NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Carmen Romero in Miami, Florida on May 15, 2023.

NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Carmen Romero in Miami, Florida on May 15, 2023. (Jose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Even as several countries have offered to mediate in the search for a political solution to the war in Ukraine, including several in Latin America, a high-ranking North Atlantic Treaty Organization official insists that only the Ukrainian government can determine what it will consider “a just and lasting peace.”

In an interview with the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald during a visit to Miami this week, the Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy at NATO, Carmen Romero, said that helping Ukraine to recover territory occupied by Russia would allow the Ukrainian government to come to the negotiating table with a stronger hand.

A former journalist with extensive diplomatic experience as a former NATO spokesperson, Romero avoided criticizing comments by Latin American presidents and officials who have downplayed Russia’s actions. But she said the United Nations Charter condemns the use of violence against a neighboring country.

These and other topics were discussed in the interview conducted in Spanish, which has been lightly edited for conciseness.

Although most Latin American countries have condemned the Russian invasion, the position of some countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, which have refused to send weapons to Ukraine, has stood out. What do you make of it, and what could the NATO alliance do to reverse it?

A: It is very important to see things as they are. What Russia has done is invading a neighboring country, trying to break the territorial integrity of a sovereign, democratic nation. Therefore, it is totally condemnable and unacceptable. That is the position of all the member countries of the Atlantic Alliance and the countries of the European Union… The war in Ukraine did not start last year. It began in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and militarily occupied certain areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region. What we have seen in the past year is an unprovoked invasion, a full-scale war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine. Therefore, countries that do not condemn have to be consistent with this fact because we can see a violation of the United Nations Charter, the use of force to eventually change the borders of another country.

Is there any diplomatic effort right now to get some of these countries in Latin America with Russian weapons to send them to Ukraine?

A: Member countries have their own diplomacy. NATO as such dialogues with partner countries. So we have a partner country, not a member, but a partner in Latin America, a very important country, Colombia. We have a political dialogue and a practical cooperation relationship with Colombia that is very important and can also influence Latin America. But NATO member countries have to use their influence and their diplomatic relations to explain the reality to countries that, for example, have not condemned the invasion of Russia, which is a flagrant violation of the rules-based international system and of the values and principles of the United Nations.

In a recent interview with Spain’s newspaper El País, Colombian President Gustavo Petro said the war in Ukraine “will easily end if we stop seeing Ukraine as NATO territory.” At another time, he also said “Europe has shielded itself in NATO, but through NATO, it has invaded. Why is the invasion of Libya good and the Russian invasion of Ukraine bad?” What’s your reaction to these comments? Is there concern within NATO that relations with Colombia as a “global partner” will deteriorate under his mandate?

A: We have a partnership relationship with Colombia that has not changed; that is, since there has been a presidential change, the relationship has not changed for the moment. Our relationship of both political dialogue and partnership with Colombia will evolve as Colombia wishes since we are not the ones who decide, but the countries that come and want to work together with NATO. Therefore, that is up to Colombia. But I can assure you that we have had many years of fruitful relations that have been very positive for both parties. Regarding the first part of the question, I would tell you what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says: if President [Volodymyr] Zelensky decides to stop fighting, then Ukraine would disappear, Russia would fully absorb it, it would stop existing as a country, as a sovereign state. On the other hand, if President [Vladimir] Putin stops fighting tomorrow and withdraws troops, the war Russia has launched against Ukraine will end tomorrow.

The Russian government has launched a diplomatic offensive in Latin America. Several Russian officials have frequently visited countries traditionally considered allies, such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, but also countries like Brazil. Many experts believe Russia is trying to gain ground by filling the vacuum left by the United States in the region. Is there concern within NATO about Russia’s increasing presence in Latin America?

A: Russia is trying to gain influence not only in Latin America but also in Africa and certain regions of Asia... .Above all, Russia’s strategy is to divide us. We consider this as a miscalculation by President Putin. He thought he would take Kyiv and that Ukraine would cease to exist as a country in a matter of days. And we see how Ukraine has been able to resist thanks to the courage of the Ukrainian people’s security forces but also to the assistance it has received from the international coalition that supports Ukraine’s right to self-defense, which is a right enshrined in the United Nations Charter. NATO, as such, is governed by the values and principles of the United Nations and is a defensive political-military organization. It is not an offensive organization. Therefore, the member countries of the Alliance are the ones that can use their diplomatic instruments so people understand what Russia is doing. But, obviously, Russia uses its diplomacy to influence; it is part of a pattern that it has been following for years and is serious.

The president of Brazil, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, has proposed himself as a mediator in a so-called peace club that would not include NATO nor the United States to reach a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Ukraine. But Lula and his security adviser, Celso Amorim, have made controversial statements. Lula suggested that Ukraine should cede Crimea, and upon returning from a recent Kyiv trip, Amorim said the photos of the Russian massacre in Bucha were disturbing but not enough to conclude what had happened there. Do you believe Brazil is a neutral, credible negotiator in this conflict?

A: The important thing is helping Ukraine achieve a just and lasting peace as soon as possible. And for that, what can we all do? Help Ukraine to be ready, to retake as much of the territory that Russia has occupied as possible. Ukraine has not occupied it; it is Ukrainian territory, according to the United Nations Charter. Therefore, Ukraine must be helped to come to the negotiating table in a strong position because advances on the ground will determine whether Ukraine comes out strong or not. Then, it will be for Ukraine to decide what it considers to be a just and lasting peace. That can only be decided by Ukraine.

Haiti has one of the worst security crises in the Western Hemisphere. The country’s government has requested assistance from an international force that can support the police in their fight against armed gangs. So far, several initiatives have failed. Do you see any role for NATO in solving the crisis in Haiti?

A: NATO is a collective security organization whose mission is to preserve and maintain peace within our borders. But if there is a United Nations mandate for it to play a role, then that is something NATO could consider. That was the case in Libya. When Colonel [Muammar] Qaddafi was there, there was a United Nations Security Council resolution, and NATO was asked to play a role in protecting civilians in Libya. So, if there is a request from the United Nations, NATO can consider a role, but NATO cannot wake up in the morning and decide, ‘We are going to have a role in Haiti.’

Many organizations, experts and governments have noted the increase in Russian propaganda and disinformation in Spanish. One of the most common Russian narratives is blaming the war on NATO’s expansion towards Russian borders. Do you think this propaganda and disinformation effort has something to do with some countries in the region not supporting Ukraine more strongly? And what is the Alliance doing to counter disinformation in Latin America and other regions like Africa and Asia?

A: Russian disinformation is a matter of great concern. NATO is developing a series of projects with the member countries’ civil society and partner countries so that societies become more resilient and better prepared to contrast the information they receive and differentiate what is true from what is false. We are working with the United Nations in campaigns that they have to fight disinformation. We are working with the G7, with the European Union, exchanging information, and learning what impact Russia can have with its disinformation to prepare ourselves better to react.

It indeed impacts the Global South, where Russian narratives are more present.

One of the things that NATO did in the months prior to the invasion was to declassify intelligence to show public opinion the preparation that Russia was carrying out militarily along the borders with Ukraine, at the same time that Russia was saying, ‘We have no intention of entering Ukraine.’ Thanks to that, we were able to do two things: show our citizens what the Russian president was really preparing and, at the same time, foster political unity. Because on February 24 last year, when Russia launched an unprecedented invasion of Ukraine, our public opinions were primed for the crucial decisions our organizations and governments were about to make. NATO’s political role also meant that political unity was forged very quickly.

NATO has an open door policy, but NATO has not expanded: European countries from the Atlantic area have been knocking on the door to say, ‘We want to be members of the Alliance’...This is the case of Finland, and Sweden, two traditionally neutral countries. It is Russia’s aggression that changed public opinion in those two countries. Finland’s entry into NATO doubles the physical borders of the NATO countries with Russia. And this has been provoked by President Putin.

What message do you have for governments in Latin America invoking non-interventionism and non-alignment so as not to support Ukraine more decisively?

A: Well, the right of each country to be able to decide its security affiliations and, above all, the importance more than ever of the United Nations Charter that prevents or prohibits the use of force to change the borders of a neighboring country. This is about respect for the United Nations Charter and about respect for a rules-based international system.

©2023 Miami Herald.

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