Ex-NATO chief says Russian army disorganised, using old weapons

Al Jazeera interviews Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s chief from 2009 until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

Former NATO chief
Former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke to Al Jazeera about Russia's continuing invasion of Ukraine [Reuters]

Brussels, Belgium – Ten months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, the war of words between the Kremlin and the West continues.

Earlier this week, at a NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania, the alliance’s chief Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of using “winter as a weapon of war”.

The weather in Ukraine is near freezing, and Russian missile attacks on critical infrastructure have left millions without electricity and water.

At the sidelines of the NATO meeting in Romania, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters his country needed “air defence, – IRIS, Hawks, Patriots – and transformers (for our energy needs)”- needs that some members of the world’s largest military alliance have pledged to send.

Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US and NATO of direct participation in the war by supplying weapons to Kyiv and training Ukrainian soldiers.

Al Jazeera spoke to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s chief from 2009 until 2014, and a former Danish prime minister. He is currently the founding chairman of Rasmussen Global, a think-tank.

Al Jazeera: It’s been 10 months since the war began. How has NATO’s relevance increased over this period? 

Anders Rasmussen: Firstly, I think it’s important to stress that NATO as an alliance is not a part of this war. Secondly, I’ve been impressed and satisfied with the unity among NATO allies in supporting Ukraine over the past few months. I think their coordination in sending military aid to Ukraine has worked quite efficiently.

Ukrainian servicemen ride a tank on a road in eastern Ukraine [File: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP]

Al Jazeera: With the war barrelling into 2023, what more should NATO be doing to support Ukraine militarily? Does the alliance have enough weapons to support Ukraine next year?

Rasmussen: NATO should step up the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. The Ukrainians have demonstrated high efficiency in the use of the weapons they have already received and if NATO and its allies continue this delivery, then the Ukrainians can actually win this war against the disorganised Russian military forces, who are using old-fashioned military equipment.

NATO should also deliver all the weapons needed to close the skies over Ukraine by providing anti-aircraft equipment, anti-missile, anti-drone capabilities and long-range missiles.

Al Jazeera: Is NATO membership still on the cards for Ukraine?

Rasmussen: It will not be an easy process but at the recent NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Bucharest, they declared that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. So that’s a clear goal. Moreover, it’s also stated in the Ukrainian constitution that it is the ambition of Ukraine to join NATO. But the process will still take time.

In the meantime, Ukraine needs more security guarantees. So in September, I delivered a plan to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on how NATO and its allies can guarantee security for Ukraine in the future. It’s called the Kyiv Security Compact which I developed in close cooperation with his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. We are now in the process of garnering signatures among countries in favour of this security compact which seeks to support Ukraine further.

Al Jazeera: Will Finland and Sweden be able to join the alliance, despite the current challenges posed by Turkey and Hungary, the two nations which are yet to ratify the memberships?

Rasmussen: It is challenging, but Hungary will probably ratify Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership at the beginning of next year, according to statements from Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

So only Turkey’s ratification is missing and that is obviously a challenge. But I know that in negotiations between Sweden, Finland and Turkey, progress has been made. So I’m confident that Finland and Sweden will become members of NATO.

Al Jazeera: How should NATO respond to accusations from Russia, which alleges the alliance is directly involved in the war by supporting Ukraine?

Rasmussen: According to international law, a country that has been attacked by another country has the right to self-defence and also request assistance from partners and allies to help in this process. So Ukraine and NATO aren’t going against the law.

Instead, Russia is violating international law by committing war crimes and invading other countries, which NATO and the rest of the world shouldn’t allow.

Al Jazeera: On a more personal level, in your last term as NATO chief in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. How did you deal with this back then? Are there lessons to be learned now?

Rasmussen: 2014 was very challenging for me. I belonged to the camp of people who wanted to send a stronger response to Russia after their illegal annexation of Crimea.

But decisions are taken by consensus at NATO so we couldn’t go beyond what we had decided as an alliance. But I will not give myself a free pass from the mistakes made. We reacted too slowly and in a much milder manner in 2014.

We did send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message that he couldn’t just take land away from Ukraine by imposing a few sanctions. But those were very mild. Had we sent a stronger message back then, we might have been able to avoid the outright attack on Ukraine on the 24th of February this year.

Moreover, when I became secretary-general of NATO back in 2009, it was my top priority to develop what I called a strategic partnership between Russia and NATO.

Russian soldiers march as a local resident waves a Russian flag
Russian soldiers march as a resident waves a Russian flag outside a military base in the village of Perevalne, outside of Simferopol, Crimea in 2014 [File: Ivan Sekretarev/AP]

I accomplished that a year after Russia attacked Georgia in 2008. Seen in hindsight, I think it was a mistake. We should have realised that Russia was not a strategic partner, but a strategic adversary. We misjudged Russia and underestimated the ambitions and brutality of Putin.

My plea now is that we should not repeat those mistakes in the future. That’s why I’m arguing for a really strong response to Russian illegal aggression against Ukraine.

Al Jazeera: You’re currently in the US speaking to senators in Washington, DC, about supporting Ukraine further. You’ve held similar discussions with EU officials. Have talks in the West included pushing Russia and Ukraine to the negotiation table? Do you see that happening in the coming months? 

Rasmussen: Some weeks ago, we heard rumours that there were certain camps in the US that pushed for peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. But I think that was a big mistake because in this way, the West weakens its own position by pushing Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy to engage in premature peace negotiations.

It is up to Zelenskyy to determine when the time is ripe to engage in negotiations with Russia. But no one believes that Putin would engage sincerely in such peace negotiations. That would only be a trap.

In the West, we have one thing to continue doing and that is to ensure the delivery of weapons and economic assistance to Ukraine remain consistent, so that they are in the strongest position to negotiate with Russia when the time is right.

Source: Al Jazeera