The former Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on military spending, the threat from Russia, and why Afghanistan has strengthened the allianceby Bronwen Maddox / May 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
Nato is stepping up its presence in Eastern Europe
“We will not hesitate to take further steps” to protect Baltic and other eastern European states, the Secretary General of Nato told Prospect as unrest in eastern Ukraine continues to build. “We have from now until September”—the next Nato summit, to be held near Newport, Wales—to agree new measures, on which work had already begun, he added.
Calling again on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s borders, and to stop supporting armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that he had seen “not the slightest evidence” that Russia had started to do so, despite its promises. “On the contrary,” he added, calling President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Crimea, “which is occupied territory”, a “provocative” move.
But Nato would be unable to fulfil its aims if countries continued to slash their defence budgets, he said. “We can’t afford to disarm in Europe, while seeing Russia rearm and mass troops on the Ukrainian border,” he added. “The cuts must stop.”
Rasmussen, entering his last six months at the head of Nato, has clearly found the Ukraine crisis useful in sharpening Nato’s sense of purpose and urgency at a time of swingeing defence cuts in most of its members. A quarter of a century since the fall of the Soviet Union, the north Atlantic military alliance has repeatedly had to defend itself against those who say it has lost its way—or at least some of its funding. It has suffered from the loss of the enemy it was created to resist, and from US resentment at carrying the lion’s share of the burden. Nor have the struggles of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and the US-led coalition in Iraq, made any of its main members keen to commit forces.
However, Russia’s effective annexation of the Crimea peninsula of Ukraine has reignited the sense of threat on Europe’s borders, and prompted a flurry of responses from Nato members. “We are focussing on the defence and protection of our allies,” said Rasmussen, who as Prime Minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009 took a robust approach to liberal intervention, committing its forces early to the coalition in Iraq. Nato has deployed AWACs surveillance planes over Poland, sent ships to the Baltic, and increased the naval presence in the Black Sea, he said. “More ships at sea, more planes in the air, and more exercises on land,” he said. With Ukraine itself, “we have agreed military-to-military cooperation including defence reforms and modernisation”. Nato “will not hesitate to take further steps,” he said, although de-escalation, and then a political or diplomatic solution, has to be the first goal.
He is adamant that Nato’s decision at the 2008 Bucharest Summit to allow Georgia and Ukraine to become members still holds good, provided that they fulfil the conditions. The decision, he says, is “for Ukraine to decide”, and its government under President Viktor Yanukovych had turned its back on that offer, choosing a policy of “non-alliance”, partly to avoid provoking Moscow.
Nato now urgently needs to reassure the Baltic states and others on its eastern fringe such as Poland and Romania that the alliance is fully committed to their defence. The summit, to be held at the Celtic Manor hotel in the first week of September, “might include” a development of new defence plans and “a proper deployment”, he said. “We have from now until then to prepare. We have to be ready to respond, wherever there is a threat against our allies.”
Pressed on whether Nato would count the 13-year Afghan mission a success, he offered that “We have achieved what we came for,” arguing that in this time, terrorists had been unable to use it for attacks on Europe or the US. And Nato has “learned the hard way” from the experience. “We have more combat ready troops, more tightly connected; we are stronger than during the Cold War.” Within ISAF, he points out, forces from 50 nations have worked closely together. “It is a paradox that Nato is much stronger than before [the Afghan campaign] despite the defence cuts.”
“The cuts have had an impact,” he acknowledges. The US defence budget could fall from 4.7 per cent of GDP in 2011 to around 2.7 per cent of GDP, although it remains by a long margin the largest force in the world. “I feel confident that the US will stay committed to Euro-Atlantic security.” He pointed out that “we have seen the US act very fast in relation to Ukraine—it was the first to deploy aircraft and to do air policing”. But Europe lacks observation drones, and air-to-air refuelling, and “I urge the allies to fill these gaps.” Meanwhile, Russia has increased its defence spending by 30 per cent since 2008.
“I know the challenge very well,” he said. “These [Western] countries are also struggling to cut deficits”, and they were right to do so, he added, as “indebted countries are more vulnerable.” But “I am still urging governments to prepare for a long term rise in defence spending.” He was glad to see, he said, that UK still spent more than 2 per cent of GDP on defence and had “full confidence” that it would continue to be a leading contributor of Nato forces.
But many threats—such as that of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East—were better approached by diplomacy than force, he said. And Nato members faced new challenges, as in North Africa, and threats from cyber and missile attack. The September summit would consider all of these, as well as aiming to reach new commitments on Eastern Europe. The Celtic Manor hotel is popular for such international gatherings, being easy to secure, standing on a natural cliff overlooking an M4 access junction, but Rasmussen is dismissive of its other world-class feature, its golf course used for the 2010 Ryder Cup. “My patience is not sufficient to do golf,” he said. “Four or five hours go by, and what have you got done?” It is possible that Ukraine has given him the tools to do in four or five months what has eluded the organisation for years: renewing and strengthening its own defences, and with that, its sense of why it exists.