De-escalation starts on the ground

Article by the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen

  • 13 Apr. 2014 -
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  • Last updated: 13 Apr. 2014 13:26

My first speech as NATO Secretary General in 2009 was called "NATO and Russia: A New Beginning." My aim was to develop a true strategic partnership with Russia, extending practical cooperation in areas where we share security interests, while insisting that Russia should fully comply with its international obligations, including respecting the territorial integrity and political freedom of its neighbours.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Through the years, we made significant progress, working together on areas such as counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and security in Afghanistan. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea ended that new beginning, and undermined the very basis of the partnership we had built with such great efforts.

Today, Russia is speaking and behaving not as a partner, but as an adversary.

While tens of thousands of combat-ready Russian troops stand poised on Ukraine's border, Russia is also waging a propaganda war the like of which we have not seen since the end of the Cold War. Its purpose is to pervert the truth, divert attention from Russia's illegal actions, and subvert the authorities in Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Russian officials have accused NATO of breaking its promises, interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, and escalating the crisis. It is time to see these claims for what they are: a smokescreen designed to cover up Russia's own broken promises, interference and escalation.

Broken promises

Russia accuses NATO of breaking a 1990 promise that it would never expand into Central and Eastern Europe. At different times, Russian leaders have attributed the promise to private statements by Germany’s former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.

But in 1990, the only discussion was about the reunification of Germany. NATO enlargement was not on the agenda, as the Warsaw Pact only dissolved a year later. Moreover, any such pledge would have had to lead to a change of NATO's founding treaty made by consensus of all Allies.

The reality is that no such pledge was ever made, and Russia’s leaders have failed to produce a single document to back up this oft-repeated claim. Since it was founded, NATO has embraced sovereign states who made their free choice to join the Alliance. That is the spirit of democracy.

Over the past seventy years, Russia has repeatedly promised to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states. It did so, for example, when it signed the United Nations Charter of 1945, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997.

Russia is now violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity by occupying Crimea, and violating Ukraine’s sovereignty by trying to impose a federal system. Russia has broken its word. It has done damage to its reputation that will take years to heal. Blaming NATO will not make that better; it will make it worse.


Russian leaders also claim that NATO has interfered in Ukraine’s internal affairs by pushing the country towards membership.

NATO’s track record shows how false that is. When Ukraine expressed the aspiration to join the Alliance ten years ago, we welcomed Ukraine's aspiration. When Ukraine opted for non-bloc status, five years ago, we respected Ukraine's decision. When Prime Minister Yatseniuk recently visited Brussels, he made clear that membership “is not on the radar.” That is Ukraine's sovereign choice - and NATO fully respects it.

Meanwhile, Russia has repeatedly tried to define, even dictate, Ukraine’s course. Top officials have demanded that the constitution be rewritten to create a federal state. They have demanded that Ukraine declare itself neutral, to safeguard Russia’s security.

This contradicts one of the fundamental principles of Euro-Atlantic security: that each state is free to choose its own alliances. The Soviet Union accepted that principle when it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975; Russia inherited the obligation.

Only Ukraine can decide what is best for Ukraine - in full respect for all the people of Ukraine, whatever language they speak. Other countries may help to facilitate dialogue, but they cannot decide on Ukraine’s behalf.

If Russia is sincere about a dialogue, the first step should be to pull back the tens of thousands of troops it has deployed on Ukraine's border without any justification. Otherwise, any talks would not be a dialogue, but diktat.


Russian officials allege that NATO has escalated the crisis by moving military forces to Central and Eastern Europe and publicly condemning Russia’s actions. Foreign Minister Lavrov even wrote that “de-escalation starts with rhetoric.”

The reality is that actions speak louder than words: escalation and de-escalation both start on the ground.

Since the crisis began, Russia has occupied Crimea with thousands of troops and staged a rigged referendum That is clearly escalation. NATO has offered to support the Ukrainian government’s defence reforms and boost the transparency and democratic control of the armed forces. That is clearly not escalation.

Russian forces have seized Ukrainian military bases and warships. That is escalation. NATO has sent civilian experts to advise Ukraine on the security of critical infrastructure. That is not escalation.

Russia has moved some 40,000 troops to Ukraine’s border, backed up by tanks, fighters, artillery and attack helicopters: escalation. NATO has launched AWACS radar aircraft flights over Poland and Romania and sent six extra aircraft to the Baltic States to protect Allied airspace: not escalation.

Dispelling the smokescreen

The Russian propaganda against NATO and the West is nothing but smokescreen to cover up its own illegal actions. Dispel the smokescreen, and the truth on the ground is clear: Russia has annexed Crimea at the barrel of a gun, in breach of all its international commitments..

Russia is now isolated in the world, its international credibility in tatters. This is not in Russia’s interest.

Russia faces a choice: to stop blaming others for its own actions, pull back its troops, step back into line with its international obligations and start rebuilding trust.

Otherwise, Russia will only face deeper international isolation. That is in nobody’s interest, and will make our world only more dangerous and unpredictable.

I call on Russia to de-escalate. There are concrete steps to be taken.