When Putin was an ally of the West

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The study of history gives us different perspectives on current events. With the war in Ukraine continuing to make headline news across the world, it is striking to realise that Putin was once seen as a great ally of the Western powers against terrorism. This extract from a speech by former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, made in 2002, illustrates just how far perceptions of Vladimir Putin have changed.




…As revolutions go, it has been a quiet one. But it has been a revolution nonetheless. To my mind, the partnership between NATO and Russia today marks the end of a dark century for Europe – a century which, in a very real sense, began with the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, and ended with the collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001.

The First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution triggered Russia’s mutation into the Soviet Union. The Second World War allowed Russia and the West to join forces – temporarily – in the face of a common threat, but failed to resolve basic differences in values and strategic philosophies.

After the war, the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe, as Winston Churchill described so vividly. The Cold War divided the continent, and indeed the world, into two massive armed camps: one threatening to export its repressive model through intrigue or violence; the other a group of democracies determined to protect their security and their values.


The end of the Cold War opened something of a Pandora’s box. The fall of the Berlin Wall unleashed a flood of security challenges that we were, frankly, largely unprepared to face. But it also released a great opportunity – to unify Europe in security, democracy and prosperity. And, as an essential part of that mission, to bring Russia in from the Cold, and into the European family of nations.

Few people would have guessed, in 1990, how integral a role NATO would play in this process. After all, NATO was certainly seen by Russia as a threat, if not the enemy. How could we possibly envisage not only a trusting dialogue between NATO and Russia, but cooperation? Even partnership? A decade ago, this would have seemed to most observers like Mission Impossible.


…Ten years after the Cold War ended, the practical foundations for NATO-Russia cooperation were in place -–but the psychological foundations were not. Our future cooperation was a helpless hostage of Cold War ghosts.

We needed a breakthrough. And we got it. Two events, in particular, played a key role in taking our relationship to a new level

The first was Vladimir Putin succeeding Boris Yeltsin as President, on the first day of the Millennium…But the real opportunity sprang, ironically enough, from a real tragedy – September 11th 2001.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington did more than just destroy buildings and kill thousands of people – including, by the, nearly 100 Russian citizens. They also created an earthquake in international relations – including in relations between NATO and Russia. They made clear that today’s threats can come from anywhere, and that “spheres of influence” and other traditional notions of geographic security are irrelevant in the modern world.

On September 12th, NATO invoked its mutual defence clause for the first time in its history. During the Cold War, it was designed to be invoked against a Soviet attack. Now, it was invoked in response to terrorism – the most vivid proof to Russia, if any were needed, that the Alliance truly had changed.

It also brought NATO and Russia firmly onto the same side in the fight against international terrorism. It was clear, from the moment of way the attacks, that the broadest possible coalition was necessary to counter these terrorists. It was also clear that there was no more time for out-dated fears. We needed a new approach to security: cooperation at all levels, across the full spectrum of security issues that we actually face today.


President Putin demonstrated immediately that he understood the importance of putting aside old prejudices, and embracing true, and immediate cooperation. With a heavy emphasis on immediate: of all the leaders in the world, President Putin was the first to call President Bush on September 11th.

From that moment, Russia was a staunch partner in the international response to the attacks. Russia offered to open its airspace to US war planes for the campaign to topple the Taliban and rout Al-Qaida. Moscow also demonstrated its openness by having US and other Western troops based in the Central Asian Republics, an area Russia had considered until recently to be her exclusive area of influence.

And Moscow was willing to share the most sensitive intelligence on terrorism itself, and on the region around Afghanistan – an area they know well, through grim experience.

This was more than just cooperation. It demonstrated a sea change in the relationship between Russia and the West. It proved to NATO that President Putin was serious about being a true Partner in security. And it proved to Russia that NATO, and the West, were serious about having Russia as a Partner in facing new threats.

It was this breakthrough that led to the creation, in May, of a fundamentally new framework for NATO-Russia cooperation. It is called the NATO-Russia Council or NRC. I cannot claim to be the author of the initiative. Like all success stories, it has many godfathers… Here, around one table, were the Presidents of the USA and Russia, of France and Poland, the Chancellor of Germany, the British Prime Minister, the Italian Prime Minister, the Prime Ministers of Iceland and Luxembourg and others. Twenty of the key Euro-Atlantic leaders at one big table.

And here’s the history – they were there not to carve up the world like the assembled leaders at Potsdam and at Yalta, but to unite it. Unlike any gathering in European or transatlantic history, the great powers and a lot of other like-minded countries were launching a body to build lasting cooperation and interaction across a part of the world fractured and laid waste by the same countries for centuries…There truly has been a revolution in NATO-Russia relations.


In 1917, Lenin said, “How can you make a revolution without executions?” And true to his call, the Bolshevik revolution ushered in one of the darkest eras in modern European history. A period in which Russia was isolated from Europe, and during which Europe was divided by Russia.

That era is now finally over. And it could not come too soon. In the 21st Century, it is simply impossible to preserve our security against such new threats as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or regional conflicts without Russia. In an increasingly globalised world, we need the broadest possible cooperation. And the new NATO-Russia relationship has created what has been missing for almost a century: a strong security bridge between Russia and her partners in the West.