James Appathurai, the NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, arrived in Tbilisi in the early days of June for, in his own words, two reasons – to inaugurate NATO Week, which was held in Georgia from 3 to 10 June, and to prepare the visit of the North Atlantic Council slated for late June. In an interview with Tabula, Mr. Appathurai talked about the situation in Georgia, the country’s prospects of receiving a NATO Membership Action Plan as well some of the main global developments.
Let's start with the events unfolding in Georgia. You know that the Russian military has moved the occupation line between the Tskhinvali region and the rest of Georgia deeper into Georgian controlled territory. What is NATO's take on that? What mechanisms are available to influence Russia into respecting Georgia's territorial integrity?As you know, we do not have a presence here on the ground; so the assessment of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) is crucial, and we have drawn from that. The EUMM and the United States have assessed that these latest moves are illegal. They violate the 2008 accords and certainly contribute to the difficulties of the people who live there. We share that view. What can we do? Certainly no one is talking about an active NATO role, but that's not the point. The Prime Minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] told me, and the President [Mikheil Saakashvili] also said, that a clear, unambiguous united international position is very important. And I think in this case, there is. Our position is clear. I don't think we, as NATO, can go any further than that.
A couple of weeks ago Prime Minister Ivanishvili made a statement that Georgia "has strictly planned" to get a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2014. How would you evaluate his plan? What should we expect from the 2014 NATO summit?
We welcome that the prime minister has set such an ambitious target. That is good and it is good that all of parliament has agreed on the Euro-Atlantic integration. We have not yet decided when the summit will be held and I suspect that the decision on that as well as on the agenda will be coming soon. So I am convinced that now, before the presidential elections here in Georgia, the time has not yet come to discuss the mechanics of how to start that whole diplomatic process; I think that's for later. What we need to do now is to make sure that the council visit goes well; to make sure that reforms are proceeding and are visible; to make sure that some of the concerns that NATO has, related to the arrests of former officials and, particularly, but not limited to, the May 17 events [when an aggressive mob led by priests attacked a peaceful rally against homophobia], are addressed. Those are the things we can do now and then, later in the year, after the presidential elections, I think we might look at what may happen at the summit.
How would you evaluate NATO's and the international community's policy toward Syria?
From the NATO point of view, the only role we have had was to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey. But I don't think this should be seen as just a technical issue. It has many implications. Now the conflict spilling over into Turkey is no longer possible, so in that regard it is politically stable. It is a political challenge for the Turks, but the risk of spillover is diminished; whilst in Lebanon and Iraq it is a big problem, it's spreading to those countries. The Syria conflict is creating sectarian pressure across the region, it's a big problem. I think Russia's decision to ship sophisticated weapons to the Assad regime is regrettable. The problem is that there is no clear military solution to this, there is no clear role for any outside military actor. NATO is certainly not planning to get involved, we have no plans to get involved on the ground and everyone is hoping that the Geneva process will deliver results, but even that looks very complicated because, for now at least, the opposition is not united. The UN has done extensive planning for a post conflict or post Assad situation, looking at all sorts of eventualities, but they don't have the capabilities to do that all by themselves. So we have a lot of unanswered questions – a massive humanitarian emergency inside the country, growing political instability and a sectarian schism growing across the region.
Here you have a sort of triangle – Russia gives weapons to Assad, Assad creates a threat for NATO members such as Turkey. How does this affect NATO-Russia relations?
It's not negatively affecting NATO-Russia relations, but you have heard that NATO governments have expressed their concerns to Russia. The challenge in international relations is not to link everything to everything else, so we are trying to proceed with Russia on Afghanistan and missile defense, even though that is not going anywhere. So it has affected the engagement of NATO governments with Russia when it comes to Syria.
There have been some talks about expanding NATO towards the northern European countries, Finland and Sweden. Will they also need MAPs?
That's a good question. I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that those two countries are so modern in their defense capabilities, in their security structures, in their democratic systems, so integrated with NATO already, operating with us in practically all theatres, participating in our exercises and in our capability development programs, that I don't know how long it would take them to get up to the NATO standard, which the Membership Action Plans are supposed to guide. They are pretty much there already.
The ISAF mission will soon leave Afghanistan. Some critics refer to Iraq saying that the early US withdrawal shook stability in the country and that the Iraqis have failed to maintain peace. Now there is the threat of a spillover of the Syria conflict. Consequently, critics fear that it is too early to withdraw from Afghanistan, that the local military forces will be unable to fill in the vacuum left after NATO's withdrawal. What is your take on that?
The assessment of our military is 'yes.' They think local law enforcement can do what we are doing – providing security, with some help from us. There will be continued training and some bilateral help outside of NATO. This will be a challenge of course; a challenge we think they will be able to meet. The challenges where we have greater concerns are for the political system, the elections, and the fight against corruption – effective governance in general – where we have fewer tools. So the NATO view is that when it comes to the security forces, they can probably do the job. Aside from the other elements, where we have frankly no presence, you would hope that after 10 years and hundreds of billions [of dollars] spent and so many soldiers that we have put there, the training effort would have delivered a good product, and it has. But the police and the army cannot alone provide security for the country.
A couple of days ago there was a cyber attack on the US military and this was the first time that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has openly spoken about China's involvement. What is NATO's strategy concerning cyber security?
I expect that to be an issue of quite some discussion at the meeting with the [Georgian] Defense Minister. Right now, what we have a consensus to do is to protect our own systems. That is a very complicated issue because we have so many systems and these are linked in various different ways. So what we have agreed to do is to step up NATO's system protection. The next issue is whether NATO should provide help for individual states that get attacked. So we are deciding how and whether to do that. And then the third question would be, how do we contribute to broader international security, how do we help our partners who are very interested in cooperation with NATO? But we are not there yet, it's still new for us. And the problem with engaging with non-NATO members is that you are opening yourself up, you open doors to your own system. So we have not figured out how to do that without exposing our systems to threats. We are working on it.