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Ukraine Will Become NATO Member, Predicts Former Deputy Secretary-General

Rose Gottemoeller at a news briefing in Yerevan in 2017, when she was serving as deputy secretary-general of NATO.
Rose Gottemoeller at a news briefing in Yerevan in 2017, when she was serving as deputy secretary-general of NATO.

Rose Gottemoeller is a former U.S. diplomat who served as deputy secretary-general of NATO from October 2016 to October 2019. Before that, Gottemoeller served nearly five years as the undersecretary for arms control and international security at the U.S. State Department. During that time, Gottemoeller, a specialist in Russian defense and nuclear issues, was the chief U.S. negotiator of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Gottemoeller said NATO is in a "remarkably good place" as it gets set to mark the 75th anniversary of its founding. NATO has met the challenge posed by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she said, delivering weapons and other defensive supplies to Kyiv. She also said that, as a "net security provider," Ukraine will ultimately be admitted to the alliance.

RFE/RL: What situation does NATO find itself in on its 75th birthday?

Rose Gottemoeller: I would say that NATO is in a remarkably good place on its 75th anniversary because of the great cohesion inside the alliance. This cohesion has resulted from [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. It has meant not only that the allies have been pulling together to provide assistance to Ukraine, but they have also been building up their own defenses in a remarkable way. And two new allies, important allies, Finland and Sweden have been added. So, I would say that the alliance is at a remarkable place on its 75th birthday with some important accomplishments under its belt. Of course, it has to remain strong and coherent. It has to stay the course [with] its assistance to Ukraine. And that's where the questions are emerging now

RFE/RL: When I talk to people about it, there are basically two camps. One thinks that NATO is facing its toughest challenge since the Cold War ended and another thinks that Russia's war in Ukraine has revitalized NATO. I don't know whether the two are mutually exclusive. What's your take on that?

Gottemoeller: Well, it's no question that there is a huge challenge out there with Russia invading a European country. And that is why NATO was created, to ensure that the defense [of Europe] remained strong in the context of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain down across Europe, with the U.S.S.R. posing those kinds of threats after World War II.

So, it's a great shame that the threats remain the same to European countries from the east. And so NATO has to continue to strengthen its defense and deterrence, helping Ukraine, a country that is a partner of NATO, but not actually a member state. So, it is an extraordinarily difficult moment for the alliance. I don't want to sugarcoat that, but at the same time, my view is that the alliance is responding with strength and coherence to this challenge.

RFE/RL: I want to ask you about the upcoming Washington summit [in July]. What can Ukraine expect from it? And what would be your personal take on Ukraine's NATO membership bid?

There are some areas that I continue to hope we can work on with Moscow,'s difficult to recognize the Russia that I see today.

Gottemoeller: My take on NATO membership for Ukraine is that Ukraine has been a candidate since the Bucharest summit in 2008. And, of course, that's a long time ago now, and many things have happened since then. But that fact remains on the table and has not changed at all. The question is what can happen now as Ukraine is fighting for its life against the Russian aggression that began in February 2014 and then was renewed in the second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Many NATO members believe that Ukraine should not be entering into NATO while it is fighting this war. So that is one point of view. From my perspective, Ukraine has proven itself to be a net security provider, in that its armed forces are performing extremely well. They have shown their capability to fight and to sustain their own defense. And so that is an important aspect for NATO that a country is a net security provider. So, I do feel that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. The question is exactly when that will happen. And that will be a question for the July summit of NATO in Washington, D.C.

RFE/RL: I would like to hear your counterargument to the skeptics who think it's unwise to offer Ukraine a path toward NATO membership. And one of them would be a person who many perceive to be one of the most influential people on the planet: [tech billionaire] Elon Musk. What would you say to him?

Gottemoeller: Well, he's certainly influential. I'm not sure he exactly counts as a major strategic thinker, but he's certainly influential. I do think that it's very important to bear in mind that decisions at NATO are taken by consensus. So, if the views around the table…are not [in] consensus on this matter, then it won't happen.

But I will say that there are opportunities to move Ukraine toward NATO membership. And we have an example in the fact that the European Union is beginning accession talks with Ukraine. That's a long process, accession to the European Union.

And so I think there are a number of phases in the process…on Ukraine's path to accession to NATO. And so what exactly the [NATO] allies will be willing to agree in July to convey that Ukraine is on the path to accession, that's up for grabs, and I cannot predict where they'll come out on that. But I do think there will be an effort to convey that message and it will be a priority topic for the July summit.

RFE/RL: You have had to deal with Russia and the Soviet Union at various levels throughout your career. If you were to impart any advice to the West as it tries to contain Russia, what would [that be]

There is a very vocal minority now speaking out about isolationism. But as far as the U.S. public is concerned, the United States of America should continue to be leading in NATO.

Gottemoeller: Well, first of all, I don't recognize the Russia that I see today and particularly the policies, the points of view that are emanating from the Kremlin leadership. The notion that NATO is an aggressive alliance ready to pounce on Russia and dismember it to me is entirely foreign to the way that the alliance is structured as a deterrence and defense institution….

So, that makes it really difficult for me to offer up advice in the context of the current thinking in Moscow. But I will say that over many, many years, I have found my Russian counterparts to be extraordinary diplomats, extraordinarily experienced in terms of ensuring that their interests were served at the negotiating table.

I, for one, hope we can get back to a point where we are trying to develop mutual interests at the negotiating table, particularly in terms of constraining and limiting nuclear weapons, because these are an existential threat not only to Russia and the United States but to humankind as a whole.

So, there are some areas that I continue to hope we can work on with Moscow, but, as I said, it's difficult to recognize the Russia that I see today.

RFE/RL: What do you think it will take to get back to that phase, when common sense prevails in Moscow?

Gottemoeller: I think all we can do is to continue to message our willingness to resume nuclear talks, for example, without preconditions. I've been somewhat heartened in recent days to see that there are some hints coming out of Moscow that strategic security talks might be possible, focusing on space matters. OK, that's a good start. And so we will see how that is developed. I'm, of course, not an official anymore. I'm looking far away from California at what is happening between Moscow and Washington, but I hope there are some new opportunities in the strategic security realm.

RFE/RL: Over the years, when you look at the many talks with the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation, just how much trust can one have in the Russian leadership, when it says it's ready to talk about things and ready to come to some arrangements in any areas, including nuclear?

Gottemoeller: Well, I always say follow the implementation, follow the results. If we are getting results in implementing our agreements with Russia, then I think that we can say we are accomplishing something. It's important to remember [that] if you can't trust your counterparts, if you can't trust the other guy at the negotiating table, you trust the process. So, if the process is producing results, then you can continue to go with it. But you have to be cautious at every moment and bear in mind that lack of trust in the individuals could lead to essentially the process not performing. And that's when you pull the plug on it.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

RFE/RL: There are fears that the United States might stand aside when it comes to confrontation with Russia. And if indeed the United States stands aside, or even if the presidential election takes American attention off Ukraine completely, do you think Europe will be able to carry the day and keep Ukraine in the fight?

Gottemoeller: Well, that's a series of complex questions. I will say, obviously, there is a strain of isolationism, historical isolationism that is coming to the fore again in this election campaign.

There's some interesting survey information from the World Affairs Council of Chicago saying that historically about 30 percent of Americans throughout the contemporary period have been isolationist. Seventy percent remain keen to engage in the world and to see American leadership in the world. And that is the same today. Those numbers haven't changed. But they have certainly been having more attention in the media lately. So, I urge listeners to consider this fact that historically 30 percent of Americans want to be home and be minding our own business. But that is not the way most Americans think.

As far as what NATO should do about it, I've been very glad to see that NATO is stepping forward and taking some independent steps to try to recompense for the lack of U.S. assistance to Ukraine at the moment. (Editor's Note: Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the United States has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in security assistance. The U.S. Senate has approved a bill that would allocate some $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine, but the House of Representatives has yet to schedule a vote on the bill.)

For example, the president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, stepped forward and said that 800,000 rounds of ammunition in the proper caliber had been found. And now he and others across the alliance are working to raise the money to purchase that ammunition to provide Ukraine. So, they are taking the initiative in Europe, and I think, as I see it from the foreign ministerial meeting this week, they will continue to take the initiative in Europe no matter what happens in the United States.

RFE/RL: And what about if that trend continues, if the [isolationist] 30 percent that you spoke about keeps being as vocal as they are, keeps having leverage to stop the other 70 percent from getting more involved? The second part of the question is what Europe will do? Will they be able to carry the day, do you think? Is it enough to keep Ukraine in the fight?

Gottemoeller: Well, my point is that the majority in the United States continues to support U.S. leadership in the world. Seventy percent of the American public supports U.S. leadership in the world.

There is a very vocal minority now speaking out about isolationism. But as far as the U.S. public is concerned, the United States of America should continue to be leading in NATO and working, by the way, with our allies in Asia as well. And not folding our tents and going home…. I think that that is the most important point.

But, in the meantime…[the Europeans] are showing every sign that they will take more initiative. And, by the way, I think that should be welcome to everyone, not only to [presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee Donald] Trump…but also to [President Joe] Biden as he moves forward with his candidacy, seeing the Europeans put more resources in and be ready to take initiative and supporting Ukraine. That's to everybody's benefit.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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