Crimea annexation part of Russian strategy to prevent states in region embracing West, says NATO chief

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: archive of Czech Government

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has described Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region as the most serious security crisis since the end of the Cold War. In Prague on Thursday, the NATO secretary general demanded that Russia de-escalate tensions and withdraw around 40,000 troops from near the Ukrainian border. But what can the alliance do to pressure Moscow to back down? And are there any circumstances under which NATO would react militarily in the case of further Russian aggression? I put those questions to Mr. Rasmussen shortly before his departure from Prague.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen,  Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: archive of Czech Government
But our interview first touched on Czech military spending. In an unusually critical NATO report quoted by a local newspaper on Thursday, the alliance said the Czech Republic would have serious problems playing a useful role in its missions unless the country boosted its defence spending considerably. So, I asked Anders Fogh Rasmussen, did such a report exist, and had he discussed it with Czech leaders?

“We never comment on such reports. We deal with defence planning in a direct dialogue between NATO defence planners and the governments of NATO allies.

“But we discussed today the possibility of increasing defence spending. I have expressed my concerns about the low level of defence spending and I’m pleased that the prime minister assured me that the current government will stop cuts.

“And then I added, I hope that you can find political support for also gradually increasing defence investments. Because we need that.”

NATO’s target is that member states spend the equivalent of 2 percent of GDP on defence. The Czech Republic spends just over 1 percent. Recently the Czech ambassador to NATO said that the Czechs were beginning to be seen as fare dodgers or free loaders, who weren’t pulling their weight financially. Is that the perception at NATO HQ?

“No. We consider the Czech Republic a staunch ally. And despite the restricted budget the Czech Republic has stayed committed to our operation in Afghanistan and also contributed to our K4 operation in Kosovo.

“The Czech Republic is an active participant in a number of defence projects, so we appreciate the Czech contribution to NATO.

Russian soldiers near Simferopol,  Crimea,  April 8,  2014,  photo: CTK
“But I have expressed some concerns today, because looking to the future it is a problem that the Czech Republic spends too little on future-oriented modern military capabilities.”

What does the whole Ukraine situation mean for NATO – has it found a new sense of purpose all these years after the end of the Cold War?

“Yes, but I have never doubted about the purpose of NATO [laughs]. NATO is an alliance which has the core task of providing effective defence and protection of our allies.

“And of course the Russian aggression we have seen in Ukraine puts extra emphasis on this core task, because many of our allies are very much concerned about the security situation. This is the reason we have enhanced our collective defence.”

So far Moscow hasn’t listened to calls from you or other Western leaders to de-escalate the situation and pull its troops back. Is there anything practically that NATO can do to pressure Russia to back down?

“While NATO is important in this respect, we should also understand that NATO is not the only… response. It’s much broader. We are not discussing military options.

“But if Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine it would have grave consequences for relations with what I would call the Western world, as a whole, not least economically.

“Further intervention in Ukraine would in my opinion lead to broader economic sanctions that would have a severe negative impact on the Russian economy.”

Are there any circumstances in which you can see NATO intervening militarily in Ukraine, or perhaps if Russia sets its sights on other countries?

A masked pro-Russian activist speaks to supporters in Donetsk,  Ukraine,  April 10,  2014,  photo: CTK
“Yes, but in the case that we are speaking about potential attacks on NATO allies it’s clear that there will also be a firm NATO response. We have the famous Article 5, which states that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all.

“I think the Russians know that, so I would doubt that they would have any intention to attack NATO allies.

“But that’s exactly the essence of this – that strong and credible deterrence is the best way to avoid attacks and this is the reason why we are right now looking into ways we could possibly further strengthen our collective strength and deterrence.”

I understand that NATO is going to help the Ukrainian army to reform. What does that mean in practical terms? Will you have NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine?

“No. I don’t foresee NATO troops on the ground. But of course it is an important part of our response to this crisis – that we strengthen our cooperation with Ukraine, including military to military cooperation.

“We have a partnership with Ukraine, with a special NATO-Ukraine commission, and within that framework we want to strengthen our cooperation when it comes to military capacity development, enhanced Ukrainian participation in NATO excercises, defence reforms in Ukraine. So across the board we intend to strengthen our cooperation with Ukraine.”

Why do you think Russia is acting as it is acting at this moment in time?

“Well, I see this as part of a bigger strategy. This goes actually beyond Crimea. The overall Russian goal is to prevent countries in Eastern Europe from seeking Euro-Atlantic integration, with the EU and NATO.

“To that end, Russia is interested in frozen, prolonged, protracted conflicts in the region. Like in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. I would add to this Nagorno-Karabakh.

“If you look at all that, you will see that it serves the purpose of preventing these countries from seeking Euro-Atlantic integration.

“It also serves Russian energy interests. So it’s clear that this is not just about Crimea. It goes beyond that.”

Demonstrators carry Russian flags in support of pro-Russian protesters in Simferopol,  Crimea,  April 10,  2014,  photo: CTK
What do you think Russia’s endgame is in the current crisis in Ukraine?

“I’m not going to guess about Russian aspirations. But we do see a very massive military build-up along the Ukrainian border. Maybe around 40,000 Russian troops at high alert, with high readiness, prepared also to invade the eastern parts of Ukraine if a political decision is made.

“Whether that will be made, I don’t know. But these troops are not training – they are ready for combat.”