Ambassador to NATO: Russia’s Political Elite Victims of their Own Stories

Ambassador to NATO: Russia’s Political Elite Victims of their Own Stories
  • By defencematters

Russia’s politicians are not suicidal, they do not wish to die in a nuclear war, which is why war between NATO and Russia is not possible, Latvian Ambassador to NATO Indulis Bērziņš said in an interview.

Edgars Skvariks

Russia’s politicians are not suicidal, they do not wish to die with the rest of the world in a nuclear war, which is why war between the world’s largest defense alliance NATO and Russia is not possible, Latvian Ambassador to NATO Indulis Bērziņš said in an interview to LETA and the defense news portal "Defence Matters". However, he pointed out that NATO must continue to counter new challenges and continue its policy of deterrence. "Latvia’s territory is also NATO’s territory. From this viewpoint, we can feel safe, however, no one can offer 100% guarantees. Maybe only God," the ambassador said.


You have inherited, in a sense, from the previous Latvian Ambassador to NATO Māris Riekstiņš several important matters which the alliance has been forced to tackle directly or indirectly. What is the atmosphere within the alliance at the moment?

We feel a high sense of responsibility, as how NATO will be capable of reacting to these challenges, including the migration crisis and the events in Ukraine and Syria, will in large part determine the world we will all live in. You see, the reality is that NATO really wishes to ensure stability, and I would like to say the alliance also contributes much to further the development of member states, their economies, as well as investments.


How well is NATO able to deal with these challenges?

If the alliance is not able to handle these challenges, I would then assume that in such a case we would see war between NATO and Russia. However, as we can see, there is no such war and thank God for this. If I am to be completely honest, I do not believe that there will ever be such a war, as NATO is capable of managing the tasks it has set-out. In times of peace, our main task, in regards to this region, is maintaining a policy of deterrence, which we have been implementing quite well. As proof of this, I can mention that our countries are living in peace, developing their economies and solving various matters facing the European Union and NATO. This is only normal, as everyone has their own separate problems, and NATO is not an antidote for all illnesses.


Then can we say that there will be no war between NATO and Russia?

I believe there will be no such war, as Russian politicians are smart enough. They themselves like to believe and say that they are looking after national security. I do not believe they could ensure national security for their country by initiating a conflict with an alliance member, and thus the whole NATO alliance, as this would set into motion Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which states that an attack on any NATO member is an attack on the whole alliance. This would mean that all alliance members, including such super-powers as the United States, France and Germany, would be obliged to assist the ally which Russia is directing its aggression against. At the same time, I also believe Russian politicians are not suicidal, who wish to die with the rest of the world in a nuclear war. They are not self-murderers, who wish to initiate a conflict with the world’s strongest defense organization. This organization is also capable of sending clear signals to Russia, as well as emphasizing that the mentioned Article 5 is in force and will continue to be in force. We care about all of our alliance members, including the smallest ones and the ones located near Russia. We are also sending clear signals that Latvia’s airspace is also NATO’s airspace. Latvian territory is also NATO territory. From this viewpoint, we can feel safe, however, no one can offer 100% guarantees. Maybe only God.


Looking from a NATO perspective, what is Russia’s goal in Ukraine and now in Syria?

This question should most likely be directed to someone else, more specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he likely has a reason for all of this. Various guesses have been mentioned, and we are left to choose from the one we like the most. In this situation only one thing is clear – these external activities, including aggression, are being used to solve Russia’s internal problems. This gave him certain popularity and the Russian president is quite popular in his country at the moment. Nobody can deny this. The only thing that can be called into question are specific statistics. In the current circumstances, asking the Russian public: "do you like the Russian government" is quite unnecessary, as the answer will be unequivocal. The reason for this, according to Russian analysts, is the fact that Russians have a natural fear of possible repressions if their answers might not be politically correct or in accordance with the current political environment. At the same time, his popularity exists and using such methods, Russia, as it believes, is attempting to return to the world stage as a global player. Not only as a regional power, but as a global one.

However, I must say that we will not find out the real reasons for this aggression until Putin himself begins to write his memoirs and tell everything as it is. I do not know if we will have this opportunity in the near future. However, as Russia’s neighbors, such action, unfortunately, looks irrational, as it is in our interests to live next to a Russia with which we are able to successfully cooperate with. Of course, a policy of deterrence is the only possible way we can guarantee security and peace in this region, even though the best possible way is certainly cooperation. Even at the level it existed two years ago, before the crisis in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the Olympic games. This was not perfect cooperation, but we did work together in some areas, like, for example, economic cooperation and cooperation between local governments. This, I believe, is a much better approach than the policy of distancing ourselves we are forced to implement today, as we have no other choice. It was not any NATO member state which occupied Crimea or has launched aggressive activities in Eastern Ukraine. If such actions are taken against a neighboring country, other countries have a reason to be concerned. These countries also have to right to take the necessary action to defend themselves and support the various measures taken by the alliance, so that they can feel safe.


Can it be said that Russia, with its actions in Ukraine and now in Syria, has basically shot itself in both feet?

This remains to be seen, as it is hard to predict how the situation will change. No one has a crystal ball, where they can look into and see what will happen. Taking into account the complexity of the situation and all the contradictions, I do not have the confidence that Russia, with its actions, will be able to solve the situation it is in, in a relatively short period of time. If Russia is capable of achieving its goals, it could present itself as the victor. But the question is – are these real achievements, or are they presented as achievements "thanks" to Russian television. You know, very often the rest of the world sees these same events very differently than Russia. We can mention the downing of the MH17 passenger aircraft over Eastern Ukraine as an example. The whole world understood after the first facts were revealed that Russian soldiers, or Russian-backed separatists, were to blame for downing the plane. However, in Russia, many still believe that the Ukrainian downed the plane.


Should NATO members, including Turkey, not begin to seriously worry about Russia’s activities in Syria?

Turkey is already concerned, and because of this an emergency meeting was called to discuss the violation of Turkish airspace. This was just logical, as Turkey’s airspace, just like Latvia, is also NATO’s airspace. However, NATO reacts in a very responsible and though-out way, as it understands that it is not in the alliance’s interests to escalate the situation and provoke Russia.


But does this not make Putin believe that NATO will never really be especially active?

This is where it gets complicated in striking a balance. On one side NATO is giving a clear signal that it will take the necessary steps to defend its members. Taking into account the threat level and possible risks, the regular deployment of allied troops in the region and air-patrols are being carried out on a suitable level. If threat levels increase, NATO will increase its presence. You see, the best war is a war which is not taking place, and one has strong enough arguments so that a potential aggressor is not interested in even starting a conflict. Of course, there are active discussions within NATO on how much is needed in order to make sure it is completely clear to Russia that there are no opportunities to initiate a conflict or a hybrid-war here. At the same time, we are not doing anything to provoke Russia. We should not be naïve in thinking that Russia does not have its own fears. Also Russia has its concerns and fears.


Is Russia afraid of NATO?

I believe Russia is afraid of NATO, as public opinion in Russia has been turned against the alliance and believes it to be an aggressive bloc. The Russian political elite, in a certain sense, has been turned into a victim of its own story and approach. They in a way believe in something which is far from the truth – that NATO is an aggressive alliance, especially towards Russia. I can repeat – the alliance has no such interests. Let us think logically – in what way would it be in NATO’s interests to start a war with Russia?


We have been speaking about NATO sending additional forces to this region if necessary. What is the extent of additional forces we can speak about?

This will be done if necessary. It is not easy to predict the extent of additional forces, as everything is dependent on the development of the situation. It is also possible that the forces already in Latvia at the moment are enough. I myself believe that during the next NATO Summit in Warsaw, we must continue moving forward in this area. This policy of deterrence and strengthening defense capabilities must continue. At the same time, we must also look at which of the decisions made during the previous NATO Summit in Wales have been implemented, and which ones must be changed. This is all in the hands of military experts, and only then decisions will be made on the ambassadorial, ministerial and governmental levels on how best to move forward in guaranteeing our security.


Would you, as ambassador, like to see an additional allied presence in Latvia?

Personally, I have always said that I would only be happy to see more allied soldiers on the ground here in Latvia, as I believe this only enhances our security. At the same time, I also understand the concerns of my colleagues who believe that unnecessarily deploying troops to the region is a financial burden for all. Second of all, this could provoke Russia. This is the delicate balance I mentioned before. For example, that which we are requesting in unofficial and official talks, including recently in Bucharest, is nothing that could provoke Russia. These forces will not be moving towards St Petersburg or Moscow. However, having U.S. and German troops on the ground is necessary. Germany, for example, understands its responsibility for regional stability, even though it also understands how much it benefits from its relations with Russia. I must reiterate – Germany understands very well it cannot allow Russia’s aggressive activities.

Speaking about having an additional allied presence is the reason, I would like to compare this to a glacier. It may not be moving at great speeds, but it continues to quietly move forward in accordance with how the terrain of international relations changes. None of my colleagues or any minister has even made the slightest mention doubting NATO’s Article 5. But let us be realists – we have made the right decision to gradually increase our defense budget, as otherwise our allies arriving here would have to live in an open field. In a time of war this could be understandable, but not in this situation.


However, we have up until now been paying too little attention to our defense, which is a negative our allies know very well about…

This is true to a certain extent, however, we also have many positives as well. For example, the training ground at the Ādaži base is a very good one. If we are able to expand this training ground, it would become one of the best in the wider region. At the same time, another positive is our Home Guards, who may not be the best equipped, but have a strong willpower and capability of defending our nation when necessary.

I must also admit that during our relative period of cooperation with Russia, we were too quiet in telling the rest of the world that this period will not continue for long. Of course, no one could have predicted the development of events. Maybe only "The Economist" columnist and Eastern European expert Edward Lucas in his book "The New Cold War". Meanwhile, us in the Baltics, with our understanding of history and Russia, predicted that the situation could become more complicated. Let us remember the economic crisis for example. We should have strengthened our armed forces, but we are now a bit delayed. At the time, we felt that peace and cooperation with Russia will continue, and that Russia and NATO would become partners. At the time, our relations were based on openness, with Russian involvement. The situation now has changed dramatically, but we cannot say that we are not the only ones unprepared.


Are you not concerned that a relative period of peace could set-in sometime in the future, and our politicians will then say that now is time for cooperation and defense spending will be reduced, as the country has more important problems to solve?

I really do have such concerns, that after we return to a certain level of stability something like this could happen. However, at least at the moment, it does not look like such a scenario is possible. Russia’s recent activities in Syria do not show that a period of peace, co-existence and cooperation is possible in the near future. I regret to say that Russia, will remain, as it is today, for a long period of time. We must learn to co-exist, like it or not. This is not even a matter to be discussed, but the reality. The only possibility is to continue our policy of deterrence and cooperation in areas not impacted by the sanctions. Is there a reason we should not cooperate?


What, in addition to maintaining a policy of deterrence, should the alliance be implementing at the moment?

NATO must ensure greater security, so that even an accidental incident does not trigger a conflict. But speaking in wider terms, I have to conclude that Russia, with its actions in Ukraine, has not solved any of its major problems. Russia’s main problem was its domestic politics and economy, which due to the fall in the price of oil and Western sanctions began to stagnate. Did Russia solve its problems with its action? No, exactly the opposite. They have caused more problems for themselves. The second major problem for Russia was Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Has Russia, by refusing to cooperate with the West against this common enemy, improved its security? Also no. They have only complicated the situation and increased the threat level against themselves. Furthermore, they see China as a major opportunity for themselves, but even though Russia does not wish to admit this, China has its own interests in Central Asia. China has its own point of view on many things, and it uses the economic cooperation offered by Russia very well to its advantage.


Based on selfish interests?

I would rather say that China is utilizing this situation in a very pragmatic way and in accordance with its own interests. I completely understand China. However, Russia, by standing against the West, has lost its ability to balance.


They now only have one side to turn to...

Exactly. They now only have one side to turn to. Russia has basically given up a policy of balance. Thus, Russia has only achieved an unfavorable scenario for itself. But, let the Russian voters and politicians worry about this.


The mass media has recently been actively reporting about Russia and its actions in Syria. Has this not left the situation in Ukraine in the shadows?

Nobody has forgotten Ukraine, NATO knows what is taking place. Shelling continues in Ukraine, and people continue to die, even though the intensity of the conflict has died down, which is only a positive thing. Unfortunately, I have to say that I do not believe the Minsk agreements will be observed in full. I am speaking about returning the control over Ukraine’s borders back to Ukraine. If this actually does take place, then we can begin to speak about some kind of progress in this area. It is also way too soon to say that much progress has already been achieved, even though there have been some improvements. Furthermore, the West is not intending on giving up its current policies regarding Russia. The West does not see, and will never see Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia. This is the first time since WWII when state borders have been violated and annexed in such a brutal way. This is not acceptable for Europe or the United States.


Photo Credit: Evija Trifanova LETA