William Dale Montgomery is a former ambassador of the USA in the Republic of Croatia, as an ambassador he has also worked in Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. He was born in a relatively small town and he didn't travel a lot before his diplomatic career. One of his first long journeys was to Dubrovnik, which he fell in love with at first sight. He liked the south of Croatia so much that he decided to spend his retirement days in Konavle. We caught up with the former diplomat, who clearly still has strong links to the region, to discuss the war in Ukraine.
In your opinion what are the real reasons for Russia's invasion of Ukraine?
That’s easy. The sole reason for the invasion of Ukraine is that Vladimir Putin has the ambition to bring back together the former lands of Russian domination. That’s for sure the sole reason.
So are you then saying that he isn’t going to stop at Ukraine?
Correct. I think Ukraine is paying a very heavy price, because it was a test of western resolve. And I’m pleasantly surprised by a couple of things. I’m surprised that the EU and NATO acted together collectively and so firmly, I didn’t expect that. I also didn’t expect the Ukrainians to have the fight and resolve and indeed unity that they have shown. And I didn’t expect Putin's ground military to be so disorganised and ineffective. It’s amazing to see this.
The reality is that the Ukrainians are only where they are now because the US and the EU have been supplying them with weapons. I firmly think that it’s the right thing to do, but on the other hand getting into a shooting war between Russia and NATO has totally unpredictable consequences. Particularly when you’re dealing with Putin, because frankly he absolutely has to end this Ukraine conflict with what he can call a victory. That’s the only way it will end. So whilst it’s great to see the fight that the Ukrainians are putting up it also means that Putin will continue to obliterate all their cities. He doesn’t care, he’ll go as far as he can to claim a victory.
What the West is doing now in Ukraine is showing him that he’ll pay a very heavy price, so that he’ll hesitate in the future before invading - Photo Bozo Radic/CROPIX
What do you think is Putin’s endgame? Is the story of Ukraine’s entry into NATO just an excuse, is he frustrated with previous deals that have been broken, such as the Munich Security conference, or are there other factors at play?
Basically he’s looking to rebuild a Russia that used to exist, the Greater Russia. He has been very open. He said the breakup of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the 21st century. He has made it clear that he thinks that NATO should go back to the borders they had in the mid-1990’s. He has no fear that the West will attack Russia. Because he knows that with all his nuclear weapons the West will never attack him. That’s the strength that he has. He knows that he can be provocative without paying a price for it. And what the West is doing now in Ukraine is showing him that he’ll pay a very heavy price, so that he’ll hesitate in the future before invading.
The call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine is a non-starter in your opinion?
Totally. Because you’ll have NATO pilots maybe shooting down Russian jets, and that will take the conflict to a new level. And with a guy like Putin you just don’t know how far you can push. If you push to far the reaction might be one that the West then has to react to, and then you have escalation.
You brought up the nuclear threat, but surely this is just a threat?
Yes, I think at this point it is just a threat. But if he gets more and more frustrated, as he is with his ground troops bogged down, would he use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine? And if he did that what would our response be? Throughout the history of the Cold War both sides showed a certain level on constraint, otherwise things could have got ugly really quickly. However, with Putin it’s totally unclear whether the same rules apply.
The key to NATO is article 5 - Photo Bozo Radic
What are your feelings on the Croatian involvement in the crisis? Such as Croatia sending military arms to Ukraine and allowing NATO planes to use airports. Did Croatia need to get that involved?
Well, NATO is a collation of countries for common defence. And the key to NATO is article 5, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all. And so if you want that safeguard in times of real emergency, and that you can count on your NATO partners, when something like this happens you’re obliged to do your part. Now members of NATO are also obliged to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defence every year to provide for the collective defence. Do you know how much Croatia pays? 1.7 percent and it’s never gone up to 2 percent. Meaning that they are relying on other members, such as the United States to make up the difference.
You have great experience in the wider south-east Europe region. Clearly Serbia remaining neutral was probably to be expected given their close ties with Russia, but what long-term effects will this have for them. And how disruptive could this war in Ukraine be for Bosnia and Herzegovina?
First of all, with regard to Serbia. I don’t see them being aligned to Russia. What I see is that they feel very strongly about Kosovo and they feel it has been taken away from them. And it was taken away with the help of a NATO bombing campaign in which more than a 1,000 citizens lost their lives. Now, the only reason that Kosovo isn’t a member of the UN is that Russia vetoes it every time the question comes up. That’s the only reason. So Russia in effect for more than twenty years has been blackmailing Serbia.
Put plainly the Russians are basically saying to Serbia, “If you mess with us then we’ll drop our veto on Kosovo and they’ll become a member of the UN and you’ll lose the country forever.”
And of course that means that any ruling party in Serbia would be destroyed. The Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, actions are predictable. He will buy some fighter jets from Russia, he’ll then give the Chinese a contract to build roads, he’ll then do a partnership for peace with the West and then he’ll do something with the EU. He is trying to balance these four forces and not side with any one. But this Ukrainian conflict is going to make it harder and harder for him.
The actions against countries deemed to be supporting the other side are going to get tougher and tougher, whether he sides with Russia or the West. One thing where Vučić has succeed is not getting Milorad Dodik to cross any “red lines.” Even though Dodik has been encouraged by Putin to do so. As long as the High Representative in Bosnian and Herzegovina doesn’t do anything provocative then peace will remain. You have the situation of Serbia allowing more and more flights out of Russia, so that they can avoid the closed skies of the EU. This was widely criticized. But at the same time Turkey is praised for allowing more flights from Russia, as these flights are seen as Russians fleeing Putin. Same situation, two different responses. I told Vučić to stop the flights. And he promised to limit the number of flights to what they were before the conflict started.
Sorry, did you just say that you told the Serbian President to stop the Russian flights?
Yes, we are in contact. What I pointed out to him was the longer this goes on the more issues, quite possibly totally unrelated to the war, are going to come up. So if you want to be seen as being tough on Russia then do you send volleyballs teams there to play? Do you organise conferences? All sorts of issues will come up.
I hate sanctions because all too often in the past they have been an excuse for not taking any real action - Photo Bozo Radic/CROPIX
Just how effective do you think the sanctions have been so far?
First of all, I hate sanctions. I hate sanctions because all too often in the past they have been an excuse for not taking any real action. We had sanctions on Serbia and on Milošević, and really they weren’t effective at all. They were only effective in creating a space for illegal gangs to establish and operate. For these were the gangs that then took over the smuggling of oil into Serbia and they became strong due to our sanctions. However, I would say that after about ten years of sanctions the Serbia people voted Milošević out of office. They did so not because they were rejecting his war policies, but they saw that if the opposition got into power the financial tap would reopen. Although the West thought that they were voting against nationalism that really wasn’t the case. So sanctions, and these on Russia are tough, need a long time to work. The standard of living will be impacted in Russia in a lot of ways. But as far as changing behaviour and minds towards Putin, even in the medium-term, I can’t see that they will be effective.
How would you judge the response of the American President Joe Biden so far?
The entire NATO community, including the United States, have responded both quickly and effectively. I think that Biden was right to open up a lot of our intelligence sources by saying what was going to happen in Ukraine. Weeks before the conflict started the President and all the staff were constantly telling the press what is going to happen and what the Russians are doing. I think he’s handling it very well. He probably wishes that we had fighter planes going into Ukraine right now and blowing the Russians out of the sky. But in the real world that isn’t possible. Now it’s important for the NATO countries, the EU countries and the US to make a huge effort for the refugees. The States has an allergy to economic migrants, but these poor people are pure and simple refugees and they need our help.
Putin has clamped down on the media and seems to have been successful in pushing his message to the Russian people
Putin learned from the West’s influence in the former Yugoslavia. He has already closed down and stopped western support of any NGO’s and controlled the media. He has established a strong totalitarian regime. I was in Moscow at the end of the seventies and that was a bad time in the relationship between the US and Russia, but I have to say it’s even worse right now. You have to realise that when you drive an hour outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg that it’s like going back to the 19th century. Very little internet use, the only source of news they get is the state news which feeds them their own story. The only way I see Putin's demise is by people close to him, that’s the only way.
Russia recently accused the USA of owning and operating bio labs in Ukraine. And not just in Ukraine but in a number of former Soviet states. Is this another smoke screen, or a question of no smoke without fire?
It’s nonsense. It’s totally untrue. It’s just so far from reality its beyond belief. If the US actually had bio labs, and that’s a huge if, it would be a closely guarded secret and something that we’d do in a lab in the middle of nowhere in the States. But the idea that we would go to do this in foreign countries is just madness. It’s the same nonsense that Ukraine was developing a nuclear bomb. The lesson that the world has unfortunately learned is get yourself a nuclear bomb and never give it up. The Ukrainians’ gave theirs up and if they still had them this wouldn’t be happening. It’s a sad but true lesson.
Finally, is this a war that could drag on for years or is there a quicker solution? Clearly Putin needs to come out of this at the very least with a small victory or rather saving face, so do you see a workable agreement?
Very cold-bloodedly, the best thing for me would be that this conflict remains contained inside Ukraine. As long as it stays contained inside Ukraine then there are a lot of questions the West won’t have to answer. I know it’s frustrating and there is nothing more that I’d like to than join the Ukrainians and fight, I have special forces training but I think my age might be a problem. I would dearly love to fight with the Ukrainians, I have weapons training, and under different circumstances, meaning if I was considerably younger, I would love to join them.
How could the Ukrainian war influence Americans willingness to travel?
I think that’ll see some dropouts from the US, but hopefully not too many. Of course some Americans think that Europe is the size of London and say “I don’t want to go where there is a war.” I remember speaking to an American lady the other day who was travelling here and she told me that her friends had told her not to come to Europe because there was a war there.