by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Atlantic Council of the United States Conference ‘’Toward a Europe whole and free’’, Washington DC
The Open Door and the crisis in Ukraine
It's an honor to participate in this conference to celebrate the 5th, 10th and 15th anniversaries of NATO enlargement, when former adversaries became NATO Allies. Our Open Door policy has been a great success for Europe, North America and the world. We have spread freedom, stability and security across the European continent. NATO’s Open Door has helped bring us closer to our vision of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace. But the task is still not complete.
By his actions in Ukraine, President Putin has put new obstacles in the way. He is using force to change the borders of Europe. He is ignoring international agreements that Russia signed. He is undermining a sovereign country from within through information warfare and the covert use of Russian special forces – the now-infamous ‘little green men’ – who operate among civilian populations and use them as cover for their activities.
In his extraordinary and chilling March 18 speech to the State Duma, President Putin went out of his way to blame NATO’s enlargement, in part, for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. He seems to believe that our Open Door policy can be used as an excuse for his ill-conceived decisions to seize Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. And he is seeking to draw a new red line regarding the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine and other former Soviet states. His assertions deserve a response.
So let me be clear. This is a challenge to our policies and principles. We cannot water down our vision. Every country in Europe has the free and sovereign right to choose its own security allegiances. Our Open Door has been a great success because we have given our partners this free choice – without ultimatums and without ulterior motives. And with our help, our new Allies and our partners have achieved their political, economic and security goals without changing borders and without exchanging gunfire.
NATO is strong and our new Allies and partners have made us even stronger. So we will continue to defend every European country’s sovereign right to choose. We will keep NATO’s door open, and we will remain focused on achieving a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. We cannot be naive or pretend the task will be quick or easy, but it is right.
Achievements of the Open Door
Today we see the outstanding results of this policy. The post-Cold War generation of NATO’s new European members consists of prosperous democracies who are security providers.
The idea that this situation threatens Russia in any way is simply ridiculous. If anything, it benefits Russia. A more stable region has meant growing trade and greater wealth for Russian companies and the Russian people.
For two decades, and throughout the development of our policy on NATO enlargement, the Alliance has tried to include Russia in our efforts to advance this European project of common security.
In parallel with the admission of new members, we have given Russia a unique and pivotal place at the heart of an all-inclusive Euro-Atlantic security system, including an equal seat at the table in the NATO-Russia Council.
We made a series of unilateral commitments not to place nuclear weapons or substantial combat forces on the territory of new members, to make clear that NATO enlargement wasn’t directed against Russia, and that we didn’t view Russia as a threat but as a partner. Russia said it saw NATO as a partner as well.
But now, Russia seems to have chosen confrontation over cooperation, and to view NATO as a strategic rival. As a result, we cannot ignore the reality of Russia’s present course and we must review our relationship.
Our long-term aspiration remains a true strategic NATO-Russia partnership. But NATO has always adapted to new strategic realities, and we must be ready to meet Russia’s latest challenge too.
Our response – ‘back to basics’
In response to Russia’s actions, we are going ‘back to basics’. We won’t abandon our current missions or our core tasks -- there are still many threats and challenges out there besides Russia that NATO must be ready for. But we will focus more than before on collective defense.
We have already taken a number of short-term reassurance measures. This includes augmenting NATO’s Baltic air policing mission and regular surveillance flights over Poland and Romania. Exercises are underway on land and sea. The US has taken the lead, but other allies are now stepping up with force contributions, including the UK, Germany, Denmark, France, Canada, the Netherlands and Turkey. We will sustain and expand these measures at least through the end of the year, and longer if necessary.
In the medium term, we will need to examine our defense plans and upgrade our NATO Response Force to make it more capable of responding quickly to short-warning scenarios. And we should consider whether to bolster our Connected Forces Initiative through more frequent high-visibility exercises and a greater emphasis on scenarios at the higher end of the military mission spectrum.
Looking to our Wales Summit in September, the crisis has made clear we need deployable forces to meet both out-of-area and in-area defense and deterrence requirements, with the necessary logistical and host-nation support.
We will also devote greater attention to collective defense and deterrence requirements in our capability efforts, and encourage participation by all allies in specific Smart Defense projects.
As for our political posture, we will continue to give high priority to partnerships, since closer integration and interoperability with like-minded partners like Sweden, Finland, and Australia can be a force multiplier for NATO. We will also step up our support for the defense reforms of Russia's neighbors, and strengthen our role in defense capacity building more broadly.
Finally, we need to convey a strong and convincing message on enlargement at our Wales Summit: that our Open Door is really still open; that the process remains merit-based; and that it’s taken only in consultations between the Allies and the aspirant countries involved -- no third party has a veto.
Our Foreign Ministers will review the progress of the four aspirants in June. At this point, we don’t know whether any of the four will be judged ready for an invitation at the Summit to begin accession talks.
But whatever the decision, we will need to demonstrate – in deed as well as in word – that we intend to work proactively with all the aspirants to help them meet the standards for membership as soon as possible and, in the meantime, that we will help them to deepen their integration with the Alliance.