, I don’t think there is a military solution in Syria. A long-term solution should be a political solution ,which, I think, will involve a power-sharing arrangement in Syria: granting more autonomy to local communities along ethnic and religious lines. So you have a Kurdish community, an Alawite community, a Sunni community, maybe a Christian community, and decentralised power – let these communities engage in a power-sharing arrangement, very much along the lines we saw in Bosnia in the nineties. We created peace through, what I would call, a soft partitioning of Bosnia along religious and ethnic lines. It’s not ideal, it’s quite heavy, but it created peace.

TB: Well, it may have created the peace in former Yugoslavia; but you look at what’s going on in the Middle East, be it Iraq, for instance, and it’s still very tribal, it’s a different situation.

AR: It is much more complicated, I fully agree. But, in Iraq, the long-term solution should be a kind of decentralisation, a devolution of powers to the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites. Let’s face it, after the First World War, the western colonial powers drew more or less artificial border lines in the Middle East, not fully respecting traditional religious and ethnic community lines. I think we have to realise that you cannot find long-term sustainable peace in the region without giving more autonomy to these communities.

TB: You said that there’s not a military solution in Syria. There are many different strands that are going on there, among them, ISIS. What is the best way to fight ISIS?

AR: Two things: first, continue the coalition air strikes against ISIS – that’s essential. The coalition now counts more than 60 countries, so it’s a broad international coalition – those air strikes should continue. But, second, let’s face it: you cannot fight ISIS through an air campaign alone. You can pulverise an enemy through an air campaign, but you cannot control the lands. So, it’s my clear assessment that you will need troops on the ground to fight ISIS and eventually dismantle this terrorist organisation. But I would not suggest deployment of Western troops. I think countries in the region should deploy troops for a ground force.

But that actually goes to the core of the problems created by the Russian engagement, because the majority of nations, to deploy such ground troops, want Assad to leave. And as long as they fear that the Russian presence in Syria will save Assad, they will also be reluctant to engage in such a ground operation.

TB: It’s obviously a very complex situation. In terms of the broader fight against terrorism, do you think that the west is doing enough, and if not, what else can be done?

AR:I think we first have to realise that the fight against international terrorism will be an eternal effort. We will be confronted with this evil for many, many years, maybe decades to come, so that’s the point of departure. Second, do we do enough? We should always learn lessons from the past, but I think we have done, and we are doing a lot. Among the lessons learnt is the one very important lesson that we will have to address the evil at its root. And that’s why an international military operation was launched in Afghanistan, to prevent that culture from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism. And we achieved that goal.

An international coalition is now conducting an air campaign against ISIS. I also think that on the economic front we will have to do more to cut off external financing of extremists. We know that wealthy people in the Gulf region are financing some of the extremist organisations.

TB:Let me ask another question. Was it a fundamental mistake, in the deal that was struck with Iran over nuclear weapons, not to broaden out to include no engagement with Hamas, Hezbollah, and so on?

AR:Well, it may well be that the Iran deal is not, in all respects, 100 per cent perfect. It is a compromise, and in a compromise you will never get 100 per cent of what you wanted for yourself. But, on balance, an agreement with Iran is better than non-agreement, because an agreement will at least provide some opportunities for the international community to monitor and control what is going on in Iran. If there is non-agreement, no doubt, the Iranian regime would continue its aspirations to acquire a nuclear weapon. And that would provoke a very dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. You can be sure that Saudi Arabia would not stand idly by witnessing Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. So Saudi Arabia would speed up its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, and you would be faced with a very dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. That’s why, on balance, I think the agreement with Iran is better than no agreement.

TB: The US director of national intelligence has identified cyber-attacks and cyber espionage as the US’s biggest threat. Is it a bigger potential threat than terrorism? You can go down that road if you look at attacks on infrastructure and so on.

AR: Yes, it is very asymmetric warfare because you can, using very limited amount of resources from a modest basement somewhere, initiate a comprehensive cyber-attack that can cause devastating damage to any society. So, in that respect, a cyber-attack can potentially be much, much more dangerous than a terrorist attack.

TB: We started off talking about whether we’re in a new cold war. Is the world in a more dangerous place than it was in the Cold War because of the intervention of these non-state actors? Be they terrorists or cyber-attacks and so on.

AR: I would say it is less predictable. During the Cold War you had two fronts, so to speak. Simplistically speaking, east counters west, but today, it’s much more complex, much more difficult to identify from where we see the threats. So you have multiple threats including cyber threats, terrorist threats, and threats of the use of weapons of mass destruction. And when it comes to Russia, it’s disturbing to listen to some Russian political leaders indicating the possible use of nuclear weapons. During the communist time, Soviet leaders never, ever mentioned the possible use of nuclear weapons. We knew they were there, but they didn’t think it was necessary to even mention it. But today, you occasionally hear Russian leaders indicate the possible use of nuclear weapons. And that makes the current Russian leadership less predictable than the former communist leaders.

TB: If Greece were to exit the eurozone, would it raise any potential geopolitical concerns?

AR: Well, first of all, I hope that Greece will remain in the eurozone. I think for the euro, as well as for the European project, it’s best if Greece could stay within the euro. If Greece were to exit the euro, it would have a very damaging effect on the Greek economy. And in the current situation, that could have potentially severe consequences for the rest of Europe. Greece would be faced with even more economic challenges. And taking into account the influx of refugees, that would be even more challenging for Greek society and the Greek economy. And we do know that there are special links between Greece and Russia. Make no mistake, Russia would quickly grasp the opportunity to cultivate those links even further and that might, from a geopolitical perspective, pose a lot of challenges to the European product, to the European Union and to the transatlantic alliance.

So for those reasons, I hope that Greece will stay within the euro.

TB: In retrospect, was NATO’s incursion in Libya the right decision?

AR: It was the right decision, and I will remind you that the NATO operation in Libya took place on the basis of a United Nations Security Council resolution, which, again, was based on the principle of responsibility to protect – an historic Security Council decision. For the first time in the history of the UN, the Security Council decided that the international community had a responsibility to protect civilians against attacks from its own government.

So it would have been a major failure if the international community hadn’t implemented this Security Council resolution. NATO allies decided that the best way to implement the mandate was to let NATO conduct the operation. We did so in an unprecedented precision campaign over seven months and we achieved our goal, namely to fully implement the UN Security Council resolution.

Having said that, I think the international community failed to follow up properly, and that’s a problem because Libya is a problem today. Libya is on the brink of being a failed state, but that’s not because of the military operation, that’s because the international community didn’t help the new authorities in Libya to build a new society from scratch.

TB: Was it a mistake for the US troops to pull out of Iraq?

AR: Well, seen retrospectively, of course you could argue that they should have stayed and helped the Iraqi security forces to build up a better capacity. But, let me remind you that apart from the fact that President Obama wanted to withdraw from Iraq, the Americans couldn’t stay because the Iraqi government wouldn’t conclude the necessary security arrangements – a prerequisite for staying in another country. So there were two factors: one, the political desire wasn’t to withdraw, but equally important was the fact that the Iraqi government wouldn’t allow the Americans to stay.