The real dangers are still to come

Carl Bildt in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 8 July 2016
“We need to be more prepared to deal with the unpredictability of Russia. Russia is opportunistic in the sense it is ready to use military force, when opportunities arise”, claims former Prime Minister of Sweden.

Łukasz Pawłowski: How do you think Russia will react to the NATO summit in Warsaw? There was an interview with Fyodor Lukyanov in “Gazeta Wyborcza” in which he said that it’s exactly the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, which almost nobody noticed in Poland to be honest, but Russians do pay attention to such details. Is there anything more to it, is Russia going to be annoyed?

Carl Bildt: I believe there will be registered displeasure with the beefing up of NATO conventional forces in Eastern Europe – that is obviously something they don’t like. But I also think they will direct the fire primarily at the ballistic missile defence aspect of it. That is the thing that is figuring very high on their radar-screen and I think we’ll see them reacting much more to that than to the battalions coming in and to the summit itself.

What do you mean by “reacting”? What measures can be taken?

At the moment reacting mainly verbally in different ways as they did in case of the Romanian missile defense site that is now in operation. The Polish one is a couple of years ahead of us and exactly what the Russians will do when that site comes into operation remains to be seen. The reactions could range from military deployments along the border to questioning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty [1] and possibly combination of that two.

Do I understand you correctly that in your view the Russians have already come to terms with the fact that NATO will deploy troops along its eastern border?

Well, they’ve been reading the newspapers, they know what’s going to happen. Have they come to terms with? They are certainly going to make their critical views known. But at the same time they know that no one serious in Moscow can see this is a threat to Russia. I don’t think they will be overly agitated about it.

If they don’t it is a threat, why are we doing that?

We’re not doing it to threaten Russia. We’re doing it to increase our deterrence. We want to make sure that unpredictable Russia does not, at some point in time, use an opportunity to do something stupid along the eastern periphery of NATO in a mistaken belief that NATO is not determined to defend every part of its territory. So this is a strong signal that NATO commitment to defense of all its member states is real.

Is it?

I think it is, yes.

As far as Russia is concerned, the real dangers are some years into the future. They will be military stronger, economically weaker and politically more unstable.

Carl Bildt

Here, in Poland many people are afraid that Russians might attack either one of the Baltic countries or even Poland, but in this kind of hybrid way, which they applied in Ukraine. Do you think that it’s likely?

Ukraine was a special case. I fail to see sort of a Crimea scenario played out in any of the NATO countries, it’s simply inconceivable. Are the other hybrids scenarios possible? Could be. Have we been warn? Yes. Are we more prepared for it? Yes, I think we will be more prepared for it further down the road, and at the end of the day we need to have also conventional deterrence forces able to handle really “hot” scenarios.

Look at the operation in Donbass. They initiated it after the success of Crimea, which went better than they thought. Then they expected they could do something along the same lines with Donbass, but the hybrid operation failed. Very incompetent Ukrainian counter-operation in August of 2014 was about to take back all of the territory. The Russians had to send in a number of regular troops into Ukraine in order to save of what remained of the failed hybrid operation. There are limits to what you can do with hybrid tactics. Donbass illustrates that conventional defense in order to prevent any such conflicts is also important.

You say that Russia at this time would rather not do anything foolish. In that case how should we read some signs which are being sent from Moscow, primarily provocations such as jet flights around the Baltic Sea or even further west.

At the moment these are signs of Russians building up their military capability. They have embarked on a radical military reform since 2008 onwards. As part of that they have been beefing up their training and the readiness of that forces quite substantially. And they will need to train even more, because as they introduced new equipment and as they reorganized the forces, it’s obvious they need to train them. So we are likely to see more of such events in the years to come.

They don’t need to do that by provoking the Western countries. They can do it on their own territory.

And they do. We see only limited activities and the flights over the Baltic Sea are largely flights back and forth to Kaliningrad as part of their increased activity. I don’t read too much into this at the moment.

My concern with Russia is about this country 5 or 10 years from now. It’s Russia that is facing substantial economic issues, but also issues of political stability and eventual transition from the Putin period. It’s also a slightly insecure Russia, yet with an increased military power, where the threshold for the use of this military power is obviously lower than we thought. That’s the lesson coming out of wars in Georgia and Ukraine.

Accordingly we need to be more prepared to deal with the unpredictability of Russia. I don’t think there are any great designs in the Kremlin for conquering other countries. But I do think that Russia is opportunistic in the sense it is ready to use military force, when opportunities arise. And our task is to block these opportunities, or make certain that these opportunities are simply not there.

Translating it from diplomatic to regular language, would you say to an average Pole that they should be more afraid of Russia now than a few years ago?

I would not use the word “afraid” but we should be concerned that we deny Russia some opportunities to act and counter what it does.

Is there a mood in Europe for this kind of policy?

I think there is. At least in the eastern and northern parts of Europe we see defence expenditures going up, we see extensive debates on how to counter different forms of hybrid warfare. There is also a rising awareness of an unpredictable Russia in the years ahead.

On the other hand, however, we see no readiness to substantially support the efforts of Ukraine in its war in Donbass. Is it then possible that Europe will trade Ukraine for peace with Moscow?

I don’t think Ukraine is there to be traded, because the fate of Ukraine is decided by the will of its people. And the vast majority is determined to defend sovereignty of their country. Were we to tell them to cave in to Russian demands, they would not do it anyhow.

But the West can just withdraw its support altogether and the country will collapse.

No, in that case its situation would simply become more difficult, but even then Ukraine would not agree to anything Moscow says. Putin has contributed to forming a much more coherent and determined Ukrainian nation. That is not something that can be easily undone by diplomatic deeds.

Looking back a few years would you say that the Eastern Partnership – behind which you and Radosław Sikorski were the driving forces – was a mistake? You might say that Ukrainians are a more coherent now, but the country is on the brink of economic collapse, part of it is occupied by foreign forces and it’s not closer to Europe whatsoever.

I think it is closer to Europe in mental, cultural but also political terms – it has signed the Association Agreement with the EU. I have also less pessimistic view on the economic perspectives of the country. What they’ve done over the last few years have been very impressive. Not so long ago subsidies to energy amounted to 7 percent of their GDP, which was breeding colossal corruption. These subsidies are more or less gone. That’s the biggest anti-corruption programme we have seen anywhere in the world in recent years. Other forms of corruption are obviously still there, but fighting it does take time.

Yet Eastern Partnership might have contributed to the anti-European mood in Europe itself. In the Netherlands in a referendum people voted overwhelmingly against engaging with Ukraine.

I would not read too much into it. That was essentially an anti-European referendum and Ukraine was simply used as a pretext for having it. They are preparing all sorts of referendums – the next is going to be on free trade deal with Canada. Those particular forces in the Netherlands are against virtually everything the EU does.

It should be recognized, however, that at the time the Russian policy in terms of economic relationship with Europe was different. We were discussing trade agreements and partnership for modernization with Russia, which included moving towards free trade and regulatory convergence in many different areas. I remember a meeting with the then president Medvedev and minister Lavrov in Stockholm in 2009, and we were talking exactly in these terms. In this sense, free trade agreement with Ukraine fitted very well with the existing free trade agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

What we did not see and what surprised us was Russia turning around and deciding to go for its Euroasian Economic Union instead. Then Putin was evidently under the impression that he could pressure Ukraine to do the same. That was a fundamental miscalculation on his part – we did not see it coming, but he also did not know he was going to fail.

Polish foreign policy has become far less active and far less present, which I regret, because I think that Poland has a important role in European Union.

Carl Bildt

Taking into consideration all the pieces of the puzzle – are we in a better position in relations with Russia or worse than we were in, say, 2009?

At that time we had a Georgia war behind us, which was complicated, but there was a tendency to think that was only a blip. In retrospect, however, I believe it was a mistake that we went back to business as usual as fast as we did. I was part of that mistake which in Kremlin was interpreted as weakness on our side. With Putin coming back to serve as president we found ourselves in a more difficult territory – no question about that.

What do you think Russian authorities want to achieve with their current policies? With Russian economy and population in decline, they cannot be overly aggressive.

As far as Russia is concerned, the real dangers are some years into the future, when these things are going to combine. They will be military stronger, economically weaker and politically more unstable. Let’s say that Putin wins another presidential election in 2018, but what happens in 2024? This is a political system with no clear mechanism of transferring power.

Let’s slightly change the subject. Does the fact that all the Western leaders come to Warsaw for the NATO summit somehow legitimize the power of the Polish government, which has been criticized for violating the rule of law? In other words, is it a sign that these actions of this government have been accepted?

I don’t think the summit will change anything in this particular respect. NATO is a security organisation and does not impose specific demands with regard to solving constitutional problems. So it is perfectly possible to have a NATO summit in Warsaw, but I don’t think we could have an EU summit here.

These are to large extent the same people…

But in different organizations with different purposes. Irrespective of the question about constitutional developments in Poland, the commitment to defend territorial integrity of this country is there. The same goes for example for Turkey.

Polish position in NATO will not be affected by what the government is doing?

Less than Polish position in the EU and the Council of Europe.


Carl Bildt; Phot. by Łukasz Pawłowski


How would you assess Polish foreign policy 9 months after elections?

Speaking from the narrow Swedish perspective, I’d say we have a strategic, very important relationship. We’ve had it before, but Mr. Sikorski and I took it up to the new level. Now we’ve been trying to maintain what can be maintained but it has been more difficult from Swedish point of view.

Polish foreign policy has become far less active and far less present which I regret, because I think that Poland has a important role in European Union.

Far less active? One of the major claims repeatedly made by the present Ministry of Foreign Affairs and government is to say that they are far more active on the European scene, and far more active in defending Polish interests.

I don’t see that. I don’t see strong Polish voice in European affairs. Obviously the Polish foreign policy is to some extent occupied with defending what the government is doing internally but that’s another issue. Polish voice shaping the voice in Europe – that is significantly weaker now that it used to be.

And that’s a statement based on…?

Based on what I observe.



[1] Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is a 1987 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, which eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, defined as between 500–5,500 km.