Prospects for NATO-Russia relations

Keynote address by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the 2015 Leangkollen Conference, Oslo

  • 02 Feb. 2015 -
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  • Last updated 03-Feb-2015 08:35

Closing remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow

Let me begin by saying how honored I am to speak here today after the Prime Minister, and at such an illustrious venue, the Nobel Institute.  I cannot think of a more symbolic setting for a speech about NATO – one of the world’s most eminent and successful peace organizations.

In the 21st century, the quest for peace remains as urgent as ever.  This will certainly keep the Nobel Committee busy to recognize efforts to bring conflicts to an end.  And it will keep NATO hard at work as well.  Indeed NATO today is as necessary as at any time in its history – and we’re fortunate to have a Norwegian at the helm. 

After the watershed events of 2014, we face a new and more dangerous security environment, with threats pressing in on us from the East and from the South.  We did not want this.  We did not choose it.  But it is the reality.  And every successful strategy must be based on facts and realism, not simply on hope.

To the East, Russia has torn up the international rule book.  It has returned to a strategy of power politics.  It threatens not just Ukraine, but European and global security more generally.  And it is pursuing this strategy even as the costs to its own prosperity and reputation grow.

To the South, violent extremism is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East.  And we are seeing the consequences in the form of mass migration across the Mediterranean, foreign jihadist fighters traveling between Syria and Europe, and other terrorists, many of whom are inspired by a twisted interpretation of Islam, trying to bring bloodshed to our own streets.

So, for the first time in NATO’s history, we have to look both “East” and “South.”  This said, the theme of this opening session is ‘NATO-Russia relations,’ so that is where I shall focus my remarks.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not an isolated incident, but a game-changer in European security.  It reflects an evolving pattern of behavior that has been emerging for several years, despite our efforts to reach out to Russia and build a cooperative European security system with Russia. 

Today, we must contend with a Russia that wants to go back to a Europe based on spheres of influence and doctrines of limited sovereignty for its neighbors – policies that are a throwback to an earlier time, a time we thought we had put behind us.  Russia’s behavior, in short, has called into question many of the assumptions on which we have strived to build the European security order.  We will have to live with its consequences for some years to come.

Russia has used force to alter legally recognized borders and to actively subvert the government of a neighboring state.  Although it claims to want de-escalation and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, its actions tell a different story. 

The open, rules-based system that respects international borders, and the right of states to choose their own future, has been undermined.  And yet Russia also signed up to these rules – and even helped write them – many times:  in OSCE documents such as the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, in the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and in many other international agreements.  In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Russia explicitly guaranteed Ukraine’s international frontiers in exchange for the transfer of nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia. 

Our first reaction at NATO to Russia’s actions has been one of bitter disappointment.  For over 20 years, we have tried actively and consistently to make Russia a strategic partner.  We made it clear that our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace included a prominent place for Russia.  In the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 we pledged not to regard each other as adversaries but to work together to create a “lasting and inclusive peace”. 

For a while our cooperation seemed to be working.  In Afghanistan, Russia helped our ISAF mission by providing training to counter-narcotics experts and the Afghan National Security Forces, and helping to maintain the fledgling Afghan Air Force’s helicopter fleet.  And let’s not forget that our troops deployed together for several years under the NATO flag in Bosnia and Kosovo, after combining our diplomatic efforts to end those conflicts.  After 9/11, Russia supported our Active Endeavour counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean, and we have cooperated in the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy as well. 

Russia was not a passive partner.  It too brought initiatives to the table:  for instance, in countering terrorism and interdicting explosives; in cooperating on airspace management over Eastern Europe; and in maritime search and rescue – to name but a few. 

These examples demonstrate that NATO-Russia cooperation was seen by Moscow to be in its interests as well.  It was not a zero-sum game; but  a “win-win.”  We were helping Russia to be more secure – not less, as Moscow now claims.  And that cooperation could work again in the future – if Russia wants to be a real partner and to abide by the rules.

Yet what we have seen, especially since Putin’s return to the Presidency in 2012, is a Russia determined to go in the opposite direction:  to detach itself from Europe, to assert itself in its own neighborhood, and to seek to build alternative mechanisms – such as the Eurasian Union and the BRICS group – whose raison d’être, at least in Moscow’s view, is defined by opposition to the West.

Even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia was backing away from the commitment it made at our Lisbon Summit in 2010 to develop a true strategic partnership with NATO and to cooperate in potentially important areas such as missile defense.  Russia became less transparent about its own military activities, especially major exercises.  It based these exercises on absurd scenarios of a direct threat, or even an attack from a NATO country.  It stopped implementing the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and other transparency initiatives such as the Open Skies Treaty.  It showed no interest in our overtures to re-engage on nuclear and conventional arms control.  Instead of more predictability and trust we now have less, even compared to the Soviet period.  

Indeed, with its frequent “snap exercises,” like the one now underway in the Kaliningrad region, Moscow seems determined to surprise, shock and intimidate rather than to build confidence and predictability as it pledged to do under the Vienna Document of 1999.

And just a few weeks ago, Russia issued the latest revision of its Military Doctrine.  It explicitly refers to NATO as destabilizing and a “danger” to Russia – without, I might add, giving any convincing rationale as to why or how NATO threatens Russia, or providing any justification for Russia’s aggressive behavior.

Russia’s narrative – a false narrative, let me stress – is one of a country humiliated by a West that has tried to take advantage of its weakness since the end of the Cold War.  NATO enlargement has been invoked by numerous Russian and some Western commentators.  But when the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe sought to join the Alliance, we made a special effort to demonstrate that NATO enlargement would contribute to European stability, and that it was not directed against Russia.  This included a series of unilateral commitments to refrain from deploying substantial combat forces or nuclear weapons in new member states.  Indeed, despite Russia’s aggression, we have held to these commitments.

Have we in the West made mistakes in dealing with Russia?  Probably, yes.  But I do not believe that our Russia policy since 1989 explains or justifies in any way Russia’s current policy of confrontation with the West or its unprovoked aggression against its neighbors. 

So what does explain Russia’s reorientation?  I believe it is domestic considerations, more than anything else.  Putin fears his own “color revolution”.  The Maidan demonstrations, the aspiration for more democracy and for less corruption, are a threat to his own system of power in Russia – especially after he saw how the flawed Duma and Presidential elections in 2011 and 2012 triggered popular protests on the streets of Moscow. 

So Putin embarked on a campaign of nationalism.  He did this to divert attention from an economy in decline, well before the sanctions and the dramatic fall in the oil price.  He presented Western and traditional Russian values as incompatible, as even being in direct conflict.  In his first term as President, he asked Russians to accept less democracy for more prosperity.  Now he is asking them to trade prosperity for militant nationalism, in which Russia’s greatness is measured not by the country’s economic and scientific achievements, but by its ability to dominate and destabilize its neighbors. 

Russia is paying the price for its aggression – as it must.  The sanctions are biting, capital flight is increasing, and Russians’ standard of living is declining.  But we cannot expect an immediate turnaround.  As we saw in the Balkans, it is easier to stoke up the fires of nationalism than to calm them back down.  And Putin’s regime is firmly entrenched, assisted by a powerful propaganda machine that feeds paranoia and xenophobia, and by the suppression of dissent. 

Even though government budgets are being cut by 10%, the Russian military build-up is set to continue.  In 2015 we can expect more Russian pressure against its neighbors and a continued hostile stance against NATO. 

As far as NATO is concerned, we have no option but to respond, and to protect ourselves.  That is why, at our Summit in Wales last September, NATO’s leaders agreed on a Readiness Action Plan (or RAP).  It will ensure that our forces can deploy quickly to deal with any challenge.  It will increase the number, size and complexity of our exercises.  And it will enable rapid reinforcements should they be needed, facilitated by forward-based command and control and logistics units on the territory of our Eastern allies. 

This is the most significant boost to our collective defense in decades.  It will significantly enhance our ability to defend our populations against threats from both the East and the South.  But let me stress that the RAP is purely defensive.  Our goal is stability, not competition, with Russia or with anyone else.  We are only doing what we need to do to defend ourselves and deter anyone who might wish to challenge us. 

And because security does not come for free, in Wales our leaders also made a Defense Investment Pledge:  to stop the cuts of the past few decades; to increase defense spending toward meeting the goal of 2% of Gross Domestic Product as our economies grow; and to spend our defense budgets more wisely on the key capabilities we need.

In this new environment, NATO’s security is not an optional extra, or a rain check for some future date.  We must implement the Readiness Action Plan and the Defense Investment Pledge – in full and on time.  Every Ally must assume its share of the collective responsibility.  And I am glad that Norway is responding to the challenge.

With Germany and the Netherlands, Norway is in the lead in establishing the new Interim Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the so-called ‘Spearhead Force’.  This will allow NATO to respond in a matter of days to any attack on NATO territory, and lay the basis for the permanent Spearhead Force that we expect to declare operational at our Warsaw Summit next year.

Norway is also making a significant contribution to our enhanced exercise program, and it has increased its defense spending for 2015.  This is very welcome.  But there is still a long way to go until Norway reaches the 2% target.  With a strong economy, I hope that Norway will set an example for other Allies and commit to reaching that goal.

But in addition to ensuring our collective defense, we must also look beyond our borders.  Another priority at the Wales summit was to increase our support to our eastern neighbors, especially Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, who are the main targets of Russian pressure and interference. 

Let me add that we don’t see our relations with these countries exclusively through the prism of our relations with Moscow.  They are independent countries with internationally recognized borders, who are entitled to pursue their own path.  In recent elections, all three countries have chosen leaders and parties that advocate Euro-Atlantic integration – not Russia’s Eurasian Union. 

The more stable they are, the more secure we are.  So helping Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – to strengthen their military forces, reform their institutions and modernize their economies – is not an act of generosity; it is in our fundamental strategic interest.

NATO is doing its part.  To help Ukraine to modernize and reform its armed forces, we have launched five Trust Funds to assist in areas like command and control, logistics, cyber defense and military medicine.  We are sending more advisors to Kyiv and will be carrying out exercises with Ukraine’s armed forces.  And we are helping Moldova and Georgia to strengthen their defense capacity in similar ways and, in Georgia’s case, to help it prepare for future membership in the Alliance.

But this defense assistance, like economic support, is only one side of the coin.  These countries have to keep their commitments to fight corruption, take hard economic decisions, reach out to their minorities, and build efficient, transparent institutions.  Only with these reforms can our help be effective.

Let me conclude by addressing the most difficult question:  What should be our approach towards Russia?

First and foremost, before we can re-engage with Russia, Moscow must de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.  It must stop sending weapons and supplies to the rebels in the Donbass, it must pull its own soldiers and advisors out of Eastern Ukraine, and it must work constructively to implement the provisions of the Minsk accords – in full, not selectively.  The Russian-backed offensive by the separatists over the weekend makes a diplomatic solution more difficult, but it is still the best way out.

Looking beyond the immediate crisis in Eastern Ukraine, we must continue to make it clear to Russia that it cannot have the benefits of integration without respecting the rules.  It cannot select the rules it wants to obey and ignore the others.  And it cannot impose on the rest of us a new European security order based either on its own rules, or no rules at all. 

In the longer run, our strategy has to be one of patience and consistency.  Russia expects us to give up the sanctions and go back to business as usual, without changing its own conduct.  That is basically what we did after the war in Georgia in 2008.  But this time around, having chosen our course, we must stick to it.  We must stay united, stay firm and increase the costs to Russia of its aggression.  Over time, Russia will see that it is in its own best interests to return to a policy of cooperation – but only if we show it that we take our principles seriously.

We have all woken up to a new security reality here in Europe.  We have shown that we are ready to counter and contain a revisionist Russia.  And we can continue doing that for a long time if we have to – not because we like it, but because we will not compromise on the rules and principles on which our Alliance and the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area rest. 

We do not seek confrontation with Russia.  And neither are we looking for regime change.  What we do want is for Moscow to change its behavior; to abide by the very good rules that Russia itself once subscribed to; and to return to the spirit of cooperation that has brought all our nations more freedom, prosperity and opportunities than ever before.  This may be a long time coming, and will call for strategic patience, but I don’t think we have any alternative.