The Russian Ambassador to Denmark Threatens the Danes: And?


2015-03-22 By Gary Schaub

Dateline: Copenhagen, Denmark

Since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and, at a minimum, support for forces in eastern Ukraine that are attempting to secede and join Russia, belligerence in its foreign policy rhetoric is becoming more common, as are references to its nuclear capabilities.

An exceptional reference occurred over the weekend.

On Saturday (21 March), the Russian Ambassador to Denmark expressed his government’s displeasure with Danish NATO policy—in particular its decision last August to join the NATO missile defense program.

The Danish government announced prior to the Wales Summit that it would equip one of its three frigates with radar systems that could be integrated into NATO’s ballistic missile defense system.

This, of course, is not particularly unusual: the Russians have expressed opposition to the NATO BMD in increasingly strident tones since its inception in 2001.

What was unusual was the Russian ambassador expressed his government’s opposition in an interview that was published in the largest Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.

He did so for classic public diplomacy reasons:

Russian ambassador, Mikhail Vanin, said that Danish ships could become targets (photo: Christian Wenande)
Russian ambassador, Mikhail Vanin, said that Danish ships could become targets (photo: Christian Wenande)

“It is never too late to say something important to the Danish people,” he said.

“We know that the government will not contact us—they get orders from abroad about what to do and think.

We are not naive.

Therefore this is an appeal to the public.

The Danes should think very clearly about what the politicians are using their tax dollars for. It will be expensive and provide less security.

But it’s your decision.”

But beyond his concern for the average Dane’s pocketbook, he indicted why there would be “less security” for Denmark.

“I do not think that the Danes fully understand the situation.

It would be detrimental to relations between our countries and have consequences if you join the global anti-missile defense system under US leadership.

All who join will be part of the threat to Russia and will be targeted with Russian ballistic missiles.

If Denmark joins the missile shield, which is controlled by the United States, this means that Danish warships become targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”

Back in the day, such a blatant warning mixed with the implication that Denmark is being placed in danger by aggressive American policies would have given the Danes pause.

Today it is leading to a pragmatic non response.

On the one hand, the “peace” parties here (the Unity List and the Socialist People’s Party) have long opposed military spending in general and the acquisition of any capabilities that could be seen as “offensive” in particular.

So, for instance, Unity List has opposed buying new combat aircraft—but argue that the F-16s are needed to “defend Denmark,” at least until their wings fall off, and the Socialist People’s Party has more recently changed its position and is for buying only a minimum number of the cheapest aircraft available to replace the F-16s to do that task, which for them is 16–24 at the most.

Both are opposed to participating in NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD).

The Russian ambassador’s op-ed has not led them to reconsider those positions.

Rather their spokesmen have both said that maybe the ambassador was speaking out of turn, maybe he did not clear his article with anyone, maybe he “drank too much vodka,” and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should contact Moscow to see if this is the case because it can’t be!

They simply cannot square belligerence with their ideological priorities.

On the other hand, the “Blue” center parties that have supported Denmark’s active and “militarized” grand strategy since the end of the Cold War have responded pragmatically.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs at first said nothing publicly, although it was leaked that the Russian was called in to the MFA on Friday to discuss the interview before it was published—and that meeting was an “undramatic” one with a subordinate to the Minister rather than the Minister himself.

They have let others, such a former MFA official, put it in context in the media.

That context was that the op-ed threat comes on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea and is consistent with public rhetoric in the Russian media about that anniversary.

Furthermore, the risk for general East-West conflict is greater than since 1990, he said.

On the other hand, he also said that the ambassador probably took the initiative to deliver this “clumsy blow” on his own and wondered whether it was really part of a changed policy toward Denmark. There was no mention of NATO or BMD or any specific responses or context for Danes to reconsider their policies either way.

Furthermore, when the Danish Foreign Minister did address the issue publicly on Saturday afternoon, his response lacked belligerency. What he said was:

“I must say that the topic of his remarks makes me wonder. I think fundamentally, it is unacceptable to threaten such serious things. I also think it is the wrong signal at the wrong time because we are currently trying to dampen the rhetoric and the conflict with Russia. So I would appeal strongly to the Russian ambassador in this country, but certainly also to the government in Moscow, that you stop this hateful rhetoric and that you stop threatening things that are completely out of proportion what we’re talking about.”

“Russia knows full well that NATO’s missile defence is defensive and not targeted at them. We disagree with Russia on many important issues, but we also cooperate, for example, in the Arctic and it is important that the tone between us does not escalate.”

“So far we do not intend to do more about it here. That being said, much of the time we also hear it from Putin, and if one were to react every time you would be really busy. I merely note that this is not a tone that we want in Denmark.  I do not want to contribute by escalating the situation further, but basically we obviously mediated, and we have established that it is not a way to communicate, and that it is too serious of a matter for them to threaten that way.”

In general, the reaction of Danish policy makers is that the Russian ambassador’s foray into nuclear threats via public diplomacy is really just part of overwrought nationalist politics for a domestic audience and probably nothing for Denmark to worry about.

Given this attitude, Danish policy will perpetuate the status quo through the upcoming general elections this summer or even until the end of the current defense agreement in 2017—barring a more severe provocation such as a SAS airliner colliding with a Russian military aircraft over the Danish straits as it takes off from Copenhagen International Airport.

Given the growing propensity for Russian recklessness in the air, that’s not a possibility to be discounted.

Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr. is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

He formerly served on the faculty of the Air War College and the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies at Maxwell AFB.

He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: According to a story in The Copenhagen Post published March 21, 2015:

Martin Lidegaard, the Danish foreign minister, was not pleased with Vanin’s comments.

“This is obviously unacceptable,” Lidegaard said.

“Russia knows very well that NATO’s missile defence system is defensive.

We disagree with Russia on many important things, but it is important that the tone between us remains as positive as possible.”

Also see these recent two stories on Second Line of Defense: