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“Keep Russia out, America in, and Europe up”

An interview with Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, former chairman of the NATO Military Committee and Italian defence minister. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze.

August 25, 2023 - Giampaolo Di Paola Vazha Tavberidze - Interviews

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola. Photo: Private

“NATO wasn’t in a position to do anything militarily at that time. So we said that what Putin did was illegal, but we were unable to actually do anything against him, to stop him from doing that, so in the end it was an easy bite for him. Georgia, in the end, had to bow to reality.” This quote is from the former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, who was asked whether the West could have negotiated a better ceasefire deal for Georgia back in 2008. Following this, he would go on to become Italy’s minister of defence. In addition to the legacy left by Russia’s invasion of Georgia 15 years ago, Vazha Tavberidze asked Admiral Di Paola to assess the Russo-Ukrainian War and Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: Where are we now in the Ukraine war? The summer phase of the Ukrainian counter-offensive is almost over. What has been achieved, and what hasn’t?

GIAMPAOLO DI PAOLA: Nobody really knows. It is not moving as fast as maybe some NATO Allies expected. We’re now in a critical phase because whatever is gained, will be gained during the short summer period, before the rains start and the terrain becomes muddy. The pace is slow – the Ukrainians keep saying that it’s going as planned but I don’t know whether this is true or not. What has been achieved is that Ukraine has retaken the initiative from the enemy, as we saw the long-awaited counter-offensive finally come to fruition. However, what has not been achieved yet is a significant regaining of territory from the Russians, a significant breakthrough in a weak point in the Russian defence lines that the Ukrainians could exploit. Since we’re still very much in the realm of uncertainty, we will probably need another month or two to determine where we are, and what has been gained or lost. It’s a very critical phase because the longer the combat drags on, the more likely it becomes that we will see war fatigue in some of the countries supporting Ukraine. So the “Whatever it takes, as long as it takes” approach might be questioned if “as long it takes” proves to be very long in reality.

Could one of the reasons for this slow progress be insufficient western support when it comes to what the Ukrainians were asking for before the counter-offensive?

The support has been very extensive and certainly helpful. However, for the Ukrainians enough will never be enough. It is also fair to say that blaming someone else is an easy game to play, whoever does it. The biggest difficulty in this regard is that the Ukrainians have to conduct offensive operations without air superiority. That I think is the most significant missing element. But even if they were to be given fighter jets now, it is unclear whether they would arrive in time to affect the present counter-offensive, or whether the Ukrainians would be in a position to use them in an effective way. This is because the F-16 is quite a different plane from the Russian aircraft they are used to flying.

Let me ask you about the blockade of the Black Sea. To whom does the Black Sea belong to now realistically, from a realpolitik perspective?

The Black Sea at present belongs to the nations that are facing the Black Sea. So Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey… This is a fact. Presently, Russia tries to blockade Ukrainian ports, but we’ve seen the Ukrainians fighting back and attacking Russia’s maritime forces trying to close the gap. So at present I would say nobody is the sole owner of the Black Sea.

What about Turkey? In a recent interview you dubbed Turkey the “Mistress of the Black Sea”. Has the queen abdicated?

No, Turkey is still the strongest player in the Black Sea. Because at the end of the day, it controls the Dardanelles, the only entry point into it, so it gets a say on who is allowed to come in and who is not. So, if you really want to exercise control, you need the key to the Bosphorus, and this key belongs to Turkey. Right now, Turkey is attempting to bargain. It’s a reluctant player trying to make a deal happen and establish its status as mediator. It is a judge of debates in the Black Sea.

How do you see the grain crisis playing out? What events do you see unfolding?

Well, if the Russians are not willing to make a deal, we have to find an alternative way out because the point is that even if you could theoretically navigate the western part of the Black Sea, if you are bold enough, then that means that you are in the territorial waters of NATO countries. Therefore, it is unlikely that Russia will attack merchant ships there, because an attack in territorial waters could mean that Article 5 gets invoked.

What happens if Russia attacks a ship that belongs to a NATO member country in Ukrainian territorial waters?

Well, that’s a very complex scenario. You’ll have to judge the situation there and then. There is no established rule that says this or that will happen. If a vessel with the flag of a NATO member nation is attacked, then said NATO member nation can decide to invoke Article 5. They could say that they are under attack from Russia, or they may decide not to do that over an attack on a single merchant ship. It would be a political decision that said nation would have to make, because even NATO member countries are not so willing to go to war with Russia. But it works both ways. For Russia, it’s also a great risk to attack a NATO member country’s ship and risk an Article 5 response. That wouldn’t be a rational thing to do. So these are the kinds of situations where you cannot predict what will happen. Therefore, that uncertainty sometimes works as a deterrent.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Back then you held the post of chairman of the NATO Military Committee. So let me ask you this: what is the conflict’s legacy and impact when it comes to interpreting today’s events?

It is clear that what happened in Georgia was the result of the famous Bucharest Summit, which said that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. However, this was just a declaration and Russia used it as an excuse to invade Georgia. NATO wasn’t in a position to do anything militarily at that time. So we said that what Putin did was illegal. But we were unable to actually do anything against him, to stop him from doing that. So in the end it was an easy bite for him. Georgia, in the end, had to bow to reality.

I remember thinking at Bucharest, saying even that this was a mistake. You don’t do this. And then it happened exactly as I feared it would – it gave Putin the right timing to invade Georgia. Some say, and I think there is an element of truth in this too, that had we given a clear road to Ukraine back then, Russia would have invaded Ukraine too. At that time, Ukraine was in no position to put up the resistance that it did in 2022. So I think the best thing we could have done at Bucharest in 2008 was to say nothing, nothing at all – that would have been the right thing to do. To keep our mouths shut. If you don’t have something sensible to say, then it’s better not to say anything at all.

Do you think the West did enough during and after the war?

They did enough – or rather, they did what they could do. As I said earlier, the West wasn’t in a position to do much about Georgia back in 2008. That’s the reality, sad as it is. We had no “Joker” cards to use.

No leverage. Can the same be said about the mediation efforts from French President Sarkozy, and the ceasefire plan that still remains unfulfilled? How effective was that plan objectively?

Taking into account the fact that part of Georgia was already occupied by Russia, as well as the issues that the Russians were still advancing and Georgia was in no position to put up anymore resistance, I think, at the end of the day, that was the best possible outcome from what was available to us. We pretty much had to settle for the status quo. So in the end, it was the best we could do. And, in a sense, it proved to be somewhat effective, because the status quo still remains, and there haven’t been renewed hostilities between Russia and Georgia.

When you say it was the best we could do, what was the even worse scenario? Was it the war continuing and Russia occupying Georgia?

Russia taking an even bigger piece of Georgia than it did, that would be a worse scenario. Or occupying Georgia entirely.

So your best scenario then was just one step ahead of the absolute worst? Was that the best the West was able to do?

It was the best we could do from what was available to us, to freeze the situation and not allow any further escalation, any further military action by Russia, or any further conquest of Georgian land by Russia. As I already explained, we were not in a position to expel the Russians from Abkhazia or South Ossetia. We were not in a position to go to war against Russia, there was no way we wanted a war with Russia. So not being in a position to expel the Russians from Georgia, that was the best we could do.

You took whatever deal was given to you because there were no other alternatives.

In that moment, yes.

One last question. After the war, there was the period of “reset” with Russia. And this included attempts to rekindle NATO-Russia cooperation too. And I remember a particular quote of yours, when you paraphrased the famous quote of Lord Ismay, the very first NATO secretary general who said that NATO’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Your version, back in 2010, sounded like this: “to keep North America in, Europe up, and Russia with”. Given the chance, how would you rephrase this today, considering events in Ukraine?

Well, now and for the foreseeable future it would be to keep Russia out, America in, and Europe up, because I believe that Europeans have to take much greater responsibility in providing security in NATO. So, it would be to keep, more than ever, Europe up.

Giampaolo Di Paola was appointed Defence Minister in Monti Cabinet (November 2011 – April 2013). Previously, he served as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee (June 2008- November 2011), the highest military position in the organisation together with the Supreme Allied Commander. He was the second Italian to have this role after Guido Venturoni.

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, IWPR and New Eastern Europe.

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