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1 May 2024

George Robertson: Why Russia fears the European Union

The former Nato secretary general on his conversations with Vladimir Putin.

By Freddie Hayward

George Robertson was at Nato’s Brussels headquarters when the second plane hit. By 9.30pm on 11 September 2001 he would become the first, and only, Nato secretary general to trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states an attack on one is an attack on all. But his first thought after watching 9/11 unfold was that the Nato headquarters lay beneath the flight path to Brussels Airport. All non-essential staff were sent home.

Then, his mind turned to the perpetrators. He first suspected US domestic terrorists; the Oklahoma bombing had happened six years before. “You began to realise that if it was an external source, then this was huge,” he said when we spoke in his Westminster office. “America had been attacked for the first time since Pearl Harbor. Here, in many ways, the world had changed.”

His staff drafted a statement while he phoned the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to discuss triggering Article 5. Robertson said they were initially sceptical about whether it would work. “It was high-risk because if you do it and it fails – it has the opposite effect.”

At 3.30pm he put the plan to the Nato council. “If somebody had said, ‘No, we don’t like the wording or we don’t want to do it today, put it off till tomorrow,’ then it would have been pretty disastrous. But eventually, I persuaded everybody. We got it [finalised] by half past nine. Everybody in the morning thought it was their idea – but that was fine.”

Robertson entered parliament as a Labour MP at the 1978 Hamilton by-election. He became a stalwart of the party’s right: “Pro-American, pro-Europe, pro-mixed economy and willing to fight for it.” Robertson remembers Tony Blair later saying he was “New Labour before we even thought about it”. He was appointed shadow Scottish secretary in 1993. His remark that Scottish devolution would “kill the SNP stone dead” has been ridiculed since: the party has been in government since 2007.

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“I’m yet to be proved wrong,” Robertson told me. “The SNP is in dire trouble at the moment, largely… because of their inability to use the instruments of devolution. And in many ways, I thought that is exactly what would happen… I may well be proved right.” He held the Scottish brief until the 1997 election, when he took charge of the Ministry of Defence. “I had a staff of three and a half people; 24 hours later, I had 383,000 people, and a navy and an air force,” he chuckled.

Robertson then joined Nato in 1999 as secretary general, leaving in 2003. He is still active in the party – he joined the Labour Middle East Council in March – and now champions causes such as Ukraine and Kosovo in the Lords, which explains his office decor. A painting on the walls shows long, slender poppies growing out of the soil, beneath which lies a bed of skulls. He was presented with it at a school in Kosovo, where he said Serbian paramilitaries had taken 16 children and burned them alive in a house during the 1998-99 Kosovo War. In 1999 Blair, alongside an initially reluctant Bill Clinton, led the Nato bombardment of Serbian forces to prevent such atrocities. Are Kosovar children named after Robertson, as they are after Blair?  “No, but I was still treated as a hero,” he said.

He gestured to a photo on a nearby shelf. “That was my second meeting with Putin,” he said. The two men are sitting on ornate, pink and red armchairs. The Russian president’s chin is turned down, his eyes raised in a mischievous glance. Robertson stares straight at the camera with a grave expression. What was Putin like? “Serious, but he had a sense of humour then. He doesn’t seem to have it any more. I’m one of a few people still alive who can tell funny stories about what Putin said. There was one occasion when I gave him an English-language book [as a gift]. It was an antiquarian book, Gossip in the Tsar’s Court.” Putin told him: “Thanks for the book. I practise my English by reading… out loud – so my dog is now a perfect English speaker.”

Robertson was hopeful in the early 2000s that Putin might lead Russia away from Boris Yeltsin’s drunkard anarchy and towards a reliable friendship with the West. “[Putin] said at one of the meetings: ‘I want Russia to be a part of western Europe – when are you going to invite Russia to join Nato?’” And why didn’t Nato? “We don’t ask countries to join; they apply.”

“There was a bit of a window [for Russia to join the West],” he admitted. “But he wanted not equality around the Nato-Russia council table; he wanted it with the United States… He started thinking that Russia needed to be admired and respected. And feared. So the opportunity was gone, but largely due to him.”

When pressed about whether Nato and the West could have done more to welcome Russia into the international community, he said: “It’s difficult to do the counterfactual, and I don’t know that [the then US vice-president Dick] Cheney and [US defence secretary Donald] Rumsfeld were terribly interested in getting closer to Russia. [George W] Bush was – but I think by that time Putin was beginning to get a grandiose notion about [how] he wanted Russia to be seen.”

Robertson’s eyes turned towards a picture of him and Bush on his shelf. He remembers Bush as “interesting – he listened to you. Not every head of state, or head of government, listens… his favourite question was: ‘What do you mean by that?’”

Whereas Putin, he went on, was “thin-skinned”, so “when Obama said that Russia was just another regional power [in 2014], that would cut through”. But Robertson views the UK and US’s failure to punish the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in 2014 as the moment Putin realised he could act with impunity. “[It was] the most extraordinary thing to take place: a prime minister recalls the House of Commons in order to get backing for a military action… and gets defeated. And not only that, [he] then stays on,” he said. “In the Kremlin, that must have been a bright green light.”

One theory, propounded by realists such as the academic John Mearsheimer, is that Nato expansion in eastern Europe was the reason that Putin invaded Ukraine. Robertson dismissed the idea. “I met Putin nine times during my time at Nato. He never mentioned Nato enlargement once.” What Robertson said next was interesting: “He’s not bothered about Nato, or Nato enlargement. He’s bothered by the European Union. The whole Ukraine crisis started with the offer of an [EU] accession agreement to Ukraine [in 2014].”

Putin fears countries on Russia’s border being “fundamentally and permanently” changed by EU accession. “Every aspect [of society is affected] – they woke up very late to it… I don’t think they ever fully understood the EU,” Robertson said, adding the caveat that the EU was not at fault because accession was what Ukraine, as a sovereign nation, wanted.

Whatever the war’s cause, isn’t the challenge facing Ukraine insurmountable? “15 February 1989: 100,000 Soviet troops left Afghanistan,” Robertson replied. “No face-saving. No off-ramp.” Still, that withdrawal came ten years after the Soviet Union invaded, in 1979.

Despite Robertson’s knowledge of the Ukraine conflict, he does not believe we are on the brink of total war. “People who go around saying the world is more dangerous than ever – that’s absurd. There are a lot of dangers in the future if Putin wins in Ukraine, but at the moment there is no actual danger to us.

“In terms of a physical attack, I’m probably the only person who ever will [trigger Article 5] because nobody’s going to cross that line,” he said. “Nato is stronger than it ever was before. A billion people and a trillion dollars. Almost a billion people sleep easily in their beds at night because of Nato and Article 5.”

[See also: John Healey: “Britain has a lot to learn from Ukraine’s resilience”]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March