When Putin Loved NATO

Former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, who had a cordial relationship with the Russian leader, recalls an era when Moscow wanted closer ties with the West.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Brussels in October 2001.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Brussels in October 2001.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Brussels in October 2001. Courtesy of NATO

The world has survived another week without a major war erupting in Europe. Indeed, considering Russian President Vladimir Putin is upset with the West and his government has warned of catastrophic consequences following last week’s negotiations with NATO, more weeks like this are not to be taken for granted.

There is one man who knows Putin’s thoughts on Russian and European security well and managed to successfully cooperate with him even on extremely thorny issues. Today, he is watching Europe’s predicament worsen—and is stunned at his former interlocutor’s radical change of mind. But his insights can also help guide Western decision-makers as they try to steer clear of war with Russia. The man is former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.

On a snowy night in February 2000, Robertson arrived in Moscow for his first-ever meeting with Putin. Russia’s new acting president was an unknown to Robertson, having only recently been appointed by outgoing Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Robertson, meanwhile, had arrived in Moscow on a German Air Force aircraft; NATO doesn’t have a plane for its secretary-general, who instead relies on the generosity of member states for any travel needs. Putin’s first sight of Robertson on Russian soil was the fur hat-clad Scotsman briefing media in front of an aircraft with the word LUFTWAFFE prominently displayed.

The world has survived another week without a major war erupting in Europe. Indeed, considering Russian President Vladimir Putin is upset with the West and his government has warned of catastrophic consequences following last week’s negotiations with NATO, more weeks like this are not to be taken for granted.

There is one man who knows Putin’s thoughts on Russian and European security well and managed to successfully cooperate with him even on extremely thorny issues. Today, he is watching Europe’s predicament worsen—and is stunned at his former interlocutor’s radical change of mind. But his insights can also help guide Western decision-makers as they try to steer clear of war with Russia. The man is former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.

On a snowy night in February 2000, Robertson arrived in Moscow for his first-ever meeting with Putin. Russia’s new acting president was an unknown to Robertson, having only recently been appointed by outgoing Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Robertson, meanwhile, had arrived in Moscow on a German Air Force aircraft; NATO doesn’t have a plane for its secretary-general, who instead relies on the generosity of member states for any travel needs. Putin’s first sight of Robertson on Russian soil was the fur hat-clad Scotsman briefing media in front of an aircraft with the word LUFTWAFFE prominently displayed.

Getting to the Russian capital was a victory for Robertson, who had been appointed secretary-general the year before after serving as British defense minister: After a thaw in the early and mid-1990s, NATO’s relations with Russia had turned frosty. In 1999, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Serbian units in the former Yugoslavia that were carrying out ethnic cleansing against other ethnic groups, especially in Kosovo.

Bill Clinton suggested that rebuilding relations with Russia ought to be one of Robertson’s priorities, a conclusion the NATO secretary-general had also reached.

The campaign caused enormous friction with Moscow, a long-standing ally of Serbia. When Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, the conflict was nearing its end, but Russian ill will against NATO remained. “The Russians were very bruised by Kosovo,” Robertson recalled in an interview with Foreign Policy last week. “They felt they had been surprised, double-crossed even.”

Soon after taking over NATO’s helm, Robertson made it a point to travel to Washington to see then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had helped negotiate the NATO-Russia Founding Act,  which NATO and Russia passed in 1997 and in which they agree to cooperate and consult, not threaten the use of force, and in which NATO promises not to station nuclear weapons on new member states’ territory. The U.S. president suggested that rebuilding relations with Russia ought to be one of Robertson’s priorities, a conclusion the secretary-general had also reached.

That was easier said than done. Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Sergey Kislyak (subsequently deputy foreign minister and now a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament), was a hard-liner and seemed to dislike Robertson, who had supported the Kosovo intervention. Robertson—having the accidental but undeniable advantage of speaking Scottish-accented English and thus sounding friendly even when delivering tough messages—tried every avenue with Kislyak. He told the ambassador he’d be willing to speak with Russian officials. He pointed out that he’d be willing to travel to Moscow. He highlighted his long-standing connections with Russia.

Nothing worked. “Nothing I tried did any good until Putin came to power the following year,” Robertson told me. “At that point, I spoke with [then-Russian Foreign Minister] Igor Ivanov. Soon after that, there was a phone call from Moscow that said, ‘If you were to ask for a meeting in Moscow, we might give it favorable consideration.’” In February 2000, Robertson arrived in Moscow, daring only to hope for something a little more favorable than Kislyak’s cold shoulder.


In temperament and background, Robertson and Putin are fundamentally different: Robertson is a congenial Scotsman and former student activist, a Labour Party politician known for his likeability and common sense. Putin, of course, had been such a surprise choice to succeed Yeltsin that relatively little was known about him.

To this day, Putin’s secretive past makes him more mysterious. But what this novice politician told his new acquaintance went far beyond anything Robertson dared to hope for. “He told me, ‘I want to resume relations with NATO. Step by step, but I want to do it,’” Robertson recalled. “He added that ‘some people don’t agree with me, but that’s what I want.’ And he said, ‘I want Russia to be part of Western Europe. It’s our destiny.’ It was a very cordial atmosphere.” Media accounts from that time reflect this optimism. “I think he shared my view that the chilly period should come to an end,” Robertson told journalists immediately after the meeting. “I think we’ve moved from the permafrost onto slightly softer ground.”

Neither man had any illusions about Russia being able to join Western Europe very swiftly. But the amiable atmosphere at this first meeting allowed them to conclude that they would work step by step. “Then I had lunch with Ivanov and members of the diplomatic community. There was a very strong spirit of ‘we’ve been antagonistic, but let’s build a new relationship,’” Robertson told me.

As part of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a Permanent Joint Council had been established—in essence the North Atlantic Council and Russia—to be chaired in rotation by Russia and NATO. “Kislyak chaired one meeting, I chaired the next, and so on,” Robertson explained. “It was cumbersome. The meetings were mostly confined to talking about the Balkans, and it was not very constructive.” NATO governments were also eager for the alliance to work more closely with Russia. “At that point, Putin agreed that there should be a new council and that it should be chaired by the NATO secretary-general,” Robertson said. “That was a huge decision by the Russians, a major shift in their position.”

At the NATO-Russia Council’s first meeting, with Robertson as the council’s only chairman, the heads of state and government each had a chance to speak. Then, Robertson recalled, “Putin asked for the floor again.” He ceded the floor to the Russian leader. “And he said, ‘I have noticed, Mr. Secretary-General, that you’re the chairman of the North Atlantic Council, and that you’re also the chairman of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and now you’re the chairman of the NATO-Russia Council. May I suggest that NATO headquarters be renamed the House of Councils?’” “Council” is soviet in Russian, and the interpreter, catching Putin’s play on words, conveyed his suggestion as “House of Soviets.”

“The Polish delegation was horrified,” Robertson recalled. “But it was a joke, and that was the atmosphere at the time. We launched collaboration in lots of areas of common concern, such as counterterrorism, proliferation, and submarine search and rescue. It wasn’t just a case of a summit meeting and then packing our bags.” Submarine search and rescue was, of course, extraordinarily relevant against the background of the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster that killed 118 Russian crew members. The two men also enjoyed a highly productive personal relationship. Robertson felt they got along, and Putin seemed to share that view. He told benign jokes and quoted former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.


Then the 9/11 attacks hit the United States, and NATO swiftly responded by invoking Article 5, requesting all members come to the aid of the one that had been attacked. But Robertson’s—and the alliance’s—relationship with Russia survived this crisis too. Indeed, Putin upped the collaborative ante. At a meeting in Brussels soon after 9/11, “he famously asked me, ‘When are you going to invite Russia to join NATO?’” Robertson said.

“This was a one-on-one meeting with only the interpreters present. And I said, ‘Well, we don’t invite countries to join NATO. Countries apply for membership in NATO, and then we make a decision.’ And he said, ‘We’re not going to stand in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.’ And I said, ‘Fine, let’s get down to building diplomatic relationships and see where it takes us.’”

“When are you going to invite Russia to join NATO,” Putin asked.

Not even the disappointment of having to wait in line with smaller countries dented Putin’s collaborative spirit. After their discussion, Robertson and Putin held a joint press conference. Robertson recounted what happened. “A French journalist from Le Monde who was always asking awkward questions asked me whether I had shared with Putin the demands from the United States regarding overflight rights, access to ports, and other things they wanted under Article 5,” he said. “I was annoyed with myself for having failed to mention it in the meeting, but before I could say anything, Putin said, ‘No, he didn’t, and why would he? It’s NATO business and has nothing to do with Russia.’ That was extremely helpful.”

But mostly, Putin was rather quiet, focused mostly on practical steps. “There were only three subjects where Putin stopped being the quiet, deliberative, presidential figure and became passionate, almost emotional,” Robertson explained. “Those three subjects were Georgia, Chechnya, and Latvia.” The public saw the same quiet and deliberative persona. At a joint press conference in January 2003, Putin responded to a question about Ukraine. “Ukraine is an independent sovereign state, and it will choose its own path to peace and security,” he said. Russia had arrived in the Western community of nations.

And then it all ended. Not instantaneously, of course, but Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 caused a rift with NATO. Its invasion of Ukraine in 2014—which remains an active conflict—created an even bigger divide. Soon after the invasion, NATO suspended the NATO-Russia Council’s regular meetings, though it remains active at a technical level and occasionally reconvenes—as happened during the extremely tense NATO-Russia negotiations last week. Today, relations between Russia and NATO are so dire that there is realistic talk of a Russian military attack, not to mention the concrete fear of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The turn of events baffles Robertson, arguably the Western leader who best knows Putin’s views on the alliance. “In all the meetings and conversations I had with him, he never complained about NATO enlargement, not once,” Robertson said. “We had the 2002 enlargement, seven countries joining NATO, all from the Warsaw Pact, including three from the Soviet Union. But not a single time did he complain. We had a difference of opinion regarding the CFE Treaty, but that was it.”

Putin and his inner circle’s increasing isolation could be causing them to lose touch with reality and start to believe their own propaganda.

The 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty set limits on conventional forces and military equipment in Europe. Even after the Baltic states left the Soviet Union, their forces still counted toward the Russian total—a legal glitch in the treaty that inevitably caused irritation in Russia. Putin, too, was irritated but swept the concerns aside.

Today, Putin makes much of NATO’s alleged encirclement of Russia and the West’s promises to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in exchange for his consent to German reunification. “It’s worth reminding people that all this noise about promises to Gorbachev, or that [German] Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl said this or that, is simply noise,” Robertson said. “The fact is that in 1999, Yeltsin signed up to the NATO Founding Act, which recognized the right of countries to join NATO. It’s all very well to talk about promises, but the Russians signed up to the Founding Act. We promised that there would be no permanent stationing of NATO troops and no stationing of nuclear weapons in the new NATO member states, and NATO has stuck rigidly to that agreement.”


Robertson struggles to understand what caused Putin’s radical about-face. Perhaps, he reasons, Putin and his inner circle’s increasing isolation is causing them to lose touch with reality and start to believe their own propaganda, and there’s no outside center of power—such as a powerful cabinet or politburo—that can adjust his perception, let alone his course of action.

In October 2021, after NATO revoked the accreditations of eight Russians working at Russia’s mission to NATO, Moscow closed the mission altogether. “If the Russians seriously believe that NATO poses a threat to them, that’s almost a psychological condition, not a negotiating position,” Robertson said. “That’s what worries me. Putin seems to be as passionate and emotional about Ukraine today as he was about Georgia, Chechnya, and Latvia back then.”

The draft agreement, a series of demands Russia presented to the United States and NATO last month, seems to support Robertson’s analysis that Putin and his inner circle have begun to believe their own propaganda. “The draft agreement is a very strange move,” he said. “And why the urgency? Do they really believe the U.S. is going to station missiles in Ukraine? This talk of ‘we need an answer straight away’ seems unduly theatrical.” It doesn’t, though, when it comes from a regime that is so isolated that it appears to make decisions on the basis of perceptions gathered in its echo chamber.

That’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy not just for Russia and the countries it may decide to harm as a result of its regime’s warped perception of reality. It’s a tragedy for the rest of the world as well because many urgent issues depend on Russia and the West working together. Consider climate change. Russia’s old-fashioned economy makes the country a major carbon dioxide emitter.

Moreover, nearly two-thirds of Russia is covered by permafrost—and now the permafrost is melting. “Whole cities are going to start sinking,” Robertson said. “And when it comes to issues like Iran, too, Russia would benefit from working with NATO. Iranian missiles won’t be hitting Washington, but they could hit Moscow. Out of self-interest, Russia should be cooperating with NATO on problems of common concerns.”

This is the quandary of Russia’s unfolding showdown with NATO: Putin and his inner circle say they’re defending their country, but they may end up causing it more harm than a hostile anti-Russian alliance could ever dream of. The affable Scottish former student activist, who is a member of the British House of Lords and remains one of his country’s most respected elder statesmen, would be able to tell Putin so. But not even Robertson manages to break through into the Russian president’s echo chamber anymore.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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