BERLIN – It was during Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s term as Nato secretary general, between 2009 and 2014, that Russia foreshadowed this year’s brutal invasion of Ukraine with its initial dismembering of the country in early 2014. Now, he believes, the West must deliver weapons to Ukraine to ensure Kyiv wins the war. If not, he warns, autocrats around the world will be emboldened and democracy weakened.
I spoke to Rasmussen via Zoom ahead of a forum he hosted, the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, as Nato faces its toughest challenge in decades. Framed by photographs of himself with various leaders, and wearing a pin of the Danish and Ukrainian flags, the former centre-right prime minister of Denmark began by explaining the objectives of the summit. This year it was addressed by the former US president, Barack Obama, the president of the European parliament, Roberta Metsola, and the Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
“The purpose of the summit is to strengthen the bonds between the world’s democracies, because we need to step up our efforts to counter the advancing autocracies,” Rasmussen said. “Together, the world’s democracies represent 60 per cent of the global economy.”
Democratic countries are powerful enough to stand up to increasingly emboldened autocracies, Rasmussen believes, from a China eyeing up a greater role in the global order and eventual reunification with the self-governing island of Taiwan, to a revanchist Russia waging war on its neighbours. And there is no more urgent task for the West than containing Russia’s expansionist ambitions. The West must go further on weapons deliveries to Ukraine, Rasmussen said. “They will need many more [weapons]… As the war changes its character, we also have to change the kinds of weapons we deliver to the Ukrainians… Ukraine must win this war.”
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“Nato should uphold the decision taken back in 2008 when we decided that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of Nato if they so wish,” Rasmussen told me, referring to the two former Soviet countries bordering Russia that Moscow has invaded since 2008. Recent signals from the Ukrainian government indicate that it may be willing to accept a status as a neutral country; Rasmussen added the caveat that such a move would mean Kyiv abandoning its hopes of Nato membership. “However, if that is going to happen, Ukraine will need another kind of security guarantee, instead of the kind they could have achieved through Nato membership.”
In concrete terms, how would security guarantees offered by several states – many of which presumably would be Nato members – differ from Nato membership? “That’s hard to say right now… Whether alternative kinds of security guarantees could provide the same ironclad guarantee against a Russian attack as Nato membership, remains to be seen,” the former secretary general said, stressing his belief that if Ukraine had been a member of the military alliance, Russia would never have invaded.
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Rasmussen said he had been tasked by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with determining what form these guarantees should take. It is difficult to imagine any that could match the straightforwardness of Nato’s Article 5, which commits all members of the alliance – including three nuclear powers – to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all.
Rasmussen is correspondingly vague about what form non-Nato security guarantees to Ukraine could concretely take. An international peacekeeping force could be deployed, at least temporarily, to Ukraine to monitor implementation of a peace agreement with Russia and deter future attacks, he suggested. “Some of these elements could be discussed in exchange for [Ukraine’s] acceptance of a status as a neutral country.” He did not specify which countries might send troops to territory on which Russia is fighting a war, with the potential for direct conflict with Moscow’s forces.
At least one Nato expansion as a consequence of the war is imminent, the former Danish prime minister believes. “I am sure that at the end of the day, Finland and Sweden will join Nato,” despite opposition from Turkey. A formal invitation is likely to be issued at a Nato summit in Madrid at the end of this month, he added.
Rasmussen at times speaks in the language of boundless post-Cold War liberal optimism about the supposedly uncontainable human urge for freedom. “Freedom is the strongest force in the world… You can try to suppress those forces of liberty, but in the long term, freedom will win.”
At other times, though, he cautions against Whig history, a narrative of progress from a benighted time to enlightened reform. “In hindsight, maybe our biggest mistake after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was being convinced that liberal society was so superior that we didn’t even need to fight for it because it was self-evident that people would pursue exactly that kind of government.”
In a recent report, Rasmussen suggested the creation of an economic version of Nato’s Article 5 mutual defence clause, which would be used to deter countries deemed to be responsible for economic coercion.
Strengthening the unity of the democratic camp could be done through deeper economic and political ties between free countries. “We should promote a free, democratic internal market. We should make it much easier to agree free trade agreements among democracies.”
Rasmussen founded the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, the most anti-democratic US president in recent history. Can the global democratic camp stand up to enemies of democracy, not only internationally but also within their own political systems?
Rasmussen is optimistic, pointing to the resilience of America’s institutions. “In the US, you had some illiberal movements, but the strength of the American democratic institutions and the system of checks and balances is so solid, and so solidly founded in the American spirit, that this democratic system can survive even Trump or a Trumpist.”
I am not so sure. Examples of democratic backsliding within the alliance Rasmussen led are manifold, from Turkey to Hungary. Why the most powerful democracy in the world should necessarily be an exception is not clear to me. And without it, the global alliance of democracies he advocates would be much weakened.