NATO Interview "Russia Sees Itself as a Country that Is Self-Sufficient"

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov discusses Moscow's relationship with NATO, the situation in Afghanistan and the aid his country has provided to Iran's nuclear program.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, NATO is holding its summit meeting in Latvia this week, which will make it the first meeting of its kind on the soil of a former Soviet republic. Do you, as the Russian defense minister, perceive this is as a provocation?

Ivanov: No. The Baltic countries are sovereign nations. They have the right to decide which military and political bloc they want to be a part of. Of course, some Russians feel uneasy about the fact that a NATO summit is taking place so close to St. Petersburg. But I take a more relaxed view. If NATO had staged a major military maneuver in Latvia, with tanks and aircraft, it would certainly have triggered concern within the Russian military.

SPIEGEL: That sounds comforting. But the military newspaper Red Star quoted you last week as commenting as follows on NATO expansion plans: "We were simply deceived." How so?

Ivanov: Let's think back to German reunification. In 1990 I was still quite young and working as a simple employee in Soviet intelligence abroad. I won't tell you exactly where, but it was in Europe. We were told at the time that NATO would not expand its military structures in the direction of the Soviet Union. Then came the first wave of NATO expansion, followed by the second. And each time we saw the military infrastructure gradually coming closer to the former Soviet Union. As far as the Baltic states are concerned, they are small countries in a region that is especially free of conflict and tension, militarily speaking. We do not understand why NATO needs its own military infrastructure in this region. Does it intend to wage war against terrorism or influence operations in Afghanistan from there?

SPIEGEL: When the Poles wanted NATO membership, the alliance could hardly have turned them down.

Ivanov: We are interested in knowing what the purpose of developing a military infrastructure in the region could be. After all, every NATO member must build air bases where it is asked to do so, structure its armed forces accordingly and develop intervention forces.

SPIEGEL: And because Poland has since bought American F-16 fighter jets and Washington plans to develop a missile defense system there, you will now station air defense systems in neighboring Belarus. Is a new Cold War developing between Russia and the West?

Ivanov: No. That, at least, is not our goal. We have reduced the number of troops and weapons in the Leningrad military district by more than half since the end of the Cold War. I see no point in Russia even deploying major troop concentrations to the region. We need them in other parts of the country -- in the south and in the Far East. But as far as the American aircraft in Poland are concerned, I should remind you that F-16s are attack aircraft, whereas our S-300 air defense system is only designed to defend our own territory. These missiles cannot be used against land-based targets.

SPIEGEL: There have also been discordant notes in your relationship with the European Union. At the summit in Helsinki, President (Vladimir) Putin refused to lift Russia's embargo against Polish meat shipments .

Ivanov: I am actually the defense minister, so meat is not exactly my field. This is a question of Russian-Polish relations, not our relationship to the EU.

SPIEGEL: But Poland is also an EU member. Are we mistaken in having the impression that Russia derives some satisfaction from defying the EU as long as Poland is unable to come to terms with its partners?

Ivanov: That's a problem for Poland and the European Union. We have been developing our relationship with the EU for years. We derive about half of our foreign trade revenues from the EU. In other words, the Russians are not distancing themselves. Indeed, the Russians are already deeply involved with the West.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, we have noticed a new self-confidence in your country and are hearing nationalist, anti-Western rhetoric.

Ivanov: There are certainly anti-Western sentiments, especially in the less well-off segments of Russian society. Nowadays Russia sees itself as a country that is self-sufficient, and as a state with a growing economy that, historically speaking, is part of both Europe and Asia. And because of its huge territory, Russia must devote a great deal of attention to security. Our standard of living is still too low and the structure of our economy is too one-dimensional. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, we cannot live on oil alone. But when it comes to culture, religion and mentality, most Russians identify with Europe.

SPIEGEL: Many Russians are pleased to see the country reasserting itself as a major military power…

Ivanov: … but no longer at Cold War levels.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Moscow is not pleased to see that the Americans, for example, are operating military bases in Russia's backyard in Central Asia. You consented to these bases after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Do you now regret Russia's support for America's war on terror?

Ivanov: No, at least not when it comes to Afghanistan. We were dealing with terrorism long before Sept. 11. We were confronted with it in Chechnya. At issue is an entire chain of instability that begins in Indonesia and continues into Kosovo in the heart of Europe. Russia already pointed out in 1999 that the Taliban would become a problem. For years, we were practically the only country that recognized the full scope of the problem. That was why we provided money and weapons to the Afghan Northern Alliance, which later marched into Kabul. Believe me, Russia certainly knows its way around when it comes Afghanistan .

SPIEGEL: How should the situation continue in Afghanistan? Should the West leave the country? Or should it remain in Afghanistan to prevent the same thing from happening there that happened 10 years ago?

Ivanov: We supported the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation from the very beginning. Not with our own soldiers, of course. That would be like the Americans marching back into Vietnam with their own troops today. But we have provided the government of President Hamid Karzai with $200 million in weapons and equipment so far. Many Russian citizens were surprised that we allowed the German armed forces -- and the French -- free passage through our country to Afghanistan. But, of course, I cannot give the German military any advice on what it should or should not do in Afghanistan .

SPIEGEL: If NATO's mission fails it will also affect Russia.

Ivanov: We are concerned about this, of course. The current situation in Afghanistan is indeed very reminiscent of the late 1980s when the Soviet Union was involved there. It is painful to talk about it, but even with its 110,000 elite soldiers, the Soviet Union never managed to gain control over the entire Afghan territory. I am firmly convinced that the security situation will never improve until you are able to very effectively monitor the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan .

SPIEGEL: That seems close to impossible.

Ivanov: It's also difficult because Pakistan is a US ally. And because, at the same time, it is not an entirely democratic state, and is a state that possesses weapons of mass destruction and is even involved in proliferation -- to North Korea, for example.

SPIEGEL: That brings us to the issue of Iran. While the West discusses sanctions against Tehran, Russia supplies the country with anti-aircraft missiles. How will your country react if the UN does in fact decide to impose sanctions?

Ivanov: Think about all the neighbors Russia has! In this respect, I would certainly trade places with Germany. We border North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, and Pakistan isn't much farther away.

SPIEGEL: You seem to be in an awful position.

Ivanov: This is why we must structure our security concept in a completely different way than Germany does. As far as our weapons shipments to Iran are concerned, any country is permitted to sell weapons to another country, as long as it does not undermine sanctions in doing so. We sell only a limited assortment of defensive weapons. The Tor M1 air defense system, for example, has no impact on the balance of power in the region, because it has a maximum range of only 40 kilometers (25 miles).

SPIEGEL: But Germans are horrified to hear Iranian President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust  and declaring the state of Israel to be superfluous. Such a country should not be permitted to gain control over a single nuclear missile.

Ivanov: We have condemned these statements. But the core of the problem is Iran's nuclear program. The Bushehr nuclear reactor, which we are building, has nothing to do with this. It is being fully monitored by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

SPIEGEL: Iran will not be able to build a bomb with the help of your technology?

Ivanov: I am completely convinced of that. There is no enrichment happening in Bushehr. We do not supply weapons-grade uranium, and the spent fuel rods are returned to Russia. Natanz and Arak -- facilities that are subject to IAEA monitoring -- are the real problems. No one in the world knows whether Iran has provided access to all of its facilities.

SPIEGEL: That is precisely what is so disconcerting.

Ivanov: We are more concerned about it than Western Europeans. Everyone is talking about these supposed nuclear bombs being developed in the distant future. But Iran already has mid-range missiles today that can reach Russia -- not Germany.

SPIEGEL: That's true, and they can also reach Israel.

Ivanov: Tehran's refusal to recognize Israel is the wrong policy. We say this to the Iranians quite openly. But no one should overestimate Russia's ability to exert influence when it comes to the Iran crisis. And as far as possible sanctions go, they certainly cannot be comprehensive. Otherwise Iran could follow in North Korea's footsteps and expel the IAEA inspectors -- and, heaven forbid, withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty. If that happens, no one will know what's going on in Iran. In any event, Iran must provide answers to everything -- including the question of how the gas centrifuge technology developed by the European Urenco Group, in which the Germans, the Dutch and the British are involved, found its way to Pakistan and later to Iran . What a global outrage it would have triggered if Russia had delivered these centrifuges!

SPIEGEL: You have also referred to Chechnya as a hotbed of terrorism, but the West has a more differentiated view of the issue. Is the war in Chechnya truly over?

Ivanov: From my perspective as defense minister, that is clearly the case. We still have a division stationed there, as well as smaller special units. Aside from that, the Interior Ministry has been in charge there for the past three years. I am familiar with the clichés in the West, but political normalization is making headway in Chechnya. The worst of the crisis is behind us.

SPIEGEL: And yet the situation in the neighboring republics is more troubled than ever …

Ivanov: There are two reasons for the tensions. The social situation is difficult, and religious extremism is spreading among the Islamic faithful. This is a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After 1991, many Muslims went to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for their education. We are now dealing with the consequences.

SPIEGEL: A true warlike hysteria has also developed between Russian and Georgia of late. Why does a major power like Russia react so intensely when it feels provoked by a small neighbor?

Ivanov: The Soviet Union is dead. Why should Russia continue to support the new independent states? In the case of Ukraine, we did this to the tune of $6 to $7 billion a year.

SPIEGEL: You have cancelled all air traffic to (the Georgian capital) Tiflis.

Ivanov: These are not sanctions. We no longer operate direct flights to Tiflis because Georgian airlines owe us money. You were the ones who introduced us to the market economy in the 1990s. Now we are sticking to it and you come to us with accusations. We cannot accept the fact that Georgia continues to insult us. It is clear to us that the Georgian leadership is dragging NATO and the EU into its efforts to solve its internal problems.

SPIEGEL: Last week was not a good week for Russia's image abroad. Former FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent Alexander Litvinenko died in London after being poisoned. You yourself worked for two decades in the intelligence service. Can you rule out the possibility that the FSB was behind the attack?

Ivanov: Yes, I can rule it out. It wouldn't make any sense. I don't known Litvinenko. All I know is that he was in charge of a department at the FSB that dealt with organized crime. Before joining the FSB, Litvinenko was part of a guard unit at a prison camp. He was apparently of no interest to anyone as a source of information.

SPIEGEL: The image of the Russian armed forces isn't exactly glowing at the moment. In an article in Red Star, your chief of staff complains that Russian society "perceives the armed forces as a collection of drunkards and corrupt officers." What are you doing to change this reputation?

Ivanov: Opinion polls show that the military now ranks third behind the presidency and the church among Russia's most trustworthy institutions. Our society is familiar with the old saying: If you do not feed your own army, you will end up feeding a foreign army. We have introduced extensive changes. We had 3.5 million soldiers in 1994. Today we have 1.1 million. What other major country has reduced the number of its troops so radically in such a short time? But the most important thing is that our generals' way of thinking has changed. We have put the Cold War behind us. We no longer count our divisions and our warheads. And I am Russia's first civilian defense minister in many centuries. We have become more pragmatic.

SPIEGEL: You are widely viewed as President Putin's crown prince, but you routinely deny any aspirations to succeed him. But isn't there a saying in the army that goes: He who does not aspire to be a general is a poor soldier?

Ivanov: I am already a general. But in all seriousness: We must first focus on the parliamentary elections, and their significance should not be underestimated. I am not considering running for president at this time. That election campaign is still half a year away.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, we thank you for this interview.

Interview was conducted by Editors Christian Neef, Joachim Preuss and Matthias Schepp.

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