Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow

at the Kyiv Security Forum (via Skype)

  • 28 May. 2015 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 28 May. 2015 14:16

(As delivered)

Thank you David [Eades, BBC Journalist and moderator] and thank you to the Kyiv Security Forum for inviting me to join such a distinguished array of speakers.  I am only sorry I can’t be with you in person.

Before we get to our conversation, I would like to focus on three things.  On Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and how they form part of a broader pattern of behaviour.  On NATO’s steadfast political and practical support for Ukraine.  And on Ukraine’s need to follow through on its reform programme.

A year and a half ago, Ukrainians took to the streets.  They demanded closer ties with Europe while condemning government corruption and human rights abuses.  But Russian propaganda presented the Maidan protestors as “fascists” engaged in a “coup d’etat.”  This was not only an insult to our intelligence; it was an insult to the memory of those Ukrainians who died defeating the real fascists in World War II.

Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea marked the first time since the Second World War that one European nation took part of another by force. In doing so, Russia has undermined decades of work by the international community to create a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.  NATO will never accept or recognise the annexation of Crimea.   

But of course it didn’t stop there.  By supporting the separatists with weapons – including sophisticated heavy weapons – with soldiers and with training, Russia has helped to bring war to Eastern Ukraine, at the cost of more than 6,000 lives. 

The full implementation of the Minsk agreements represents the best hope for peace, and I urge all parties to do everything in their power to meet their commitments.

As serious as they are, Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine are only one part of a broader picture of destabilising behaviour – behaviour that threatens the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours, in violation of the commitments Russia made in the early 1990s.   

In 2008, after the Russia-Georgia war, Russia recognised the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics and, in an echo of the Berlin Wall, built a security fence between them and the rest of Georgia.  It also still has troops in Moldova that it originally pledged to withdraw in 1999.   

Russia has done everything it could to prevent its western neighbours from following their own path.  It has tried to block Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership, and Moldova’s attempt to move closer to the European Union. 

Russia claims that these countries represent a “zone of privileged interest”.  Essentially, it wants carte blanche with regard to its neighbours.   I had hoped that we had consigned such notions – and their dire consequences – to history.  Alas, that appears not to be the case.

And while NATO Allies go out of our way to bring transparency and predictability to everything we do, Russia seeks the opposite.  It suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.  It restricts overflight under the Open Skies Treaty.  And it uses no-notice ‘Snap’ exercises to disguise the biggest exercises since the Cold War.  Some of these have been used to mask the annexation of Crimea, the support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and the large-scale build up of forces on the Ukrainian border.

Russia has decided to use force – or the threat of force – to achieve its strategic objectives.  This is of serious concern for Ukraine and Russia’s direct neighbours, but also for the rest of the world.  Its actions are undermining the rules-based system that has brought peace and prosperity to so many millions of people these past decades.

NATO has stood firm.  We have reaffirmed our pledge to protect all Allies against any threat.  We are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the Cold War.  We have significantly increased our presence in the east of the Alliance.  And we’re doubling the size of the NATO Response Force.

We are putting NATO into a position of strength. This is the best way to protect our Allies, but also the best basis for engaging with Russia and supporting our partners – partners like Ukraine.

NATO support for Ukraine

NATO has made a sustained effort to make Ukraine stronger, more resilient, and better able to defend itself.

At our NATO Summit in Wales last year, we agreed to create five Trust Funds to support Ukraine in areas like command and control, cyber defence, logistics, and military medical rehabilitation.  Our advisors are working with the Ministry of Defence, the General Staff, the Security Service of Ukraine and others to develop projects under the Trust Funds.  They are looking at what further reforms could make the defence of Ukraine more effective.  We have also reinforced the NATO Liaison Office in Kyiv with extra staff and advisors

I have heard some argue that reforms cannot be implemented during a conflict, but that is not right.  Wartime is the moment when militaries must be at their best.  If reform is needed for Ukraine’s armed forces to be more effective, then reform must happen now.  With the war dragging on, waiting until it is over is not an option.

Any reform will take time, and especially one as large and complex as this one.  But we are encouraged that the Comprehensive Review of Ukraine’s Security and Defence Sector, which started last April, is now drawing to a close.

I would like to commend the National Security and Defence Council for its work in coordinating this effort.  NATO and EU advisors, as well as representatives from all relevant Ukrainian ministries and agencies, have worked closely together on this.  As a result, I believe the new National Security Strategy, the Military Security Strategy and the Concept for the Reform and Development of the Security and Defence Sector will be of great value.

The effectiveness of the security and defence sector in Ukraine should benefit from closer cooperation between the state and society, between the executive and parliament, and between Ukraine and NATO.

Ukraine must reform

At the same time, reform must extend beyond the defence sector.  Political willingness for reform must translate into concrete action at all levels.  And all agreed measures must be fully implemented.

It is only by fighting corruption wherever it exists, by carrying out rigorous economic and financial reforms, and by promoting an open political process – based on democratic values, respect for human rights, minorities and the rule of law – that Ukraine can eventually take its place among the peaceful and prosperous European democracies.  I urge all of you to do all you can to make that happen.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If Ukraine fully embraces reform – political, economic and defence – then, with the support of NATO and the rest of the international community, Ukraine will be able to withstand the ongoing pressure from Russia, and to chart a clear course towards a better future.  Ukraine can count on NATO’s support in these efforts. 

I now look forward to your questions.