Former NATO Chief: We ‘Overestimated’ Russia’s Military

Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks to FP about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, the future of NATO, and more.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks to the media following the first day of meetings at the NATO summit in Lisbon on Nov. 19, 2010.
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks to the media following the first day of meetings at the NATO summit in Lisbon on Nov. 19, 2010.
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks to the media following the first day of meetings at the NATO summit in Lisbon on Nov. 19, 2010. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

To call 2022 a consequential year for NATO would be an understatement. Almost immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine, the trans-Atlantic military alliance found a renewed sense of purpose: Its members rushed to Ukraine’s aid, increased military spending, became more united, and looked set to induct two new countries into their fold.

However, Russia’s ongoing war has also called into question decisions NATO and its member states made in the last two decades. Did the bloc expand too quickly? Should it have provided Georgia and Ukraine a road map to membership? Could it have been more aware of Putin’s ultimate ambitions and done more to deter him?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was NATO’s secretary-general between 2009 and 2014, a period that was bookended by two other acts of Russian aggression: first in 2008, when Russia annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, and then in 2014, when Putin invaded and took over Crimea.

To call 2022 a consequential year for NATO would be an understatement. Almost immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine, the trans-Atlantic military alliance found a renewed sense of purpose: Its members rushed to Ukraine’s aid, increased military spending, became more united, and looked set to induct two new countries into their fold.

However, Russia’s ongoing war has also called into question decisions NATO and its member states made in the last two decades. Did the bloc expand too quickly? Should it have provided Georgia and Ukraine a road map to membership? Could it have been more aware of Putin’s ultimate ambitions and done more to deter him?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was NATO’s secretary-general between 2009 and 2014, a period that was bookended by two other acts of Russian aggression: first in 2008, when Russia annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, and then in 2014, when Putin invaded and took over Crimea.

Perhaps in part because of his experiences, Fogh Rasmussen founded the Alliance of Democracies in 2017, which is hosting the Copenhagen Democracy Summit this week.

I spoke with Fogh Rasmussen on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. FP subscribers can watch the full interview here. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. 

Foreign Policy: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to visit Turkey this week to discuss, among many other things, unlocking grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. But there’s a larger issue here that’s relevant to NATO. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made very clear that he opposes the expansion of NATO and he will likely block Sweden and Finland’s bid to join the alliance. How does this end?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen: I think at the end of the day, Finland and Sweden will join NATO. Mr. Erdogan uses this as leverage to solve some bilateral issues with the United States. I think basically it’s more about the relationship between Turkey and the United States than between Turkey and the two Nordic countries.

FP: What needs to happen for Erdogan to change his stance?

AFR: Well, first of all, I think he needs some declarations from Finland and Sweden and maybe also some steps to stress that the two countries, of course, are against terrorism. Maybe he would also like them to lift the weapons embargo against Turkey. But basically, I think what he wants is some concessions from the United States when it comes to the F-16/F-35 deal.

FP: Erdogan is increasingly authoritarian and has eroded democratic institutions. Does it weaken NATO to have Turkey as a member?

AFR: No, I would exclude all speculation about kicking out Turkey. Apart from the fact that we don’t have a formal mechanism to kick out members of NATO, but more importantly, strategically, it would be a big mistake if we were to isolate Turkey. Turkey would get even more oriented towards Russia. And I think we need Turkey as a bridge between the West and the East.

We shouldn’t forget that Erdogan is up for presidential elections next year and the race seems to be extremely close. He is attempting to strengthen his own position by taking a firm stance on the U.S. and the two Nordic countries.

FP: When you were Denmark’s prime minister, did you ever expect or hope that NATO would expand in this way to include Sweden and Finland?

AFR: I did hope it, but I didn’t expect it. And that’s because I know about the fundamental thinking in the two countries. Sweden, for instance, has been alliance free for 200 years, and Finland has been very, very prudent for obvious reasons not to provoke its neighbor. But obviously, Putin’s attack on Ukraine dramatically changed the situation almost overnight.

FP: There are reports that NATO will be reassessing Russian military power in light of the war. What lessons will NATO planners draw from what they’ve seen of Russia’s military?

AFR: I think we have made two miscalculations. We have overestimated the strength of the Russian military. Despite huge investments in military equipment and the reopening of old Soviet bases, we have seen a very weak Russian military. It remains to be seen why this is. I think corruption may be one of the reasons. But the other miscalculation is we have underestimated the brutality and the ambitions of President Putin.

FP: Are you then saying that militarily, there isn’t something that Russia is holding back in this war?

AFR: Of course, they’re holding back on using nuclear weapons. And very often I’m asked the question whether I’m concerned about the nuclear threats from the Russian leadership. Currently, I’m not that concerned because Putin knows very well that if he were to use weapons of mass destruction, tactical nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, there would be a determined NATO military response.

FP: President Emmanuel Macron of France recently made comments saying that the West shouldn’t “humiliate” Putin, which he was then criticized for. But it’s an important debate because if the West is wary of poking Russia and it’s wary of giving Ukraine the highest level of weapons that it has, do you think that’s the right approach on the part of NATO?

AFR: No, I completely disagree. We cannot save Putin from humiliation. The cost of face-saving for Mr. Putin will be much higher than an outright defeat for the Russian troops in Ukraine. That’s why my conclusion is that Ukraine must win this war, because if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he won’t stop. He will continue into Moldova, Georgia, and eventually also put pressure on the three Baltic states. That’s why the Ukrainians must win, and they have the will to fight. It’s our duty to give them the means to fight.

FP: Some scholars have argued that the root cause of Russian aggression materialized in reaction to NATO’s expansion. Many other thinkers, [political commentator] Tom Friedman among them, have pointed out that part of the reason why we’re here today is that America made an ill-informed, superficial decision in backing NATO’s expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. So, first of all, do you agree with that premise? And given your answer to that, how does that inform the alliance’s expansion today?

AFR: I completely disagree. NATO has not conducted a campaign for enlargement. What has happened is that former communist dictatorships in East and Central Europe applied for membership of NATO to get security guarantees. And once they fulfilled the necessary criteria, of course, they were invited to join our organization, according to the open-door policy. So instead of accusing NATO of being the problem, I think people should reflect debate on why is it that Russia’s neighbors, time and again, want membership of NATO to get security guarantees? It is, of course, because they know the threat from Russia. So there is only one responsible for this aggression, and that is Russia.

FP: Did NATO then make a mistake in not accepting Ukraine earlier?

AFR: Seen retrospectively, we made the mistake many years ago. The first mistake was back in 2008 when we had a NATO summit in Bucharest in which we decided that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. But we couldn’t agree on granting them a so-called membership action plan. And this split within NATO sent the wrong message to Putin, who attacked Georgia a few months after in August 2008.

So, I think we made the first mistake back in 2008 in not outlining a clear path forward for Georgia and Ukraine. We also made a mistake in 2014 after the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, where we introduced some sanctions. But they were mild sanctions. And all that gave Putin the impression that he could, almost without any cost, continue and grab land by force. So, we have made many mistakes. We have been too naive for too long.

FP: Are you also then saying that you could have done more when you were secretary-general?

AFR: A secretary-general of NATO is in the very difficult position that he must achieve consensus. And it’s no secret that all the way through, I wanted another approach. In 2008, I was prime minister of Denmark. I was in favor of granting [a] membership action plan to Georgia and Ukraine. But we couldn’t achieve consensus within NATO. In 2014, I was in favor of much stronger measures, but we couldn’t achieve consensus on that. And of course, I had to accept that. But I think we should learn lessons from history. Appeasement with dictators does not lead to peace. It leads to war and conflict because they only respect the language of power, strength, and unity.

FP: As someone who now advocates for democracies aligning themselves against autocracies, do you think that policy works for countries that may have a less black-and-white approach to what democracy is?

AFR: I think we are now approaching a new world order where you have two camps: an autocratic camp led by China and a democratic camp led by the United States. I think we have to go through that confrontation before the autocrats realize that constructive cooperation is better than destructive confrontation.

When it comes to economic power, the free world represents 60 percent of the global economy. That represents a formidable force. If we stand together, if we unite, that will create some respect in Beijing.

And there is a gray zone. Some countries will be a bit uneasy about having to choose. India is an excellent example because India looks upon global affairs through the prism of their struggle with China. That’s why they have gotten weapon deliveries from Russia for many years, but that’s also why they’re cultivating a security relationship with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.

So, I think what we should do is to make participation in the democratic camp so attractive that India and other countries will be firmly anchored in the democratic camp to which they belong. For instance, we should offer them arms deliveries if they cut ties with Russia.

FP: But what you’re saying then is that the soft-power attraction to democracy is essentially hard power. So, it’s weapons or economic reasons, not just the ideal of democracy.

AFR: No, it’s both. We shouldn’t be too naive, and we need to raise our voice against the advancing autocracies. We have seen a decline in freedom and democracy [around] the world. We have to turn the tide. And to achieve that, we actually need what I call an alliance of democracies, where we should give each other preferential economic treatment. We should set the international norms and standards for the use of emerging technologies. We should establish credit facilities for private companies that want to review their supply lines away from your autocratic states to more stable democratic nations. And so I think what we need is a more firm group of the world, of free societies, to counter the advance of autocracies.

FP: Part of this discussion about the black and white between democracy and autocracy and the gray in the middle, I think, also relates to how we define democracy. How do you define democracy today in a modern context?

AFR: Yeah, I think first of all, we should realize that real, true democracy is not only to organize free and fair elections. Of course, that’s part of being a democracy, but it’s much more than that.

You have to infuse a democratic culture in each individual. Instead of a top-down approach, where you start with elections, you should engage in a bottom-up approach where you strengthen civic society and teach people that democracy is much more than just holding a majority in your parliament. It’s also about the protection of the individual. It is protection of minorities, anti-corruption, etc.

I think one of the weaknesses of our democracies is our impatience. And we do not have patience to engage in this approach. We expect other nations with other cultures and historic traditions to develop into well-functioning democracies overnight. We should not forget that in our well-functioning democracies we have spent generations to solidify the democratic institutions and democratic culture.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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