Ex-NATO official: False hopes for Ukraine, no bloc membership for it

The latest NATO summit saw the decision to create a rapid-response force, aimed specifically at Russia. It also saw loud statements about the North-Atlantic alliance now aimed at becoming the world’s security hub. But is NATO as unified as it wants to be seen? Are the member states ready to sacrifice money to power the organization? And is NATO really ready for a push to the East? We put these questions to a former NATO deputy assistant secretary general for strategic communications, Michael Stopford, is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Michael Stopford, former NATO deputy assistant Secretary General for Strategic Communications, welcome to the program, it’s great to have you with us. NATO being very relevant lately again… Now, it’s establishing new military bases in Eastern Europe, also we have rapid-response force aimed squarely at Russia. It’s being very honest about it, not hiding that it’s aimed against Russia – so won’t this inevitably lead to an escalation, when Moscow responds? Because, you know, surely, it will have a reaction…

Michael Stopford: Well, it’s a pretty tough opening line, Sophie. First of all, I should say that I’m not NATO official at the moment. I left NATO; I was deputy assistance Secretary General for 3 years until 2011. So, first of all I have to say I am speaking my personal capacity here…

SS: As someone who knows NATO from inside…

MS: Sure. I would say though that I did have a careful look at the declaration they wrote. And it did say that NATO would still value strategic partnership with Russia – it’s in there, it’s in that declaration, and it says that it does not, quote, “seek confrontation with Russia”. So, although I’m not a NATO spokesman in any way, I don’t think you would need to put it totally negatively like that. The other thing is, and I would come back to that, is that there’s a lot of talk about other issues. This declaration goes on forever, it has hundreds of paragraphs. It talks about ISIS; it talks about whatever we call it….

SS: The ISIS group in Iraq.

MS: Yes, yes, but what’s the full name...The Islamic State of Levant, it talks a lot about them, it talks a lot about terrorism. I wouldn’t say that the whole thing is centered, focused entirely on latest events in Ukraine.

SS: Sure. But the bare facts are that they are going to be based in Eastern Europe and reinforce eastern Europe, and 40,000 rapid response forces will be based in Eastern Europe as well.

MS: Does it say “based”? I thought actually that there would only be a sort of command center, but the forces will not be based, as far as I’m able to tell from the declaration…

SS: So you’re thinking Russia can just ignore that?

MS: Obviously it’s not for me to say what Russia can and cannot do, but if you want my commentary as a former person there, I would take a longer view on this, and I would say that when I was in NATO, there was a lot of progress under the science for peace and security program that I used to run; that the NATO & Russia council actually managed to get some good progress, so… My response to this type of question is to say that I certainly regret where things have got to at the moment, and I believe that there are many shared issues that NATO and Russia could work on, and I hope that we revert to where we were, frankly.

SS: If we focus on Ukraine, NATO has committed financial and material aid to the country. It has also promised to conduct regular military exercises on its territory – we know that there are unconfirmed reports…

MS: I don’t remember them saying that. I certainly know that everybody at NATO who has actually talked about this – and I again, I’m not a NATO spokesman, this is purely my personal observations, you know – I do recall that everybody has made quite clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO.

SS: We’ll actually get to that part in a bit, but my question to you was how much do you think NATO is willing to be involved in Ukraine right now?

MS: I really cannot speak for NATO today. All I can say is that, look at the wording of that declaration quite carefully, and I think it says very clearly what they are prepared to do and what not prepared to do. To my mind, and that’s why I’m ready to speak to you today, there are so many other issue that face the, if you like, international security today, there’s a whole range of issues across the horizon, from international terrorism to plagues of Ebola, to climate change, etc – I still think there are many more issues that make it more interesting for Russia and this region to cooperate with NATO, EU, the West, etc, than there are to divide us. And I’ll come back to that.

SS: So you feel like there’s no confrontation between NATO and Russia.

MS: No. I don’t say that. I think that, I personally very much regret the deterioration in the relations over the last year or two. When I left in 2011, there was reasonably positive progress on a lot of different things.

SS: Yeah, we were cooperating on many different things, including Afghanistan as well, and these cooperations were halted.

MS: We ran this science program, where there was a big cooperative endeavor on terrorism, and we ran a program called “STANDEX” which was working together, institutes in France, Germany, U.S., with Russian institutes, on combating threats of terrorism, on creating detection devices that could spot explosives and terrorist devices in public places. Some of the major participants were St. Petersburg, two academies in St. Petersburg. The best technology was in Russia.

SS: So all this is being halted right now?

MS: It’s being frozen, but I hope that it will come back.

SS:So is this a major drawback to NATO-cooperation being halted – programs like this being wrapped up, or there are more important things that are actually frozen?

MS: There was a big program, as you know, in terms of nuclear proliferation, in terms of looking after the disposal of nuclear equipment following the end of the Cold War, which was a very cooperative program between the U.S. and Russia. I believe it’s still going on. There were these programs, as I said, under the NATO-Russia council on science; there were many ways in which I think… between, probably, 1995 and 2010, there were a lot of cooperative programs going on, so I certainly regret that this has affected them.

SS: Do you think there’s a possibility of an actual NATO member and Russia going into confrontation with each other?

MS: No, I don’t.

SS: You know why I am asking – because just lately we’ve been hearing a lot of, like, “Putin is Hitler” from Cameron, Obama reassuring Estonia, “don’t worry we will protect you”…

MS: I certainly deplore that type of, any type of language that leads to possibly a direct confrontation, and I do not believe that we will lead into direct confrontation. I think that at the moment there’s a lot of, if you like… as you say, situation is difficult, there has been some unfortunate reactions on both sides, but I do not believe we’re going to get into situation of any kind of direct confrontation, I certainly don’t. The one thing I would say, and I think it’s fair to say this, is that for Western public opinion, honestly, Sophie, I believe the turning point was the downing of that Malaysian airline flight MH17 – because that was so… obviously a tragic loss of innocent life.

SS: That no one really wanted.

MS: I’m not pointing responsibility here, because I understand that discussions are still going on, that the investigation is going on. It’s not for me, as an individual citizen, to point blame. I’m just saying that is an appalling tragedy, and it was terrible for those poor Dutch people to lose their lives, with Holland having absolutely nothing to do with Ukraine, nothing to do with Russia, and all those poor people were killed. I think that was tragedy that really hit home and for many people that was the moment that they first woke up in the West and looked at this conflict – because, before, it seemed a very long way away.

SS: So that was the turning point where people were like “we’re going to protect ourselves from Russia and Ukraine”?

MS: No, I think that was the turning point when people said “this is a serious conflict and it’s much more worrying for us all than we thought”. I would not say that people immediately said “this is what we have to do to protect ourselves”, but it certainly was the first moment when the public opinion had focused on it. My view on that is simply to say that… you know, I hope the investigations proceed, and whoever was responsible faces the consequences, but it’s not for me to say who was responsible.

SS: I’m thinking that the best way to protect people is maybe to bring them into NATO – it is very willing to accept Czech Republic and Poland into the organization – why do you think they are being so reluctant about Georgia and Ukraine?

MS: Well, there are political discussions ever since the beginning of this organization, right? Even about the EU, if you like, about the what the role and membership of this international organization should be. Certainly when I was at NATO there was a lot of talk about working in partnership with countries, there was a lot of emphasis on working through the partnership for peace program, there was emphasize even on working with Russia, there was emphasis on working with countries in the Middle East and Arab World. Since the beginning, there was talk about which countries may or may not be members. I fully understand, again, and I consider myself a personal observer here, the concerns of Russia with which countries may or may not belong to NATO, and I know that original understanding, going back to 1997, was that the countries, bordering Russia may not become members. So, I can totally understand, speaking on a personal basis here, why Russia should be concerned; but I think at the moment that there are many different points of view, even within NATO countries about where the alliance may expand or not.

SS: So you’re saying there’s no unified vision within the organization?

MS: No, otherwise things would have been much simpler – with respect to, say, Georgia, or Ukraine, or other countries – I believe there are a wide variety of views, as far as I understand it.

SS: I just want to quote Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka – he said: “Ukraine is not ready for EU membership, not ready for NATO membership, both organizations should be giving realistic hopes to Ukraine”. In your personal opinion, do you feel like Ukraine has been given false hope?

MS: As I far as I recall from my times at NATO, there were always many differing points of view about membership of NATO, about whether Ukraine might or may not be… These discussions have been there for a long time. It is not new. When I was there, and it’s only 3 years ago, there was much more emphasis on partnership and on partnership programs, than on deciding exactly which countries should or should not be the members. But at the same time, you know, even in the EU there has been a lot of discussion about which countries may or may not be members of the EU, as you know – and in organization that has 28 or 29 members states, NATO and EU have quite overlapping memberships, there always would be discussion about which countries should or should not be invited.

SS: In a nutshell, your personal opinion, do you think Ukraine will be part of NATO? Yes or no?

MS: Do I think it will be part of NATO? My personal opinion as a former member of the staff there is I do not see the overall composition of NATO changing in the foreseeable future, no.

SS: Back in the days, you were actually hired, quote, to “retool NATO’s image”, right?

MS: Yes, yes.

SS: Why was NATO in need of retooling, what was there to retool?

MS: I was hired rather surprisingly from Coca-Cola, and people used to make mini-jokes about “why is the Coca-Cola guy getting work in NATO - maybe we’re going to have NATO-lite or NATO-zero” - these were the jokes they used to make. So, Sophie, i think that it actually comes back to this Cold War stuff. It’s true that NATO was an emanation, a product of the Cold War - you remember, we had the countries of Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact.

SS: You had one obvious enemy that you had to fight.

MS: I really would not like to use the word “enemy” - I really don’t think that’s a helpful term. Let’s just say that these were “defence organisations”, ok? So there was the Warsaw Pact and there was NATO. Then, luckily, with the unfreezing of the Cold War and by the changes that happened on both sides, the changes that happened in Russia - and I would say, and I am free to say whatever I like on this program - that for me, the greatest heroes of the last century are the people who brought the Cold War to an end. To my mind, that was mr. Gorbachev and mr. Reagan. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, I was so delighted that it came to an end. So, NATO being seen as an organisation, to some extent, of the Cold War, when I was there, there was a question about what is its role today.

SS: So it sort of lost its purpose?

MS: Yes. I would say, younger people in member countries, people who did not grow up in the Cold War time, were asking themselves, they were saying “well, what’s the purpose of this organisation today, why should we pay our taxes to an organisation”...So my role was to help people think through - so what is the role, why should you be interested in the common defence organisation. In those days, just 3 years ago, I was delighted to see that the concept of security was broadening. We were no longer thinking about East-West; we were thinking more broadly about international terrorism.

SS: But was your PR offensive aimed at politicians, so you would get defence budget, or general public?

MS: My role was to explain to the general public what the role of the defence organisation like NATO was. So, I was very happy to show that were part of the common security architecture, and during my time at NATO, it was very much involved with Afghanistan, but it was also involved in this anti-terrorist activities. It was also involved with working with Russian laboratories, as I said, on anti-terrorism activities. It was also involved in trying to stop the pirates in Somalia - you remember - who were kidnapping people. It was involved with reaching out to Middle East. It had quite a broad concept of security, just 3 or 4 years ago. You can read these by former U.S. ambassadors to NATO, talking about NATO’s global security objectives. I would say, actually, there was a lot of shared objectives with Russia and former Warsaw pact country members, when you look at security in that light. My role was to explain that - and I think we succeeded quite well. Admittedly over the last 2 or 3 years things have changed, rather.

SS: But then you’re talking about all these common threats that NATO members are facing, for example last week’s summit at Cardiff saw member states fail to agree actually to spend 2% GDP on defence - Germany even refused to do that. Why do you think are they being so reluctant - are the threats they are facing not threatening enough?

MS: The question of defence spending is of course a huge issue. But, the NATO Secretary-General talks about how there should be defence spending up to a certain level, I think it’s agreed on this 2% or so, at least minimum of 2%. I would say, frankly, again, as an observer and not a current official, the question of how every country spends its domestic budget is totally up to how it perceives its own needs. Defence spending is, of course, very important if you see an external threat - but as a citizen, I want my money to be spent on things that really affect me and my family and my life, right? So I want my taxes to be spent on education and on health, and on employment; these are things that are really making a difference to my life. So, the question of how you will portion your money to different parts of a national budget is something that obviously every country has to decide on it’s own.

SS: But NATO is about combating threats and facing threats - so if you look at the defence spending at all the 28 NATO member states, it accounts to $1 trillion, and, obviously, U.S. is the major contributor - it accounts to 70% of the alliance’s total military spending and budget. So where does this leave all the other members? Are they like a burden to Washington?

MS: Again, I don’t want to focus on defence spending. The most appalling crisis, or the most difficult crisis, that hit people at least in the Western countries, and I think this, of course, spilled over to Russia and many others - was the financial crisis. So, the financial crisis around the few years back, which happened just at time of President Obama coming to power - that was what really threatened people’s livelihoods. You want to talk about threats. People saw their life-savings disappear, they saw there was no way for their children to go to college, they saw there was no way to pay for healthcare. That was the biggest threat to people’s existence, certainly in the U.S. Yes, it’s absolutely true that the U.S. contribution has always been much larger than the European contribution, absolutely, that’s true…

SS: Is that a problem? Do you think that is a problem, because there is… I mean, obviously, when you spend a lot of money on something, then you going to be like “ok, you’re going to do this and that”, and…

MS: It’s been a big discussion within the alliance for many years - and that’s why the Secretary General has been calling for higher defence budgets from all the different countries. At the same time, every country is sovereign, every country makes its own decisions, and they will act according to where they believe their priorities lie.

SS: Just a couple more precise questions. Do you think there’s willingness to get involved in ISIS from the EU member states that are also NATO member states, after Iraq and Afghanistan?

MS: I believe that the threat posed by ISIS, and, frankly, by other terrorist organisations around the world, is indeed serious enough for the EU members of NATO, or the European members of NATO, as much as the U.S. to get involved. You said “get involved” - exactly what that means? I don’t know. I mean, does this mean military intervention? Does this mean boots on the ground? I think the people are extremely nervous about that kind of thing, following Afghanistan and following Iraq. I would also say, although I hope this doesn’t sound naive, that a lot of these terrorist-based activities are based on exclusion and poverty, and hopelessness in the population. Perhaps, a more long-term view about dealing with all of these issues, all the way down to, say, Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, would be major programs of economic development and support, social development; because only the people who have nothing to lose, who feel that they are excluded from society join up with these terrorist organisations and then kill innocent people.

SS: My last question - why didn’t NATO actually agree to establish a permanent presence in eastern Europe, like many members have requested. I mean, 40-thousand strong rapid reaction force - it’s hardly what countries like Lithuania and Poland wanted; especially if ISIS is such a big threat.

MS: As we said before, NATO has 28 or 29 members-states at the moment - I forgot the exact number - and of course there’s going to be very different points of view about exactly what should be done on each particular political demand, challenge, crisis or whatever. And, I believe that Russia’s interests are certainly taken into account by many members of NATO. I believe just as the NATO declaration said, they are not seeking confrontation with Russia, I would certainly have liked to have seen over the years, over the decades, if you like, a more cooperative approach between NATO and Russia. I think there were opportunities lost at the end of the Cold War. I believe there’s a huge commonality of interests between Russia, with its tremendous background in science and research and its great universities, and I think there are great series of opportunities for Russia to work with member countries of NATO and indeed with the alliance. That’s what we did when I was there, and I regret what’s happened during these 2 or 3 years.

SS: Just recently, NATO Secretary-General was quoted as saying that he wants NATO to become a hub of a global security - is it not actually undermining stability a little bit?

MS: I think the “hub of a global security” - I don’t know when he actually said that - but a hub of global security is the UN Security Council. I would certainly insist on that. We all know that UNSC, because of its membership, because of its five permanent members, has often had a hard time in agreeing what to do in any particular situation. However the only place that has universal responsibility for global security issues remains the UN and the UN security council. Where I think NATO has been successful in terms of security is actually in acting on behalf of the international community. So where there could be a NATO operation that was actually endorsed and approved by the UN Security Council - I think that would be a very positive situation. Meanwhile, NATO is responsible for security in its own borders and amongst the members of the alliance, and the out-of-border activities, where they can really make, I would say, serious and positive difference without antagonizing major and important country like Russia - that’s my personal view, that may not be the view of the NATO declaration.

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to Michael Stopford, former NATO assistance Secretary General for Strategic Communications, we were talking about where NATO stands right now, what’s its purpose, has it re-gained relevance… that’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we will see you next time.