Vershbow: NATO prefers strategic partnership not new Cold War with Russia
Question: Mr. Vershbow, some media have reported citing unnamed sources in NATO and the U.S. Department of State that if Crimea joins Russia, Georgia will be given the NATO Membership Action Plan at the alliance‘s summit in the UK this September. Are these reports true?
Answer: Let me make a couple of general comments first about the situation because I think, first of all, it‘s important to understand our position on this so-called referendum that‘s being organized for Sunday. We here at NATO, all the allies, consider that the referendum that‘s being planned for March 16 is illegitimate and indeed it‘s a violation of the Ukrainian Constitution and it doesn‘t provide any legitimate basis for the secession of Crimea from Ukraine or for the annexation of Crimea by Russia. And it certainly wouldn‘t contribute to a peaceful solution to the crisis. We continue to stand by the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and the principle of the inviolability of internationally recognized borders. And we‘re very concerned that Russia seems to have violated every one of those principles and international commitments.
Now on the specific question you asked about Georgia, we have an established process with respect to our open door. With respect to Georgia and Ukraine, we did take decisions at the Bucharest summit in 2008 that Georgia and indeed Ukraine will become members of NATO provided they wish to do so and provided they fulfill the necessary criteria. So that decision of principle still stands. Ukraine of course subsequently decided not to pursue membership but it remains up to the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people to decide how they want to develop their relationship with NATO in the future.
But Georgia is operating under the same framework that it has been since 2008. While it will become a member one day, it‘s not there yet. The key remains to focus on continuing to implement the necessary reforms. So our policy is being implemented as before, no change neither forward nor backward; we‘re still committed to the decision we took in Bucharest.
Q.: So there will be no MAP in September?
A.: That‘s something that‘s still a subject of discussion. It will be reviewed by foreign ministers who have two meetings in the spring before the NATO summit in September. And then those kinds of issues will be decided at the summit itself, so it‘s an issue but no decisions have been taken.
Q.: Some Russian experts think that the current crisis in Ukraine may speed up Ukraine‘s integration into NATO. Is it so? Does NATO plan to provide any military assistance to Ukraine?
A.: Those are two separate issues. We have a long-standing partnership with Ukraine. They were one of the founding members of the Partnership for Peace. Since 1997, we have a distinctive partnership with Ukraine under the NATO-Ukraine Charter. And so we‘ve had a long period of very mutually beneficial cooperation, to include helping them to develop their defense institutions, to implement defense reforms and participate in training and exercises. And that activity has been ongoing. But in recent days, as you know, the North Atlantic Council decided to increase our defense cooperation and other forms of engagement with Ukraine, to underscore that we stand with them at this difficult time. And to continue to help them become good partners, and be able to continue to contribute to international operations, as they have done in Afghanistan, in the Balkans and elsewhere.
Now as I said before, the question of their longer-term goals for this relationship, including the possibility of membership, is for the Ukrainians themselves to decide. The Bucharest decision still stands, but it‘s up to the people of Ukraine and their leaders to decide whether to reactivate their aspirations for membership, or whether to continue to pursue the kind of partnership we have today.
Q.: But there is an impression that representatives of new authorities are ready to join NATO right tomorrow…
A.: Well, there‘s been legislation introduced, but I don‘t believe it‘s been acted upon. But it‘s their sovereign choice.
Q.: Russia explains its position on Ukraine in particular by the threat that nationalists will pose if they come to power. Does NATO see such a threat?
A.: Well, we hear a lot about that in Russian statements and the Russian media, but frankly, we think the Russian views are wildly exaggerated. We recently met with the prime minister, the acting prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and I don‘t think it would be in any way defensible to call him a radical. He‘s a moderate, long-standing democrat, and he was elected by an overwhelming majority, by the freely-elected parliament of Ukraine, including strong support from former President [Viktor] Yanukovych‘s Party of Regions. So we consider the government in Ukraine to be legitimate. It derives its authority from an elected parliament, which had to take responsibility for the country when Mr. Yanukovych fled the country and failed to deliver on his commitments under the February 21 agreement.
But again, it‘s not NATO‘s business to analyze the composition of any government, it‘s for the Ukrainian people to decide. And they will have new elections this year, and that‘s the best way to ensure that there‘s continued democratic leadership in Ukraine.
Q.: The new government includes representatives for example of the Right Sector, the organization that doesn‘t hide its nationalistic attitudes. Don‘t you worry about this?
A.: Well, I think the key is to judge people by their actions. We don‘t see anybody that‘s associated with the government engaged in anti-constitutional behavior right now.
If anything, the most extreme activities seem to be conducted by Russian nationalist forces in the East, with a lot of help from groups in Russia
Q.: The UN Court of Justice ruled in 2010 that the independence of Kosovo complies with international law. What is the difference between the current situation in Crimea and the Kosovo precedent?
A.: Yes, indeed. Well, I know a lot about the Kosovo situation, but it‘s definitely not a precedent, even if it‘s being portrayed as such.
There are many differences between the two situations. The bottom line is Kosovo‘s independence was declared after many years of diplomacy, under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, and not after a few days of occupation.
To be more specific, let us remember that Kosovo was the scene of large-scale violence and of attempted ethnic cleansing that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia that ceased to exist as a single state. Ukraine of course has not disintegrated. It‘s had 23 years of peaceful development as an independent state, and Crimea, for its part, has not seen any such violence. The ethnic group which seems to be most concerned about the situation is the Crimean Tatars, who seem to be getting insufficient attention in this whole situation.
Second, between the international intervention in Kosovo and Kosovo‘s declaration of independence, a period of almost 10 years passed with intensive international diplomacy, led by the UN, aimed at finding a final, a negotiated solution. And they had a specific instruction from the UN Security Council to define Kosovo‘s final status.
And third, there has been no suggestion that Kosovo should be annexed by another country, whereas Russia is hastily moving toward the annexation of Crimea.
So the International Court of Justice ruling itself was very clear that the ruling had no significance for any other country or any other situation involving declarations of independence. It defined Kosovo as a unique situation, to use the Latin sui generis.
Q.: So Kosovo is a unique situation and Crimea isn‘t…
A.: Crimea is a constituent part of Ukraine. And its status is clearly defined in the Ukrainian constitution, and there are clear provisions about the holding of referenda and about changing the status of constituent parts of Ukraine. Those have to be decided by the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv. So there, and to the extent that there are concerns about discrimination, mistreatment, of the Russian-speaking population, there are many other mechanisms to pursue those, including the OSCE, the United Nations. And if the authorities, both in Crimea and in Russia, are so confident about their position, why do they block the entry of international monitors, of international media? Why do they harass the representative of the UN Secretary General to the point that he‘s driven to flee Simferopol, when he was there on the instructions of Mr. Ban Ki-Moon?
Q.: Russia insists on fulfilling the February 21 agreement between Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition that provides for the creation of a representative government, the launch of a constitutional reform and a presidential election. Do think it is possible to fulfill this agreement? Can see any points of similarity in Russia‘s and West‘s positions on the Ukrainian crisis? Can a compromise be reached?
A.: Well, we do still think there‘s a possibility of finding a diplomatic way out of this crisis, and that‘s certainly what NATO would like to see. And I think we‘re very much in the same place as the European Union and many other international organizations. We would like to see a de-escalation, a diplomatic process opened up, dialog between all concerned players, but particularly between Russia and Ukraine, aimed at addressing any legitimate concerns within the framework of international law, rather than by overturning all the key principles of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. So there certainly is a possibility of a political solution, but that gets harder if this referendum goes forward, and even worse, if Russia moves toward annexation of Crimea.
I think this was just stated today by the G7, which called for suspension of plans to hold the referendum, if that‘s still possible.
As for the February 21 agreement: in our view, it was President Yanukovych who took the first step to block its implementation by disappearing from the country and failing to sign the legislation that was passed under that agreement on the change of the Constitution. And so the Ukrainian parliament had to take charge when the president was absent from the country, and take steps to establish an interim government. And in the process, with no president, they moved up the date of the presidential elections.
But I think that many aspects of that agreement have been fulfilled. And I think that if Russia wants to go back to that agreement, even though Mr. Lukin didn‘t sign it, but if Russia wants to go back to that agreement, they should establish a dialog with the authorities in Kyiv and see if we can de-escalate the situation. But dismemberment of a sovereign country is not the way to address these sorts of issues in the twenty-first century.
Q.: As far as I understand from your answer there are two different situations. The first is the declaration of Crimea‘s independence at the referendum and the second is Crimea‘s joining Russia. Will NATO react differently?
A.: Well, the referendum, of course, in our view, even if it does take place, is neither legal in terms of the constitution of Ukraine or in terms of the Helsinki principles, nor is it legitimate, given the circumstances in which it‘s being held: under the conditions of an armed occupation with a black-out of independent media, a blockade of the country. In terms of the access to and from Crimea, (which) is now being blocked. And of course the decision to have launched this referendum is of questionable legitimacy because the current parliament in Crimea was installed at the barrel of a gun, after the armed occupation of the Rada in Simferopol.
So there‘s a lot of doubts about the legitimacy of this referendum. So there would still be a possibility for a political solution, since the international community is simply not going to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum. If Russia, of course, goes on nevertheless with annexation, that would not be recognized either, just as most of the international community never recognized the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in the Soviet Union. But in practical terms, it‘ll be a much more difficult situation if annexation takes place. I have no doubt about that.
Q.: NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has announced a number of sections against Russia that Moscow labeled as ‘double standards.‘ How far is NATO ready to walk the road of alienating Russia? Will there be some kind of a new Cold War or even a real war? Is it possible?
A.: Well, I certainly hope that this doesn‘t descend into an actual armed confrontation. We favor a political solution, and only a political solution. But we also have decided that it‘s difficult to have business as usual in the current circumstances. But we haven‘t shut the door. We put the relationship with Russia under review, we‘ve suspended most day-to-day activities – although we are ready to continue to talk directly to Ambassador Grushko, through our NATO-Russia Council. But our foreign ministers, who will be meeting on April 1-2, will assess the situation then, depending on what Russia does. But the ball is much more in Russia‘s court than in ours, based on the actions that it has taken, which really do go against all the guiding principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the NATO-Russia Council… So we don‘t want to have another Cold War. We would prefer to start building the strategic partnership that we talked about, particularly in 2010, when former President Medvedev attended the NATO summit in Portugal. But it‘s really up to Russia whether it wants to pursue that or not. But certainly changing lines on the map of Europe through the use of military force is a grave mistake and it will have consequences for the NATO-Russia partnership.
Q.: NATO has always stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan, the missile defense dialogue and interaction on chemical disarmament of Syria has started to come to shape. Will all of these continue despite differences on Ukraine?
A.: Well, one hopes we can still find areas that reflect our mutual interest and continue to cooperate. Afghanistan, I think, is a very obvious example of where our cooperation is aimed at a common goal: of stabilizing Afghanistan and the region, preventing it becoming a hotbed of terrorists again. So Russia‘s assistance has been very helpful, with transit arrangements across Russian territory, and the direct assistance to the Afghan Security Forces and to their counter-narcotics personnel. So I hope that we can protect such clearly useful and mutually beneficial areas, even if other business is suspended.
Missile defense cooperation, also, would still be an area of mutual benefit, but even before this crisis, we didn‘t see much interest in Russian, in Russia in pursuing that cooperation: we saw lots of excuses about why it could not take place, which we never found very convincing or based on facts, but (it) still could be an important area for cooperation. And of course, eliminating the chemical weapons in Syria remains both a common interest and a mission that‘s been approved by the UN Security Council so I hope there will be no impact on that very important mission.
Q.: So will specific joint project to scrap Syria‘s chemical weapons be carried out?
A.: Well, there, unfortunately, we‘ve at least had a setback. Because of the Ukraine crisis, we have no alternative but to suspend the planning for what would have been the first NATO-Russia Council authorized military mission, in which we would have had naval forces from NATO and Russia together providing the security for the U.S. ship, called the ‘Cape Ray‘ that will do the destruction of the chemical weapons. So, at least right now, that‘s going to be done by NATO itself, without Russian partnership. But it may be, if we can de-escalate the situation and avoid the worst, that mission could be brought back to life.
Q.: Is NATO ready to close its information office in Moscow?
A.: Our presence in Moscow, both the NATO Information Office and we also have a Military Liaison Mission, serve a constructive purpose. They operate on the basis of bilateral agreements between NATO and the Russian Federation, and they are means to conduct dialog and promote mutual understanding, and perhaps, more basically, try to counter some of the disinformation and stereotypes that have become even more prevalent in these days in most of the Russian national media, especially television. So it‘s certainly not our intention to close those offices.
Q.: Can a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the ministerial take place in early April?
A.: That has not yet been decided. I think that we haven‘t ruled it out, but we haven‘t ruled it in, so I think a decision will be taken closer to the event. It depends on events in the next days and weeks, and how allies interpret them.