Bildt in a Day

Meet the Swedish foreign minister who isn't afraid to say what he means -- especially if it's about what Washington gets wrong. 

Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images

TALLINN, Estonia — Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, is easy to antagonize. Just watch his reaction when American pundits and policymakers assert that the crisis in Ukraine isn’t Vladimir Putin’s fault — it’s the European Union’s. "I mean, let’s be quite honest," Bildt said on the margins of the Lennart Meri Conference in Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, in late April. "The American foreign-policy community was off the boards for quite some time; it took them a while to wake up to what was happening in Eastern Europe. When they did, they did — and that’s good. It might be that some of them have not been following the evolution of policies as carefully as they should have."

This type of mild rebuking of established American wisdom seems today to be a motif of Bildt’s commentary on everything from Ukraine to NATO to Syria. It seems that at 64, the Swedish Cold Warrior, with decades of political experience behind him, just might feel that he’s entitled to a few I-told-you-so’s. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in late March, after Russia’s takeover of Crimea, that the rest of Ukraine would be next: He was right. And his surroundings in Tallinn no doubt boosted his confidence further. Bildt was here to take part in a three-day discussion on ensuring that the Baltic Sea region wouldn’t become the next target for a Russian war.

Bildt and Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski were the two foreign ministers who arguably laid the groundwork for the revolution in Ukraine (see Foreign Policy‘s interview with Sikorski). Or at least they provided the basis for why hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians lined the Maidan in Kiev to demand that their then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, make good on his pledge to sign an association agreement with Brussels, a modest document that would have, among many other things, opened up trade and relaxed visa regimes with the 28 member states of the European Union. Since the crisis kicked off, Bildt has been outspoken, for a diplomat, in chivying the Kremlin on Twitter. On May 2, after Russian separatists downed a Ukrainian helicopter in Sloviansk, he tweeted, "Some elderly ladies bought some RPG’s or missiles at the local grocery store, I assume" — a reference to Russia’s clearly mendacious claim that the rebels in eastern and southern Ukraine are unguided "self-defense" militias without state patronage or support.

Bildt sees the United States as a late but welcome participant to this game of understanding and trying to preempt Russian designs on non-Russian territories. Historically, he noted, U.S. policy toward Russia has focused on securing Russia as a partner for other things — from Iran sanctions to the Middle East peace process to Afghanistan. But Washington, he said, "was not really focused on the development of Russia itself, and certainly not on the periphery of Russia and Russia in the Eurasian space. Those issues were absent — but for obvious reasons, they were very [important] to us." 

If Washington still has further catching up to do, it can start with its own political language. That is to say, another way to get under Bildt’s skin is to refer to the new Ukrainian government, run by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, as "interim." "It’s not an interim government," he insisted. "It’s not ‘transitional’ either. I’m slightly upset with the U.S. government because [Secretary of State John] Kerry had said ‘interim government.’ That’s wrong," he said. "It has an interim president, but a fully elected government. It’s an important distinction."

Bildt wants to "beef up" this new government, but he doesn’t think that military support to Ukraine’s armed forces, which are now embroiled in "anti-terrorist" operations against pro-Russian separatists, is imperative. Instead, he wants to "top up substantially" the International Monetary Fund’s package to Ukraine, which was approved on April 30 and authorizes $17 billion in loan guarantees to Kiev to be disbursed over a two-year period. This bailout also allows an additional $15 billion in funds to be disbursed from other lenders such as the European Union, Japan, and Canada. But Bildt sees America’s proffered $1 billion loan, which Kerry announced in March in Ukraine, as "very limited." As for sanctions against Russia, which Barack Obama’s administration recently expanded to encompass more Kremlin officials and a few minor state institutions, Bildt is skeptical. Long-term financial penalties "might work for the time we have already lost," he said. "The theory is, particularly in Washington, that sanctions brought the Iranians to the negotiating table. I’m not quite certain about that. But assume that — great. It took two years. We don’t have that time [with Ukraine]."

Instead, the country will have to suffer through what he calls a "valley of tears" over the next two years, though he remains confident in the new-old technocrats now in charge in Kiev. Yatsenyuk, for one, is a veteran politician, well-known to his Swedish colleague for years, be it as head of Ukraine’s central bank or now as "one of the most experienced prime ministers of Eastern Europe, including members of the EU," as Bildt described him. And for all the criticisms Kiev is receiving for its haphazard attempts to regain control of its eastern and southern regions, or for trying to establish something resembling economic and political normalcy after the blind thievery and turmoil of the Yanukovych era, Bildt thinks this government still deserves a lot of credit. "They’ve inherited an extremely difficult situation because Ukraine is corrupt and essentially bankrupt," he said. "It’s difficult to envisage a better team in place."

Bildt knows something about difficult situations. In 1991, he became the first conservative prime minister of Sweden in over half a century. His administration was marked by economic reforms characterized by deregulation and privatization and the liberalization of the energy and education sectors. It was also responsible for the initial stages of Sweden’s EU accession. Bildt subsequently lost the 1994 election to the Social Democrats, his party-political foil throughout the 1980s on issues foreign and domestic, including the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The Social Democrats’ standard-bearer had been former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was assassinated in 1986, the same year that Bildt became the leader of the center-right Moderate Party. Although both men were born into privileged Swedish families, they were antithetical to each other. Bildt was staunchly anti-Soviet and pro-establishment: He opposed the 1968 occupation of the Student Union Building at Stockholm University and co-founded Bor
gerliga Studenter, a student group that raged against the soixante-huitard tendency in academia. (It still exists today and, according to its Facebook page, is against the "politicization" of student unions and is for "bourgeois values.") Palme opposed the Vietnam War and praised Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Erich Honecker’s government in East Germany; his overarching foreign-policy prescription was "nonalignment." Do not engage in "anti-Soviet agitation," he declared in 1984. This was a posture that prompted accusations both within and without Sweden of Palme’s being outwardly pro-Moscow. (He did, however, condemn the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.)

Between government positions, Bildt had also invested in the private sector, and not without engendering domestic controversy. When he became foreign minister in 2006, he had to resign from the board of the Swedish investment group Vostok Nafta. According to its own website, between 2005 and 2007 the group had about 90 percent of its portfolio tied up with investments in Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, now under antitrust investigation by the European Commission. As was disclosed in a 2007 U.S. State Department cable, two months after Bildt’s appointment as foreign minister, he cashed in his stock options in Vostok Nafta, earning him $685,000 — this at a time when Stockholm was deliberating on how to respond to the trans-Baltic gas pipeline being built by Nord Stream, of which Gazprom was the majority owner. A Swedish chief prosecutor opened an investigation into this transaction — then cleared Bildt in January 2007, just before his 100th day in office.

If Bildt and Palme did share a single bipartisan Scandinavian talent, then it was in their ability to cultivate prickly relationships with Washington.

Bildt served in a number of roles dedicated to resolving the Balkan crisis: he was the EU’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, the co-chair of the Dayton peace conference, the high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then finally the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for the Balkans. Judging from newly declassified documents published by the Clinton Presidential Library, the White House was strongly opposed to Bildt’s tenure as high representative. It thought he was too soft on Slobodan Milosevic and feared that he would "not pursue war criminals aggressively." He also opposed NATO intervention. "Bildt blocked airstrikes that could have prevented the massacre of 6,000 men at Srebrenica" reads one obvious item in a section of the Clinton documents titled "Bildt Talking Points." The administration also unfavorably contrasted him with Pope John Paul II and former U.S. mediator to the Balkans Richard Holbrooke.

But now the roles are somewhat reversed, owing to the return to 1980s geopolitics. Today, it’s the Swede calling for a tougher line against a pan-Slavic authoritarian who invokes ethnicity and blood-and-soil nationalism to justify his belligerence, and an American government that is just discovering a post-communist adversary in the Kremlin. 

Russian hard power is not the only or even primary menace that worries Bildt; he’s also exercised by Putin’s massive and well-funded propaganda apparatus. The foreign minister singled out the new Rossiya Segodnya network headed by the certifiable Dmitry Kiselyov and the English-language RT channel as top inciters of pro-Putin sentiments in non-Russian countries. Much media attention has been paid to the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — owing to fears that they might be susceptible to Kremlin-orchestrated breakaway factionalism (if not outright Russian invasion) given their sizable ethnic Russian populations. But these countries are NATO allies, whereas Sweden, which has no substantial Russian population, is not. It is only an increasingly committed "partner" of the alliance, albeit one bedeviled by a smallish military that continues to shrink in size all the time. The Swedish Air Force, for instance, used to have 20 squadrons and more than 400 planes to deter a possible Soviet attack. Today, it has just four divisions and fewer than 150 planes

And Putin is obviously aware of this lowered guard, judging by his bold challenges to Swedish sovereignty. On March 29, 2013, two Tu-22 Russian bombers (the kind that could drop nuclear bombs), escorted by four Su-27 aircraft, carried out a mock aerial "attack" on Stockholm and southern Sweden quite close to Gotska Sandon, an uninhabited Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. This exercise, performed on Good Friday, caught Sweden completely by surprise and prompted no quick reaction alert by the Swedish Air Force, which should have had interceptors ready in the sky to escort the Russian planes away from sovereign territory (instead, Danish F-16s did the escorting). Then, on Oct. 28, 2013, five Russian Tu-22s simulated another bombing run off the southern tip of Oland, Sweden’s second-largest island — this time, though, the Russian aircraft were tracked by two Swedish fighter planes. 

One of Bildt’s compatriots, Karlis Neretnieks, the former chief of operations of Swedish Central Joint Command, is a strong advocate of Swedish membership in NATO because he thinks Sweden is absolutely helpless against foreign attack. Even if proposed military reforms were implemented by 2020, Neretnieks said at the Lennart Meri Conference, Sweden would only be able to protect a small part of its territory — mostly the Stockholm region — against a Russian assault for about a week. Bildt is less worried. "It depends on the attack," he said. "If there’s a nuclear attack, we can’t [defend ourselves] for a minute."

Ukraine isn’t the only country where Russia’s influence is apparent or where the European Union’s attentions are focused. I asked Bildt about Syria, a conflict in which he has also had an upfront EU role in trying to resolve diplomatically. Now, he says, "It’s difficult to get across the many problems that are there.
" The political effort to end the civil war is "going nowhere at the moment," and the United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are all running their own policies. "Is this coordinated? It doesn’t seem to be the case. There seems to be a proliferation of groups," which, coupled with the typical regime obstruction, is making it nearly impossible to run humanitarian aid into the collapsing Levantine country. 

Adding to the trouble is the fact that President Bashar al-Assad is consolidating his hold on central Syria and doesn’t really need to negotiate so long as this Iranian- and Hezbollah-fortified rump state remains secure. Does that mean, then, that European policy toward Damascus should be one of containment rather than regime change?

Getting rid of Assad "has got to be on the table in the long term," Bildt said. "Obviously the time frame has shifted. That famous phrase that was started by President Obama called for President Assad to ‘step aside,’ not ‘step down.’ The expectation was that the time frame was roughly two weeks. That turned out to be more than two years ago."

And it could be even longer than that to wait. An enduring impediment for the United States and the European Union in trying to get anywhere meaningful on Syria is Putin, Assad’s guarantor at the U.N. Security Council and one of Syria’s top arms suppliers. Putin is the one who cleverly brokered Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament agreement last fall, ensuring the regime’s international legitimacy for at least another year — time to consolidate central Syria. Putin is now the one who has demonstrated zero willingness to apply pressure on Damascus to get it to relinquish the very last of its chemical arsenal, which, according to U.S. officials, it is now retaining as leverage. And that’s the problem with doing business with the Russian president. He’s interested in the quick-and-easy skirmish, diplomatic confabs in Switzerland, or compromises. He sees the world in win-lose terms. "He does not want to lose," Bildt said of Putin, again referring to Ukraine. "He’s prepared to play this fairly long. This is an issue that’s not measured in days and weeks or even months — it’s measured in years."

Michael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss. Twitter: @michaeldweiss