In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen discusses how Vladimir Putin's views have changed over the years.
Rasmussen, who was secretary-general between 2009-14, says Putin is obsessed with the idea of restoring the greatness of the Soviet Union and has turned Russia into an international pariah.
RFE/RL: Vladimir Putin, you've met him both as Danish prime minister and as NATO secretary-general, and absurdly enough, he even accused you of secretly taping him. What did you make of the man back then and now?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Yes, Mr. Putin has changed over the years. My first meeting took place in 2002…and he was very positive regarding cooperation between Russia and the West. Then, gradually, he changed his mind. And from around 2005 to 2006, he got increasingly negative toward the West. And in 2008, he attacked Georgia.… In 2014, he took Crimea, and now we have seen a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. So he has really changed over the years.
RFE/RL: Any idea what prompted this?
Rasmussen: I think the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2004 and 2005 contributed to his change of mind. We shouldn't forget that Vladimir Putin grew up in the KGB. So his thinking is very much impacted by that past. So I think he suffers from paranoia. And he thought that after color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, that the aim [of the West] was to initiate a regime change in the Kremlin -- in Moscow -- as well. And that's why he turned against the West.
RFE/RL: When we hear world leaders saying that the entire European architecture is being undermined, is the entire blame on Putin, or could the West also have done something differently, something more to prevent this from happening?
Rasmussen: I put the blame entirely on Putin and Russia. Russia is not a victim. We have reached out to Russia several times during history…. First, we approved the NATO Russia Founding Act in 1997…. Next time, it was in 2002, we reached out once again, established something very special, namely the NATO-Russia Council. And in 2010, we decided at a NATO-Russia summit that we would develop a strategic partnership between Russia and NATO. So, time and again, we reached out to Russia.
RFE/RL: Did the West do enough to deter Putin? So he would not do what he did two weeks ago?
I think we should have done more to deter Putin. Back in 2008, he attacked Georgia, took de facto Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We could have reacted much more determinedly already in that time."
Rasmussen: In hindsight, no. In addition to our outrage, I think we should have done more to deter Putin. Back in 2008, he attacked Georgia, took de facto Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We could have reacted much more determinedly already in that time.
RFE/RL: Instead, you followed that with the NATO-Russia partnership in 2010.
Rasmussen: Yeah, yeah. When I took office in 2009, I reached out to the Russians and told them it's one of my priorities to develop such a strategic partnership, despite the fact that one year earlier they had attacked Georgia. So we have done a lot. But maybe Putin misread our thoughts and I think [that a] lesson learned from history is that appeasement with dictators does not lead to peace, it leads to war and conflict.
RFE/RL: Even a lesson learned too late can be useful. When you say we should have done more, what could you have done?
Rasmussen: For instance, after the 2014 conflict, when Putin illegally annexed Crimea into the Russian Federation, we imposed modest sanctions on Russia. And Putin misread that as almost an invitation to go further. And now he has gone further. I think we should do more than we have done already.
Based on lessons learned from history, we have seen already an unprecedented European and transatlantic unity. We have seen unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia. That's good. But I think we should go further. My concrete proposal would be to cut off all import of oil and gas from Russia immediately.
RFE/RL: We saw Germany not being very enthusiastic about that prospect. Chancellor Olaf Scholz even said Russian gas is "essential for Germany" for the time being. So it isn't going to happen overnight, is it?
Rasmussen: First of all, I would like to commend the German chancellor and the German government for some very tough decisions to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to increase the German defense budget, and to send weapons to Ukraine. It's a dramatic shift in German foreign and security policy. I really appreciate that….
It's right now that Finland and Sweden should use the opportunity to join NATO. And that would send an extremely important signal to Putin, and it would be considered a major defeat for Putin in the current environment."
We do know that if we completely ban import of oil and gas from Russia, doing exactly the same as the Americans, it will come at a price. But we have to help each other. I think the price to pay is modest compared to the current suffering of the Ukrainian people, and the costs of losing freedom in Europe because of inaction.
RFE/RL: You say that Finland and Sweden should recognize the new reality in Europe and look to join the alliance without delay. Would they be accepted without delay?
Rasmussen: Yes, NATO is prepared to welcome both Finland and Sweden. I would say an application from Finland and Sweden could be approved more or less overnight. And let me add to this: I think it would be in the self-interest of Finland and Sweden to join NATO right now. Because now they have a window of opportunity. Putin is engaged [somewhere else], so that window might soon close again.
So it's right now that Finland and Sweden should use the opportunity to join NATO. And that would send an extremely important signal to Putin, and it would be considered a major defeat for Putin in the current environment.
Now, in hindsight, I think it was a mistake not to grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans back in 2008. Because it sent the wrong signal to Putin."
RFE/RL: What will be the signal to capitals such as Kyiv or Tbilisi, when they've been standing in front of this open door for decades and then Finland and Sweden are accepted overnight?
Rasmussen: Yeah, but it would also be a clear signal that NATO's door remains open. There is hope.… You can become members of NATO, if you so wish. And that's actually what we decided back in 2008. At the NATO summit, we decided that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO…. But if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, it would be a clear signal that NATO's door remains open and NATO will never accept Putin as the doorman.
RFE/RL: You have said one of your biggest regrets as a diplomat was that Georgia and Ukraine weren't given NATO Membership Action Plans in 2008. What exactly was done to remedy that mistake?
Rasmussen: What we did back in 2008 was to guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO…. And then we established the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission. So instead of a Membership Action Plan, we pursued other paths onward. But still, now in hindsight, I think it was a mistake not to grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans back in 2008. Because it sent the wrong signal to Putin. He calculated that there is disunity within NATO, he considered that a weakness, and he exploited that weakness by attacking Georgia.
RFE/RL: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been vocal about his criticism of NATO lately. He said he "cooled down" on the prospect [of joining] after realizing that NATO is afraid of controversial things and confrontation with Russia. He went as far as to say that "all of the people who will die starting from this day will also die because of you, because of your weakness, because of your disunity." Is President Zelenskiy's criticism of NATO fair?
I think what we need now is immediate delivery of combat drones, anti-tank, antiaircraft weapons, immediate delivery to step up our military help to make the Ukrainian Army and the Ukrainian people even more capable of defending [themselves]."
Rasmussen: I see very well why he is criticizing NATO. However, we should all realize the risk of a confrontation between NATO and Russia. Actually, we are speaking about two nuclear-armed entities that would engage in a military confrontation, and there is a clear risk of an escalation of this conflict, if we are not very careful.
On the other hand, I also have to say, I think NATO allies should step up their delivery of weapons and other military equipment…. I think what we need now is immediate delivery of combat drones, anti-tank, antiaircraft weapons, immediate delivery to step up our military help to make the Ukrainian Army and the Ukrainian people even more capable of defending [themselves]. Because we should realize that this is a choice between confronting Putin now or having to fight him later, because Putin won't stop in Ukraine.
RFE/RL: Russia and Ukraine negotiations are under way. Would anybody blame President Zelenskiy or his government if he agrees not to pursue NATO membership, if this means stopping the existential threat his country is facing?
Rasmussen: We're not going to blame Zelenskiy for the decisions he and his government might take, and I think no one from the Western alliance would put pressure on the Ukrainian government to take specific decisions. It's for them to decide. And that's exactly the point. Personally, I think it would be a completely unacceptable situation for Europe if Putin manages to fulfill his desire to decide whether his neighbors can join NATO and the European Union or not.
RFE/RL: If that happens, that means victory for Putin, right? Am I interpreting that correctly? That was one of his main demands before the war.
Rasmussen: Absolutely…. The demands that have been publicly described for an independent and sovereign nation like Ukraine, they seem to be unacceptable. It would de facto make Ukraine a part of Russia, like Belarus. And that is actually Putin's goal: He is obsessed by the idea of restoring the greatness of the former Soviet Union. That is to restore Russian dominance in the near neighborhood, covering the territory of the former Soviet Union.
I strongly regret that we didn't take Putin seriously at that time. And I think the lesson learned is: We should take him seriously. Now."
RFE/RL: Did Putin ever allude to the fact, during private meetings, or say that "this is our land" or something like that?
Rasmussen: Yes, indeed. In 2008, we had a NATO-Russia summit [and] Putin left that summit furious because we had decided that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. And during that meeting, he argued that Ukraine, in general, and Crimea, in particular, was not really independent, they were as part of history an integrated part of Russia. He called Kyiv the mother of all Russian cities. If we had listened at that time, if we had taken him seriously at that time, we would be better prepared for what we have seen in the last 10 or 20 years.
So I strongly regret that we didn't take him seriously at that time. And I think the lesson learned is: We should take him seriously. Now.
RFE/RL: If Ukraine is forced to agree to some sort of deal with Russia just to stop the violence, should sanctions be lifted from Russia?
Rasmussen: No, I don't think so. Because Putin has initiated an illegal war against Ukraine. He has seriously violated international law, so I don't see any reason to lift sanctions. Not at all.
RFE/RL: As for the responsibility for Putin. After this is done, will the West accept him back? Will he pay for what he has done?
Rasmussen: No, I don't think so. Russia is an international pariah ruled by a political gangster. He is isolated.
RFE/RL: Will he brought to an international court?
Rasmussen: I don't know. Because I think it will be difficult to bring him to court. But if he is accused of war crimes -- and there are good reasons to believe that he could be tried -- then of course he can't travel freely in the world.