Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Grushko’s interview with Kommersant newspaper, published on July 7, 2016
Question: France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said last week that he will work to prevent the upcoming NATO Summit from exacerbating tensions with Russia. What do you expect from the Warsaw meeting?
Alexander Grushko: Making forecasts is a thankless job. However, the feeling I have in general, and judging by the information we have, it seems that the Warsaw Summit will not result in any breakthrough decisions. This goes primarily for the alliance’s policy on Russia, which is currently based on two pillars. The first pillar is the need to “strengthen defence” in order to contain Russia. The second pillar is to maintain channels of political dialogue.
Question: How does this containment policy manifest itself?
Alexander Grushko: Summit participants are expected to approve the final composition of NATO forces as was discussed at the June meeting of the NATO Defence Ministers. This is related to the deployment by rotation of four battalions – in Poland and the three Baltic states. NATO seems to be intent on continuing to hold military training exercises along the Russian border with increasing frequency. The alliance is also expected to improve its command and control systems and is about to complete the creation of six command-and-control centres in Eastern Europe. Plans to deploy a European segment of the US global missile defence are also being implemented. NATO recently launched a unit in Romania with interceptor missiles, and another element of the system will be completed in Poland in 2018. I believe this is what all the decisions that will be taken, or approved, in Warsaw are about.
In addition, it is clear that NATO will use the Summit to articulate a sound strategy for its southern periphery, and determine how to respond to the risks related to the instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and what the alliance’s contribution to the fight against terrorism will be. We have the impression that so far the upper hand lies with those backing the idea of NATO operating as a “military training alliance” that can be ready to help countries going through turbulent times improve their military capability. Today, NATO provides training to the military in Jordan, Tunisia and Iraq. The alliance has also publicly stated its willingness to run a similar programme in Libya.
Question: Regarding NATO’s activity on its eastern borders, we know that the bloc plans to strengthen its Black Sea naval group. What response measures can Russia take?
Alexander Grushko: It’s obvious. We will do everything necessary to maintain the balance of forces in the region. I am referring to air, naval and any other necessary component. However, we have also called for keeping the Black Sea an area of cooperation. Last week Sochi hosted a ministerial meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation (BSEC). We want relations between regional countries to be dominated by issues of economic, social and cultural cooperation, and tourism. We have been working for many years on large projects for this region, including a transport circle around the Black Sea. We had the Black Sea Naval Force (BLACKSEAFOR) and a unique system of confidence-building measures in the naval sphere. In short, we have created conditions that will prevent the Black Sea from becoming an area of confrontation.
Currently, we are above all concerned about the presence of extra-regional forces there, primarily US naval forces, which regularly enter the Black Sea. Warships like the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook not only have a few dozen Tomahawk precision cruise missiles, but are also equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defence system. We have repeatedly warned the United States about sending its warships too close to Russia’s borders. These destabilising actions damage regional security and also undermine strategic stability.
Question: Is Moscow worried about NATO exercises?
Alexander Grushko: Of course it is.
Question: At the same time, NATO is unhappy about Russian exercises, especially snap exercises. Can you reassure NATO?
Alexander Grushko: Indeed, NATO representatives have been complaining lately about our snap exercises. However, we conduct them in strict compliance with our commitments within international agreements. Moreover, we are acting transparently, informing our partners about these snap exercises, including via the OSCE communication channels, although we are not obliged to do this. We also hold Defence Ministry briefings for foreign military attachés.
I’d like to clarify this. Military activity systems differ from country to country. In Russia, military exercises involving the redeployment of large groups of military personnel and equipment is the most effective method of checking our combat ability. In terms of the number of military personnel per kilometre of state border, Russia is estimated at 42nd in the world. We cannot have a 3-million-strong army that can protect every strategically important area. Therefore, high mobility and rapid deployment are the most important elements of combat ability and military training in Russia. I’m sure that NATO generals are aware of this. Any politician that looks at a map of Russia will realise that this is the only practical method for us if we want to be a sovereign military power. So, we will continue to conduct these exercises.
Most importantly, all of these exercises are held in Russia, unlike NATO exercises, which involve the deployment of a large number of foreign troops in a country. The fact that many countries request foreign troops to be deployed in their territory is evidence of a European security crisis. For many years in the past, the best way to strengthen security in Central Europe was to remove foreign troops from a given territory.
Question: What may be the consequences of this policy?
Alexander Grushko: NATO’s eastward steps are unequivocally deteriorating the current state of affairs. In effect, this is an attempt to use military methods (such as the rotation of servicemen and large-scale exercises) to create new dividing lines in Europe, to impede the materialisation of the Greater Europe concept, and to make European countries even more dependent on the United States.
In the meantime, Russia is not remotely interested in the confrontational agenda that it is being offered. NATO should realise that militarily all these measures will be counterproductive. It is clear to all realistic people (all the more so, military officers) that we will respond by military-technical means. We will do everything to reliably ensure our defences. Therefore, the countries that have declared themselves “front-lines” are likely to see before long that the efforts that are ostensibly aimed to enhance their security will only undermine it. NATO is compelling us to view these countries as host-territories of substantial military potential and as such subject Russia to risks and threats.
Question: However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly said that this is a response to Russia’s policy and that now the ball is in Moscow’s court. What do NATO leaders expect from us?
Alexander Grushko: All NATO’s recent statements are linked with Ukraine, primarily, the implementation of the Minsk agreements. But its position is far from straightforward. For some reason, Russia is being urged to fulfil the settlement plan although it is not part of it. That said, there is no sign of any serious work on the part of NATO with Kiev that has blocked the implementation of its political commitments under the Minsk agreements, primarily, the adoption of laws on amnesty and Donbass’ special status, the introduction of relevant changes in the Constitution and also (and this is Kiev’s key, fundamental commitment) on the maintenance of direct dialogue with the authorities of Lugansk and Donetsk. Moreover, NATO’s current programmes in support of Ukraine are playing into the hands of “the party of war” and making some forces in Kiev feel that military revenge is possible. We are concerned over the transfer of NATO-trained Ukrainian army units to the contact line in Donbass.
Question: The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been going on for more than two years. Has NATO changed its rhetoric during this time?
Alexander Grushko: It would be fair to say that the meaning of its statements is the same but the tone is different. However, today we are worried over something else: the political course that NATO has chosen under the pretext of the Ukrainian crisis has now acquired the form of military planning, which is very dangerous. Anti-Russian military planning is bound to generate hostile policy in response. NATO will have to explain to the public all the time why it is spending so much to parry the threat from the East. It is clear to everyone that such a threat simply does not exist.
However, we can see how die-hard Cold War stereotypes are. Moreover, they are being continuously supplemented with new ideas. Recently different and seemingly serious analytical centres have published many materials designed to prove that if nothing is done, Russian tanks will reach Tallinn and Riga in 30-60 hours. Policy, not to mention active military development, cannot be carried out on the basis of such apocalyptic scenarios that have nothing to do with reality. All these facts show that NATO feels ill at ease in the new security environment. It was established to repel the threat from the East and now has to invent a powerful enemy to fight with.
Meanwhile, all of NATO’s incidents of armed interference after the Cold War have led to grievous consequences. This primarily applies to the war campaign against former Yugoslavia in 1999. Many NATO countries took part in the Iraqi operation. Libya’s bombing in 2011 is the latest case. The current situation in northern Africa and the problems Europe is confronting, above all, the migration pressure, are largely a result of NATO’s actions. NATO countries are responsible for them individually and collectively.
Question: All is clear with the first pillar – containing Russia. But what about the second pillar – dialogue? Are you preparing for the next meeting of the Russia-NATO Council? What are the priority issues, as you see them?
Alexander Grushko: The Russia-NATO Council meeting is still at the preparation stage. At the last meeting on April 20, we discussed the various issues influencing security in Europe. These issues will continue to be at the centre of attention, of course. Essentially, though, we have no positive agenda: NATO has ended all practical cooperation with us, and this greatly weakens the Russia-NATO Council’s possibilities as a body.
We no longer see NATO today as a partner in resolving issues that equally concern us and the Europeans. This is why cooperation on resolving crises and common challenges takes place through other formats, the Normandy format talks, for example, and the International Syria Support Group. I would say that this is going on over and above the institutional dividing lines that the European Union and NATO have tried to draw in their relations with Russia. But we see that practical security interests prevail and the European countries realise that they cannot resolve the key issues in this area without cooperation with Russia.
Question: In the past, Afghanistan was one of the areas of cooperation between Russia and NATO. Under what conditions would NATO be willing to resume practical cooperation, and what conditions does Russia put forward?
Alexander Grushko: We do not set any conditions and simply take the position that by ending cooperation with Russia, NATO is seriously worsening the situation in Afghanistan. Let me remind you that it was through the Russia-NATO Council that we carried out one of the biggest international anti-drugs project. We worked together (mostly at our training base) to train more than 4,000 people for the drug control services in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries. We also worked together on training Afghan technicians to service Soviet- and Russian-made helicopters. These helicopters now form the foundations of the Afghan Air Forces’ combat power and are essential for the country’s army to be able to ensure reliable control of its territory. This is not my assessment but that of the US generals with whom we were in contact during this project’s implementation. The end of this cooperation has had an impact not just on the situation in Afghanistan, but also worsens the security situation in Europe. After all, the Europeans suffer from the flow of drugs and from uncontrolled immigration, including from Afghanistan.
Question: Recently, there are increasingly more cases of Russian and NATO ships and aircraft approaching dangerously close to each other. Although no accidents have yet occurred, isn’t it high time additional confidence-building measures were drawn up?
Alexander Grushko: As of today, we have a solid base of bilateral agreements with NATO countries (on preventing unintended incidents of a military nature – Kommersant). This is sufficient basis for preventing incidents. With regard to concrete recent close encounters (between aircraft or ships – Kommersant), it was Russia that formulated the proposals at talks with the United States, which specified certain provisions of the 1972 bilateral agreement on the prevention of incidents on and over the high seas. The ball, therefore, is in America’s court. We are prepared for further dialogue with those individual NATO countries that will be keen to improve these bilateral mechanisms.
Question: What specifications did Russia propose?
Alexander Grushko: I wouldn’t like to go into detail, because it is a military-to-military dialogue. They are discussing minimally allowable approach distances between ships and aircraft, radio frequencies for communications, and so on. I am referring to an entire set of measures that would enable more efficient moves and a better understanding of each other’s evolutions in the event of such approaches.
Question: Not so long ago, Poland suggested upgrading the OSCE Vienna Document by providing clearer definitions of rules for preventing maritime and air traffic collisions. How efficient could this initiative be?
Alexander Grushko: The fundamental problem is that no amount of cosmetic improvements in confidence-building measures can reverse the negative trends in the military security area. It is only NATO’s renunciation of its current policies and its military organisational development in the spirit of Cold War containment that can cardinally improve the situation and create the prerequisites for starting a discussion on confidence-building measures. Right now we have a situation where NATO is moving its infrastructure closer to our borders, stepping up its military activity near our frontiers, carrying out destabilising military activities, and in so doing talks about the need for some confidence-building measures. It appears that NATO just wants to legitimise its current increased activities by these confidence-building measures.
We know from the history of arms control that progress can only be achieved when we have a common vision of principles, on which European security should be based. Until recently, and for many years, the provisions of the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act – on non-deployment on the permanent basis of significant combat forces in the territory of new NATO members – served as one of the pillars that made it possible for security in Central Europe to be assured through restraint in the military sphere and minimisation of the military factor in relations between countries in the region, rather than by building up military might. As of now, NATO is steering in an opposite course and is building up its military potentials. This is a dead-end course and no amount of cosmetic measures, like making improvements to the Vienna Document, will change the picture.
Question: Given that we now live in a different environment, isn’t it a good idea to amend the Founding Act?
Alexander Grushko: We have proposed that. I am referring in particular to the clause I mentioned (on significant combat forces – Kommersant), which is rather vague. Russia had introduced concrete proposals, ones expressed in numerical indices for armaments in the main categories, as to what we mean by “significant combat forces.” There has been no response from NATO.