RD Interview: Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, explains why we should expect a worsening trend in Russia-NATO relations as long as European security is viewed in Cold War terms.

Russia’s permanent representative to NATO Alexander Grushko, second left, and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Morgulov, second right, at the Berlin Security Conference, November 2013. Photo: DPA/Vostock-Photo

In late April, a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council took place in Brussels for the first time since NATO suspended relations with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Late last week, relations with Russia were once again discussed at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers. Moreover, new moves vis-à-vis Moscow will be considered by the NATO summit in Warsaw in early July.

Taken together, these moves would appear to suggest that Russia and NATO are trying to find some common ground on the future of European security. The problem, however, is that policy measures taken by both sides over the past two years have led to a hardening of both sides’ positions, and an increased risk of military confrontation.

In the interview below, Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Alexander Grushko, discusses the dangers of the current situation in the Russia-NATO relationship and suggests several ways of how it might be resolved in the future.

Russia Direct: What are the consequences of the first meeting of the Russia-NATO Council after such a long break?

Alexander Grushko: I would not overestimate the results of this meeting and make long-term projections. It was useful to meet and talk – there has not been such a meeting for almost two years. It was a good opportunity to discuss in-depth key problems of European security. So, it is a positive factor as such.

RD: But is it correct to say that, in concrete terms, nothing followed – you met, made statements that no progress was achieved and that’s it?

A.G.: The main problem today is not whether meetings take place or not, but that NATO has suspended all cooperation with Russia. We used to work together on a whole range of projects that strengthened in real terms the security of the countries involved. Today we have no positive agenda and I do not see that NATO would be ready to reconsider its current policy.

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However, at the NATO-Russia Council meeting we saw signs of regret that as a result of NATO decisions we cannot continue our cooperation on Afghanistan, where the situation is clearly worsening. We cannot have normal cooperation on a whole range of issues related to the fight against terrorism, which had constituted the core element of the Russia-NATO Council’s activities before the crisis. We also cooperated on counter-piracy. The list may go on. But so far today’s situation doesn’t allow us to be overly optimistic.

RD: What do we have today in Russia-NATO relations - some sort of stabilization of confrontation or an increase in confrontation? Or do you see some other trends? If there is no optimism presently, what kind of future do you see here?

A.G.: It appears that the trend towards worsening of relations has not yet reached its bottom. What we take from the meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers last week is that, despite its calls for a political dialogue, NATO continues its policy of deterrence vis-à-vis Russia based on Cold War schemes. I don’t want to say that we are in a state of a Cold War with NATO, but NATO is building its security based on Cold War methods. And of course this raises concerns, because we see not only political decisions, but also a military buildup. The policy is being transformed into military planning and hardware, and the measures that the United States and its European allies are taking today are reproducing a confrontational model. This model, in turn, will be affecting future policy.

RD: The latest episode here is the opening of the land-based missile defense station in Romania, which was accompanied by statements regarding the Black Sea area. What is the essence of the disagreement over the Black Sea?

A.G.: This Black Sea region has always been a unique area of cooperation. If you look at Russia’s policy in the region, you will see that it was aimed at strengthening interdependency, working in different formats for cooperation, and increasing the role of Black Sea littoral states in solving socio-economic and transportation issues. Russia contributed significantly to the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, helped it to get established and gain political weight. The Black Sea has become for the first time an arena for maritime confidence-building measures. Littoral states created a joint maritime group – “BLACKSEAFOR.”

In my view, today NATO is trying to apply confrontational schemes to the Black Sea maritime area as well. President Erdogan said recently that one should not allow the Black Sea to turn into a “Russian lake.” But I think NATO understands that the Black Sea will never turn into a “NATO lake” either. We will take all necessary measures to neutralize possible threats and attempts to exert military pressure on Russia from the south.

I would like to add that the Russian Black Sea Fleet was closely integrated in the international efforts to stabilize the situation in the Mediterranean and further south. Black Sea Fleet vessels took part in an anti-piracy operation together with the EU. They even participated in NATO’s anti-terrorist Operation Active Endeavor. Now NATO has stopped this cooperation.

RD: In the current situation of increased tensions, including the recent episode of Russian warplanes buzzing a U.S. destroyer 70 kilometers off the coast of Kaliningrad, how reliable are the existing “hot lines” and other measures of preventing an eruption of a Russia-NATO military confrontation?

A.G.: In recent decades the international community and the European countries have created, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), quite an advanced system of arms control, measures to prevent unintended military incidents and other instruments, including “hot lines” between military commands. The Russian Federation has concluded such agreements with a number of NATO countries. They have been well tested in Russian-Norwegian relations, and they keep working quite effectively.

But the problem today is not how sufficient such mechanisms are, but NATO policy itself and its military buildup. First NATO expanded closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, then started to create military infrastructure and increase military activity there. It does not make much difference whether troops are rotated or deployed on a permanent basis. We see military exercises, building of infrastructure, intensified military missions like the Baltic Air Policing mission. All these turn Europe’s calmest region in terms of classical military threats, into an area of military competition.

Of course, in order to deescalate the situation, we should tackle these problems. But any dialogue would make sense only when NATO rejects this policy, when the process of flexing muscles and increasing military capabilities along our borders would be stopped and reversed. Only then will there be conditions for dialogue on how to ensure security in Europe, as the real threats are generated not from within the continent, but from outside – something we see constantly today with the migration crisis, the threat of terrorism, etc.

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The quality of security in Europe will ultimately depend not only on how we will manage to decrease military tensions between NATO and Russia, but also on how we manage to organize cooperation in the fight against common security threats. Here the situation looks more promising, because pragmatic interests persist and despite all attempts to use organizations like NATO as an instrument to isolate Russia, cooperation on key security challenges is developing in other formats – the Quartet on the Middle East, the International Syria Support Group and the Normandy Format, etc. Countries that take part in such efforts, which are ready to cooperate with the Russian Federation on a truly collective basis, with respect to our legitimate security interests, should probably retune the policy of the organizations, in which they participate – I mean here not only NATO, but also the European Union.

RD: But the argument of the West is that it was Russia that acted as an aggressor and should thus be contained. What do you say when you are told that it was Russia that annexed Crimea, deployed new weapons in the Kaliningrad region and so on.

A.G.: Our partners like to open new pages in history. Indeed, we saw attempts to make use of the political crisis in Ukraine, the genesis of which is clear to everybody – it was the desire of some Western circles to make Ukraine face a geopolitical choice between Russia and the West, which ended in a military coup d'état.

But the entire history of Russian security policy is a history of contributions to the attempts of building a truly collective security. If we look back into history, you will see Russia’s consistent efforts to overcome the Cold War heritage. We withdrew all the troops of the former Soviet Union from Eastern European and Baltic states. We were leading the attempts to create a new arms control regime and we managed to agree on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. In 1999, an adaptation agreement was signed, Russia ratified it in 2004, but NATO countries balked at ratification under an artificial pretext and thus destroyed the very material base of European security.

We should look at today’s processes in the light of the geopolitical interests of certain countries. And such analysis leads us to the understanding that the Ukraine crisis was used as a pretext for a radical change in NATO’s policy and military buildup. I don’t want to go into conspiracy theories, but our analysis is such that in the present security conditions NATO feels very uncomfortable without a major adversary.

NATO military operations after the Cold War have led to negative results. In the Balkans and in Libya they were catastrophic. NATO countries took part in destroying state institutions of Iraq. What we see today in the Middle East and North Africa are giant uncontrolled territories where various sorts of terrorists and extremists are present. All this is to a large extent the result of NATO’s interventions. NATO troops were deployed in Afghanistan for 12 years, but the results raise a lot of questions, and there are serious concerns about the ability to ensure stability there. There is clearly a negative trend – the number of provinces controlled by the Taliban is growing, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is strengthening. For us it is a clear security risk, because terrorists and extremists infiltrate into the northern provinces of Afghanistan, thus creating a direct threat to our Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Allies.

Even before the Ukraine crisis, Western experts questioned NATO’s ability to remain relevant in the modern security situation. Today we see that the image of an adversary is being used to solve other geopolitical problems – returning NATO into the center of global politics, attempting to prove that there is no means to guarantee security other than by strengthening transatlantic bond between Europe and the U.S. For that, a big adversary is needed.

Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, talks with journalists after a NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday April 20, 2016. Photo: AP

Diplomats have been taught to study documents. Several months ago an updated edition of the U.S. European Command’s Theater Strategy was published. It says clearly that the command’s task is to advance U.S. interests from “Greenland to the Caspian Sea and from the Arctic Ocean to the Levant.” A geographical question arises: Where is the United States and where is the Caspian? And where can Russia advance its national interests? So, when one says that Russia has increased its military might, first of all, we do it on our own territory and, I assure you, our actions are in no way a secret to our counterparts.

Is NATO leadership so naïve that they consider everything they are currently doing on the eastern flank – projecting force by flying along our borders, bringing navy destroyers armed with cruise missiles within dozens of miles from key Russian naval facilities – will remain without a military response? I don’t think so. I think we see a conscious policy to assure that NATO remains in demand in the new security environment and to solve a set of other problems such as making Europeans pay for their defense and buy American weapons.

RD: If one hears what you are saying now and what NATO officials are saying, you hear two narratives, two monologues which have no overlap whatsoever. What needs to happen for these monologues to turn into a dialogue? Is there any basis for these narratives to get closer to each other?

A.G.: I’d like to hope that a basis for such a dialogue would emerge. Russia-NATO relations have several dimensions. And we had hoped that the cooperation that Russia demonstrated over time – transit to Afghanistan and other support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), training of Afghan air force technicians on the Russian territory, counter-terrorism projects – would translate into greater trust. I think NATO should understand that without a positive agenda, without cooperation on an equal footing it would be hard to speak of any stable positive trend in Russia-NATO relations.

Of course Russia and NATO will remain the leading military factors in the Euro-Atlantic area. But it is impossible to rely on cosmetic changes when there are cracks in the walls. And these cracks appear because NATO policy and military buildup is deforming the entire system of post-Cold War instruments, inviting us to return to the past.

I don’t want to say that means looking at each other through the barrel of a rifle, but to take into account capabilities that can be deployed near our borders. It is the sober reality, nothing personal. The Ämari air base in Estonia is a several minutes’ flight to St. Petersburg. And any responsible military officer would be working on neutralizing a potential threat – moreover that we know that it can accommodate dual-use planes. In order to overrun this trend, not only political efforts are needed, but rejection of such military planning.

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RD: What can European countries do here? The common knowledge is that the U.S. calls all shots in NATO.

A.G.: It is indeed so, the U.S. calls the shots. They do not determine 100 percent of policy, but at least the major outlines of NATO’s policy and military buildup. Western European countries have to make up their mind on what kind of paradigm they want to choose. I am sure that reasonable people understand that the best security conditions involve a strategic partnership with Russia. We live on one continent, we are interdependent, and no one can ignore the geography. The world is changing rapidly. We are equally vulnerable to new risks and threats, and it requires joint efforts.

We see that in a whole number of cases such pragmatic interests take precedence. No efforts to isolate Russia prevent Western countries from considering Russia as a partner in solving main global problems.

RD: In this context, what is going to happen to the Founding Act between Russia and NATO?

A.G.: The Founding Act remains one of the key factors that keep the situation from deteriorating further. We think that its importance should in no way be underestimated. There are political forces in some NATO countries that want to do away with it. That would have been a very dangerous turn because it would mean Europe’s total loss of security instruments based on anything else than creating threats and counter-threats. Arms control is providing for a greater security with lesser means. Throwing away the Founding Act would be a direct invitation to enter a new phase of the arms race. Such a development would seriously destabilize European security and runs contrary to the interests of all European actors. President of the Russian Federation has repeatedly said that we are not interested in it.