The challenges facing NATO

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, London

  • 02 Sep. 2014 -
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  • Last updated: 02 Sep. 2014 14:56

Amb. Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Secretary General of NATO

On Thursday, leaders from across the Alliance will come together in Wales to decide the future course of NATO. They will be joined by partners from nearly 40 nations and international organizations.

The last time a NATO Summit was held in the United Kingdom, almost a quarter of a century ago, it marked a historic turning point for European security.  The end of the Cold War heralded an unparalleled opportunity for peace and partnership with what was then still the Soviet Union. 

Our Wales Summit wasn’t intended to offer the same sense of history.  But it was meant to mark an important transition for the Alliance.  The main purpose was to mark the end of our combat mission in Afghanistan, to welcome home our troops, and to look forward to working with a new President of Afghanistan in the years ahead.  And we were going to prepare for a quieter period for the Alliance in which the focus would be on partnerships and on training and exercises to maintain our “edge” following two decades of non-stop operations.

We will still do this.  But because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the focus of our Summit has shifted significantly. 

Wales is now a far more important Summit than anyone would have predicted only a year ago.  And while some commentators have described it as marking the beginning of a new Cold War, that is certainly not how we see it at NATO. 

But there has been a fundamental change to our relationship with Russia.  And it’s a change that means we now need to focus once more on the basics of our Alliance – on protecting the Allies, on strengthening our collective defense.

Collective defense

As you know, I have been involved with Russia for most of my professional career, and my fascination with that country goes back to when I began studying Russian in high school.  I have always wanted to see a strong, confident Russia, committed to democracy, acting in respect of its international commitments, and effectively contributing to peace and stability on the European continent.  That was the partner NATO had in mind when we launched our special relationship with Russia over 20 years ago. That was the partner that Russia said it wanted to be – not just under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, but under Vladimir Putin as well. But in the last few years, Russia has become a nationalist and revisionist power, one that violates international law and uses military power to achieve its geopolitical ends at the expense of its neighbours and wider European security.

In recent days, Russia has dramatically escalated its direct military aggression against Ukraine.  Russia must end the bullying, interfering, and intimidating approach it has been taking towards all the countries on and near its borders.  It must understand that acting outside the internationally accepted norms and order leads only to short-term gain and long-term isolation.  And it must realise that until there is a change in its behavior and attitude, then NATO will not be able to resume cooperation with Russia.

Over the summer, the UK Parliament’s Defence Committee – and many of you are here today – published a report on the ability of the NATO Alliance to respond effectively to aggression from Russia or elsewhere. 

It painted a picture of an underfunded and inadequately equipped NATO; of a lack of large-scale exercises, standing forces and cyber defense; in short, of a NATO not nearly as ready as it needs to be to respond to the guile and agility of an overbearing and trigger-happy Russia eager to change European borders by force and limit the sovereign choices of its neighbors. 

As the Deputy Secretary General of NATO, I must admit that I don’t entirely disagree with the Committee’s assessment.  I’ve been arguing along similar lines for some time.  Turning this situation around will be the principal outcome of the Summit.  We must ensure that NATO continues to be the most successful and reliable military Alliance in modern European history.

Regardless of Russian actions or intentions, we need to be ready to respond effectively to any threat to our territory or populations.  And first and foremost, readiness requires resources. 

For understandable reasons, defense spending has been falling in NATO countries for many years.  Initially, many Allies took the ‘peace dividend’ brought about by the end of the Cold War.  And of course, the economic crisis of the past few years has led to further cuts in defense spending in many of our nations.  Indeed, over the past five years, total defense spending by NATO nations has fallen by 20%.

However, over this same period, Russia’s defense spending has increased by 50%, and this trend is slated to continue.

To the current occupants of the Kremlin, who measure global standing in terms of military might, that looks like weakness on our part.  And it looks like an opportunity to act.  We saw this in Crimea.  And we’re seeing it again in Eastern Ukraine. 

So our job at this Summit is to disabuse the Kremlin of the idea of NATO weakness: to show that we are united and strong; and to demonstrate our unfailing commitment to our collective defense. 

This means a pledge to increase our spending on defense in real terms as our economies improve, and to start spending our defense budgets on the right things – modern, deployable capabilities that fill the gaps in NATO’s arsenal.  I am optimistic we will see such a commitment at the conclusion of our Summit on Friday.

It also means agreeing to a NATO Readiness Action Plan (or “RAP”): a coherent and comprehensive package that will respond to the challenge posed by Russia, as well as to other areas of crisis and instability around our borders. It will put in place on the territory of Allies on NATO’s eastern flank the necessary infrastructure, equipment, and command and control to ensure rapid reaction and reinforcement, backed up by the necessary plans, training and exercises.

As part of the RAP, we will significantly upgrade the NATO Response Force, including establishing a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, able to respond extremely quickly – in days rather than weeks – to any challenge as it arises. 

Importantly, we will increase the number and scale of NATO exercises in order to ensure that our forces are combat ready and able to operate together at all times.  And we will enhance our Standing Naval Forces to support the full range of conventional naval operations.

But of course, not all the threats we face are conventional.  We have seen Russia use a wide range of overt and covert military tactics, sabotage, economic blackmail, cyber attacks, disinformation and propaganda.  Our Readiness Action Plan is also about making sure that NATO is ready and able to respond to this kind of hybrid warfare.

Crisis management

But defending Allies’ territory is not NATO’s only task.  Indeed, managing crises and cooperating with our partner nations and other international organizations make a vital contribution to our collective security.  In fact, all three of these core tasks – collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security – are mutually reinforcing.

And when it comes to our security, dealing with Russia is far from the only challenge we need to address.  What is happening in Iraq and Syria with the so-called Islamic State, the continuing unrest in the Middle East, the chaos in Libya and the insurgency in the Sahel, show how fragile peace and security can be.  To focus exclusively on collective defense and to ignore crises beyond our borders would be a grave mistake, because the greater instability that these foreign crises generate can pose a direct threat to us here at home. 

Here in Britain, it is estimated that between 500 and 1,500 young British people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State.  For some, it will be a one-way trip.  But others will return, bringing their barbaric ideology, and bloody experience, with them.

We must be prepared to prevent the crises that lead to such threats against our societies.  And so we must remain ready and able to act wherever our interests are threatened – including with the use of military force if necessary.

I mentioned at the start of my remarks that the Wales Summit will mark the approaching end of our combat mission in Afghanistan.  I know many will have hoped for a long period of R&R after the long haul of our operation there.  But we need to face up to the fact that we may not get it.

The Readiness Action Plan will give us additional capacity to project power quickly “out of area” as well as within NATO’s borders.  That is another reason why the RAP is so vital and why, along with greater investment in our defense, it will be the most important outcome of the Summit.


Afghanistan has taught us many lessons, including that we cannot do everything alone.  Global problems require global solutions.  Even with the strength of the NATO Alliance, we need our partners.  And we need them to be strong, too.  But this is not just about them helping us on our operations and missions.  It is also about helping them to help themselves.   

Assisting partners to develop credible, robust defense capabilities of their own is a sensible way to export stability.  In Wales, we will launch a new defense capacity building initiative to do just that – a coherent program of support for those who want to improve their armed forces and defense institutions.

Under the new defense capacity building initiative, we will build on the experience NATO has gained over the past 20 years under the Partnership for Peace in supporting defense reforms in Central and Eastern Europe. We also will draw on lessons learned from NATO capacity building efforts in post-conflict situations‎. 

A key part of the new initiatives is the establishment of a military "hub," located at our military headquarters at SHAPE, that can help the civilian experts at NATO HQ in providing training and assistance to interested partners on a sustained basis, with on-the-ground advisors. This will be resource intensive, and we may need to  rely on contributions by nations beyond NATO's regular budgets. But the investment in capacity building can avoid the much higher cost of having to deploy NATO forces in a crisis. The 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces, who have taken over from the NATO-led coalition, demonstrate the wisdom of a defense capacity building approach.    

Another thing that Afghanistan has highlighted is the need for different international organizations to work more closely together.  As we can see with Libya, where the initial success of the air campaign has turned to chaos and confusion on the ground, NATO-led military action alone is not enough to restore stability.  This is a lesson that the international community must learn if we are to successfully address the crises in Ukraine, Iraq, and elsewhere.

It takes the combined efforts of the international community – organizations like the UN, the EU, the OSCE and regional organizations like the African Union – to create long-term peace and stability.  These are strong organizations that can effectively complement the work of NATO.  By working together, we can be true force multipliers.  We can each focus on our own areas of greatest competence, and know that, together, we can provide more than the sum of the separate parts – from development and governance, to local civilian infrastructure and defense institution building. 

Let me add that we’re not starting from scratch.  We already work with these organizations in different operational theaters, but there is so much more I believe we could do.  None of us is reaching our full potential.  But we can do that by working more closely together. 

That’s why, at the Summit, I’ll be chairing a meeting between Allied Foreign Ministers and the Heads of a number of Euro-Atlantic organizations, including the Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union.  I hope that this meeting will serve as a catalyst for closer interaction in the future


Ladies and Gentlemen,

One of my first postings as a junior diplomat was to Moscow back in the late 1970s, when it was still the USSR and the Cold War was still in full swing.  And much later, I was privileged to return there as the US Ambassador to the Russian Federation.  I firmly believe that a strong NATO-Russia partnership would benefit the security and stability of all our nations and the entire Euro-Atlantic community.  But for the time being, Russia has chosen a different path, and we must respond appropriately.

So, the Wales Summit will mark a new chapter in the ongoing story of the Alliance: an end to falling defense spending; a new, practical plan for dealing with the challenges we face; and, for the first time in nearly twenty-five years, a new approach to Russia, to take account of the fact that it has violated not only our joint principles and commitments, but also our trust. 

At the Summit, we will make sure we will have all the right tools for the job.  We will emphasize that we have the political will to use those tools – to defend our Allies; to stand up to the bullying tactics of others; and to continue shaping the security environment during one of the most turbulent periods in history. 

This is where you all have a role to play – because we also need the understanding and support of our public.   As the representatives of your citizens, your unique responsibility is not only to decide upon matters of blood and treasure, but to explain to taxpayers where, when, and why that blood and treasure must be spent.

There are always those who will complain of the human and financial cost of security.  Your job, now, is to explain the far greater costs of insecurity.