This podcast was organised by EsadeGeo in association with the H2020 project ENGAGE, funded under grant agreement no. 962533
Though Robert Cooper is now a British diplomat, he still thinks of himself as a European. He was the Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs at the Council of the European Union, and held various positions at the EU until Brexit led to a parting of ways. "I was much happier working for the European Union than I was for Britain" — he confesses — "I now live in exile in London."
In this podcast hosted by Àngel Saz, director of EsadeGeo, Robert Cooper offers his insights on the current security situation in the EU, the EU’s defence capabilities, the invasion of Ukraine and its diplomatic antecedents, and the internal threats democracy faces. In this article we offer an edited version of the interview, which you can listen to in full here.
What are your thoughts on why the war in Ukraine is happening? Where does the war come from?
Almost nobody expected this. The day before, I was with a group of people including experts on Russia and on military questions, and nobody thought there was going to be a war. They said: "Look, there are two completely wrong things about this. First, the forces are not enough. If you want to attack Ukraine, this force is too small. Second, if you are going to start a war, you must do some psychological preparation at home. You need to build a political atmosphere so people understand that war is inevitable, but nothing has been done." Both were very good reasons for not expecting a war. But we had not expected a war that could be so incompetently organized, with insufficient forces, armament and preparation, and with an unprepared population as well. This combination is perhaps even more dangerous than a more competent war.
We had not expected a war that could be so incompetently organized
Apart from being an incompetently planned war, how can we understand why Russia decided to go to war?
We have to go further back. I was shocked when I read a communique from the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008, which said Georgia and Ukraine will be members of NATO. It did not say when and it did not say how, and it did not make any attempts to start the process of joining NATO. So when you read this communique, you say to yourself, "well, what is this? Is this a promise that they will become members of NATO? If it is, then why not start the process of joining? Or is it just a prediction that it's not our business, but we think one day they're going to be members of NATO? But these are the heads of government of NATO! It's not their business to make predictions — it's their business to make decisions." And in every future communique, they repeated Georgia and Ukraine will join, just in case they were wrong the first time.
I was shocked to read in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine will be members of NATO
This was the final legacy of George W. Bush. It was his last NATO summit. And he had what he called his 'freedom agenda' of 'spreading democracy.' He'd already 'spread democracy' to Iraq by the invasion, which hadn't turned out entirely successful. And he decided to spread democracy by announcing the future membership of these neighboring countries of Russia. Of course, nothing justifies what Russia has done, but you don't have to be a genius to think, "well, this might be a little bit disturbing for Russia." But what's particularly ridiculous about this is that it's enough to cause anxiety in Moscow, but it does nothing to protect Ukraine and Georgia.
In this sense, there are very different perceptions in Kyiv and Moscow.
When Mr. Putin describes the break-up of the Soviet Union, he thinks more than anything else about the separation of Ukraine from Russia. He has set out in great length in his essays the thesis that Ukraine and Russia are one nation. Well, that may be what he thinks in Moscow, but it's not what they think in Kyiv.
It's always difficult to make predictions. But what do you think could be the plausible scenarios regarding the medium term of this war?
We're now nine months into this war, and that's already a surprise. If the Russians had been organizing a really competent war, they would have been able to overrun Ukraine very quickly. Also, I don't think any of us expected this resistance from Ukraine. Not just resistance from the military but a kind of national determination in Ukraine. If Mr. Putin doubts that Ukraine is a proper nation, he's wrong. And this war is one of the things that will make Ukraine into a nation that will separate from Russia forever. So if he regarded the break-up of the Soviet Union as a great catastrophe, he's now added a second catastrophe to it.
This war will make Ukraine into a nation that will separate from Russia forever
What are some of the policies or actions the EU should be taking now to prepare for future threats and other events like this war?
The EU has been reducing its dependence on Russian energy dramatically. As usual, everybody's doing it too late, but the EU is making itself more independent than before. When it comes to defence, however, I still don't believe that the EU is going to be a military power. There will still be national armies, but there're some things they ought to do to work together. First, if you buy military equipment in large quantities, you get a better price. Second, if you have everybody using the same equipment, it's much easier to interchange forces. The EU should have long ago engaged in common procurement for their armed services; it makes collaboration much better. Anyway, the essential security framework in Europe is still NATO. The US remains indispensable in terms of military capability.
We didn’t talk about coordination between military forces or joint procurement in the EU for a long time. Why is it so difficult to get there?
We actually tried once or twice. The normal reaction if you start talking about this to ministries of Defense in Europe is that they all get scared because they think it will be used as an excuse by ministries of Finance to reduce their defense budget. In fact, the defense budget will grow, but it should be spent in a collaborative way. We should have done this 20 years ago.
In the EU, one of the institutions to enable this is the European Defense Agency.
Yes. The European Defense Agency has existed in different forms for almost 20 years. But now I think — and hope — it has taken on a much more serious role. And I hope there is going to be more common equipment. Common equipment is cheaper, and it's more useful because everybody can use it.
The EU should have long ago engaged in common procurement for their armed services
You were probably the lead of the team writing the European Security Strategy back in 2003, which was the first EU document of that type. If you were to draft a strategy on the EU’s security today, how would you go about it?
It would be different because that document begins with "Europe has never been so secure, so prosperous and so free." Actually, if you look at it from a longer historical perspective, that's still true. But we were writing at a moment when Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states had just joined the European Union. So it was really a moment of success, the end of the Cold War. It was the return to a kind of common European home — whatever you want to call it — for many countries that had previously been part of the Soviet Union or under Soviet military threat.
People now feel less secure, but Europe still more free, united and prosperous than ever
I think people now feel less secure. Nevertheless, this is a Europe that is still more free, more united, and more prosperous than anything that existed in any previous century. And we ought not to forget that now it's the moment of danger, but these moments come and go, and with luck, you learn something from them. I hope that one of the results of this will be that the enlargement of the European Union continues. It might even have some effect on Russia. You may not be able to persuade Russians intellectually that democracy is a good thing. But if they see their near neighbor, a society with a very similar history, interwoven with theirs, becoming a democratic, successful, open, liberal country, maybe this will have an influence on Russia's future.
What should Europeans be most aware of in a moment like this?
We ought to be most worried about democracy. I don't think that democracy is the work of nature. It's the work of history and men, and I think there are reasons to fear for democracy now; you can see it in the USA or Britain. Democracy is not something you should take for granted. It constantly needs to be thought, re-examined, and improved. You need people to be aware of it. We've just seen the great stupidity of Brexit, for instance. They couldn't get this through the House of Commons, so they invented this referendum and ran a campaign that was lies from start to finish. If that's democracy, then there's something wrong with it. You can't take democracy for granted; you need to have politically conscious people who understand that democracy is not the only possible system and that everything else is worse.
Democracy is not the work of nature; it is the work of history and men
One of the paradoxes about this appears when looking at some of the newer members of the EU. For example, Poland is a successful case of enlargement in many senses, but less so in the sense of defending democracy.
Poland at least gives the impression that it may be fixing the judicial system. And democracy requires not just people voting but also solid institutions for implementing legislation. Solid courts, objective courts. It's clear in Poland that the courts have been politicized, and the case of Hungary is even more disgraceful. That is dangerous for the EU and for the countries themselves. And it also endangers the prospect of enlargement because it makes people skeptical about future countries. So the EU itself needs to get tougher on this. Now, I don't know quite how you do this, because for my part, I find some elements of democracy in Britain very unsatisfactory. For example, I have never thought that my vote mattered because the system of the electoral system in Britain means that I've always lived in a safe, either labor or conservative, constituency.
Before this disastrous war in Ukraine, the rhetoric about the decline of the West was getting louder and louder, particularly the decline of the democratic systems. Today that might be interpreted in a different light. What do you think about that?
I do not think that the problems of democracy are over. For instance, the problems haven't gone in the USA — although Trump may himself go away. And we also need to have a little bit more of a political reawakening in Europe and examine our own institutions and our own democratic system. We need to take democracy seriously.
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