Ex-Nato head says Putin wanted to join alliance early on in his rule
Vladimir Putin wanted Russia to join Nato but did not want his country to have to go through the usual application process and stand in line “with a lot of countries that don’t matter”, according to a former secretary general of the transatlantic alliance.
George Robertson, a former Labour defence secretary who led Nato between 1999 and 2004, said Putin made it clear at their first meeting that he wanted Russia to be part of western Europe. “They wanted to be part of that secure, stable prosperous west that Russia was out of at the time,” he said.
The Labour peer recalled an early meeting with Putin, who became Russian president in 2000. “Putin said: ‘When are you going to invite us to join Nato?’ And [Robertson] said: ‘Well, we don’t invite people to join Nato, they apply to join Nato.’ And he said: ‘Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.’”
The account chimes with what Putin told the late David Frost in a BBC interview shortly before he was first inaugurated as Russian president more than 21 years ago. Putin told Frost he would not rule out joining Nato “if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner”.
He told Frost it was hard for him to visualise Nato as an enemy. “Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world.”
Lord Robertson’s comments on the One Decision podcast, which is presented by Michelle Kosinski, a former CNN journalist, and Sir Richard Dearlove, a former head of M16, underscore how Putin’s worldview has evolved during his 21 years of unbroken rule of Russia.
After the Orange Revolution street protests in Ukraine in 2004, Putin became increasingly suspicious of the west, which he blamed for funding pro-democracy NGOs. He was further angered by Nato’s continuing expansion into central and eastern Europe: Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania chose to join the alliance in 2004; Croatia and Albania followed in 2009. Georgia and Ukraine were promised membership in 2008 but have remained outside.
Robertson also recalled how he became the first and only Nato secretary general to invoke Nato’s collective defence clause, known as article five, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Invoking article five was “a gamble” and it was far from a foregone conclusion that Nato members would reach for it after a terrorist attack, he said, noting it was “designed for an attack by the Soviet Union across the Fulda Gap in Germany”.
Some Nato allies were uneasy about invoking the collective defence clause to support the US, fearing it would give George W Bush’s administration a licence to invade Iraq. Robertson recalled one minister asking him: “‘Does this mean we’re giving them a blank check to invade Iraq?’ We said: ‘No, it’s not.’”
The Scottish former minister also revealed how the historic decision to invoke article five nearly went awry. The day after the 11 September attacks, Robertson was due to attend a routine meeting of EU foreign ministers. Anxious not to upstage the EU by calling for article five, he asked a couple of friendly foreign ministers – Jack Straw of the UK and Louis Michel of Belgium – to ask a question that gave him an opening to discuss it. But neither minister asked the question. “So I left, and afterwards there was a bit of bad blood and they said I should have announced it. But I said: ‘Well, I was going to announce it, but nobody asked the question.’”
After the 9/11 attacks, many Nato allies joined the US in invading Afghanistan, with Nato taking over the mission command in 2003.
Robertson said he urged the late US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to keep US forces in Afghanistan alongside Nato allies after the Taliban’s military defeat. He warned Rumsfeld he would denounce any US withdrawal as unacceptable. “So he [Rumsfeld] got a bit upset at that point, and I said: ‘No, … you’re not going to say we did the cooking, you can clean up the dishes.’ I said: ‘That’s not it. We went in together, and we’re staying in together.’”
He was critical of the US’s chaotic withdrawal two months ago, but contended that the 20-year long mission of western military forces made a difference, despite the return of the Taliban. “We’ve left a legacy there that these theological hoodlums are not going to be easily unravelling. And I think that Afghanistan in the future will be a very different place.”