Robert Hunter: German FM’s remarks show no desire to contain Russia

April 15, 2016

TEHRAN – German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Sunday that he would like to see Russia’s return to the G7 group if Moscow helps settle conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. 

Robert E. Hunter, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says the remarks by Steinmeier shows that there is no “inherent desire” by the West to contain Russia permanently if Russia shows goodwill.

“The fact that Steinmeier has raised the issue does ‘keep the door open’ and shows Russia that there is no inherent desire for permanent containment of Russia, if it will abide by the rules,” Hunter tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: Since when and for what reasons did NATO decide to expand a political dialogue with Russia in the format of the NATO-Russia Council?

A: As NATO was proceeding to try implementing President George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace, it took a number of steps.  These included Partnership for Peace (of which I was coauthor) for all members of the OSCE, and also membership in NATO for a limited number of Central European countries.  These began, at the Madrid NATO summit in July 1997, with Poland, the Czech Republic (which, incidentally, bordered on unified Germany, as part of reassuring everyone in Europe, including Russia, that it would be “surrounded” by NATO – and also by the European Union), plus Hungary.  In order to show Ukraine and Russia that they were not being left out of this construct, NATO negotiated a NATO-Ukraine Charter (I did the negotiating for NATO) and a NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in Paris on May 17, 1997.  This was designed to keep open the possibility of Russian engagement in broader aspects of Europe and security and politics. One objective was to avoid what had happened with Germany with the Treaty of Versailles, which was one of the elements that eventually led to World War II.  The Founding Act contained 19 areas of potential cooperation between NATO and Russia, and they can be found on the Internet. NATO met with Russia in a Permanent Joint Council, with the NATO allies in effect on one side of the table and Russia on the other (though, of course, everyone sat around the same table).  In 2002, at NATO's Rome summit, the arrangement was changed so that Russia would be an equal participant with the NATO allies, and the forum became the NRC.  The 19 areas of potential cooperation have remained the same.  Unfortunately for everyone, the effort to engage Russia was not pursued adequately by either side.  We have seen the results.  Whether history could have been different cannot be told of course; I think it could have been, but that is just my opinion.

Q: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on April 8 that the NATO-Russia Council would meet in the coming two weeks. Why does NATO seek to resume dialogue with Moscow?

A: Technically, the NRC was never suspended, thought it has met very infrequently since Russia seized the Crimea and attacked other parts of Ukraine.  This not suspending the NRC was deliberate on NATO’s part, in order to keep open some channels of communication.  It is also a way of showing the Russians that, if they will abide by prior commitments and also according to basic requirements of a “Europe whole and free,” it will be possible for Russia to rejoin the broader community of nations.  The agenda of items being discussed is limited, and one aspiration for NATO is to talk about arms control issues, given the continued importance of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and also (among other things) issues of so-called “substrategic” nuclear arms in Europe. Russia has sent people to the infrequent meetings of the NRC, but nothing of substance has been achieved.

Q: German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier said that the world powers will consider Russia's return to the G7. What are the reasons for such a remark?

A: The German foreign minister is speaking for his own country, and several other members of the G7 do not agree that this is a time to bring Russia back into the G7 (assuming, of course, that it would be interested).  Leaving aside whether Crimea would ever be returned to Ukraine (doubtful, especially given that, until 1954 it was not part of Ukraine), until Russia is prepared to honor all the provisions of the so-called Minsk Accords, other G7 members, including the U.S., would not welcome Russia back to the G7 or relax sanctions.  However, the fact that Steinmeier has raised the issue does “keep the door open” and shows Russia that there is no inherent desire for permanent containment of Russia, if it will “abide by the rules,” including those to which it has agreed, like the Helsinki Final Act and the Budapest Accords of 1994.  It will be important, however, for Mr. Putin not to interpret that suggestion to mean a weakening of concerns over what Russia has done in Ukraine and the pressures it is placing on other Central European countries.

Q: How does NATO want to resolve certain problems such as the cultural roots of terrorism, migrant crisis, etc.? Has NATO been adapted to deal with such threats?

A: It is worth your looking at the speech that Secretary General Jens Stolenberg gave at the Atlantic Council in Washington last week.  It is on the Internet.  But beyond what he has said about it, NATO as NATO is not well suited for dealing with any of the threats and challenges you listed that do not have a military dimension.  That requirement falls on national governments and organizations like the European Union and some UN bodies, with some possibilities for the Council of Europe.  One issue that could engage NATO relates to terrorism in the Middle East and especially ISIL, where individual allies have some military engagement. Whether NATO as a whole would be involved is on the agenda but there is so far no agreement, or any clear notion, yet, of what would be involved.  One area in which NATO might be more inclined to become engaged is Libya, given that several of the allies (and NATO indirectly) were involved in the earlier effort to try stopping conflict there and which led to the deposing of Qaddafi.

The question you pose is one of the most consequential for Europe, including for the European Union, and also for the transatlantic relationship.  In my judgment, efforts need to cross institutional boundaries.  There also has to be a comprehensive approach to all of the various challenges in Europe and the Middle East. The Middle East terrorism issues, of course, are also wrapped up in the full range of matters that are bedeviling that part of the world….but that is a whole different set of matters to be discussed! 

(The interview is conducted by Javad Heirannia)

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