NATO and current European security challenges

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at a seminar hosted by Folk och Försvar (People and Defence), Stockholm

  • 12 Jun. 2015 -
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  • Last updated: 15 Jun. 2015 08:37

Thank you Lena [Bartholdson, Secretary-General Folk och Försvar] for that kind introduction. 

It is a pleasure to be with you today at the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities.  

This magnificent place connects us to our past; a past that stretches back millennia.  It celebrates some of mankind’s great early civilisations.  The relics in this museum, and the stories that go with them, have inspired generations to achieve remarkable things.

But they are also a stark reminder of the dangers that our modern civilisation faces.  For across Iraq and Syria, the barbarians have returned.  In places like Mosul, Hatra and Palmyra, in addition to murdering people, the terrorists of ISIL are destroying humanity’s heritage on an epic scale. 

Along with weak and failing states in North Africa and the Middle East, this is creating enormous pressure on the south, with millions of displaced people seeking shelter in neighbouring countries and across the Mediterranean in Europe – not to mention the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks on the streets of our own nations.

These are serious issues warranting serious discussion, but they are not the only challenges we face.  Today, I look not to the south, but to the east, to Russia.  Last year, Russia did something that no other European country has done since the Second World War: it took part of another sovereign nation by force. 

With its illegal occupation of Crimea and its ongoing aggression in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is undermining decades of work by the international community to create a Europe whole, free and at peace.  And it is violating the principles of our international rules-based system: respect for borders, the equality of nations, and the settling of disputes by peaceful means.  It is jeopardizing a system that has brought unprecedented peace, security and prosperity to countless millions of people around the world, and threatening to return to the days of spheres influence. 

NATO Allies do not and will not recognise the annexation of Crimea.  We believe that the full implementation of the Minsk agreements represents the best hope for peace in Ukraine, and we continue to urge all parties to do everything in their power to meet their commitments – especially the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons.   

Russia is a full party to the conflict and a signatory of the Minsk agreements.  It therefore carries a special responsibility:   to stop the violence, to withdraw its forces, to halt its arms supplies to the separatists, and to move from confrontation back to cooperation.

This new situation is not what any of us wanted.  For a quarter of a century, since the end of the Cold War, we worked hard to include Russia, not to isolate her.  We wanted a strategic partnership based on mutual interest, on shared values, and on the creation of a brighter future for us all.

To this end, the international community expanded the G7 to become the G8, and invited Russia to become a member of the World Trade Organisation.  At NATO, we gave Russia a position of privileged access and influence unmatched in our history.  We created the NATO-Russia Council and offered to work together on missile defence.  We cooperated in areas such as counter-terrorism and combating piracy off the Horn of Africa, and we worked together to bring peace and stability to the Balkans and Afghanistan.

This cooperation benefited NATO and it benefited Russia.  It brought us a stable Europe and it brought Russians greater security and prosperity than ever before. 

But it appears that Russia has chosen a different path.  I hope that one day we can again be partners with Russia, but that day seems to me to be a very long way off.  President Putin has chosen anti-Western rhetoric and nationalist self-assertion as the basis for his regime.  He has sought to justify Russia’s aggressive actions on the basis of a false narrative of Western encirclement. This will not be easy to change.  So we must stand by our principles and prepare ourselves for the long haul.

At NATO, we are responding to the rising security challenges in the east and the south.   

At our Summit in Wales last year, we reaffirmed our commitment to Article 5 of our founding treaty, which says that an attack on one Ally is an attack on all.  And we agreed to implement the largest increase in our defence posture since the Cold War. 

The centrepiece of the Wales Summit, the Readiness Action Plan (or RAP), has already led to a far more visible military presence in NATO’s eastern Allies, with a larger air policing operation, greater troop numbers on the ground, and an increased maritime presence in the Baltic and Black Seas.  We are setting up local command centres in six eastern Allies and we are doubling the size of our NATO Response Force, with a Spearhead Force able to respond to a crisis in any part of the Alliance at very short notice.

We are keeping NATO strong, because we believe that this is the best way to deter aggression and to protect our Allies against any threat.  But keeping NATO strong is also the best basis on which to engage with Russia and to support our partners – vulnerable partners like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and also strong partners like Sweden.

Sweden is one of NATO’s most active, engaged and effective partners.  Sweden and NATO share the same values, the same commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law and to the United Nations.  And we share the same dedication to building a safer and more secure world.  To this end, Swedish forces have stood side-by-side with NATO troops in NATO-led, UN-mandated operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. 

Time and again, Sweden has demonstrated the effectiveness of its partnership with NATO.  The speed with which Sweden has been able to respond is due to many years of close cooperation and interoperability with NATO forces.

Over time, our dialogue and cooperation have grown, with regular political consultations on common security concerns.  Our militaries work closely together, with Sweden making a significant contribution to training, education and exercises, to the implementation of UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security, and to many other partnership activities.

This closeness was recognised at last year’s NATO Summit, when Sweden became one of the very first nations to receive what we call “Enhanced Opportunity Partner” status.  This is not an attempt at membership by the back door – membership is something separate and it remains a matter for the Swedish government and for the Swedish people alone to decide whether you wish to follow that path. 

But Enhanced Opportunity Partnership is an opportunity for deeper, more significant and more tailored cooperation, both practical and political:  to share intelligence; to consult politically; to develop a shared assessment of the challenges we face; and to consider further joint work to address those challenges.  And it is essential if we are to maintain and strengthen the interoperability of our forces. 

Enhanced Opportunity Partner status also means greater access to exercises, evaluations and training.  Right at this moment, Sweden is taking part in the annual ‘BaltOps’ maritime exercise, the largest exercise in the Baltic Sea this year, including ships from 17 countries.  And in 2018, Sweden and Finland will take part in the High Visibility Exercise in Norway. 

All of these exercises are held with the utmost transparency – you can read the schedule of our planned exercises on NATO’s website – and each is in line with all of our international obligations.

This level and degree of cooperation is essential given the challenge of a newly aggressive Russia.  For Russia is also holding military exercises.  But theirs are different.  Russia uses loopholes in the provisions of the Vienna Document – the agreement that should ensure openness and transparency of exercises – to avoid notifying us of the largest military exercises in the post-Cold War era.

Three of Russia’s no-notice ‘snap’ exercises have included over 80,000 troops.  One such exercise, in February last year, was used to deploy forces to annex Crimea.  Others have masked support to separatists in eastern Ukraine and led to the build-up of forces on Ukraine’s border. 

This is typical of Russia’s hybrid warfare, using all the military and non-military means at its disposal to achieve its objectives.  In Ukraine, it has used proxy soldiers, unmarked special forces, intimidation and propaganda to create confusion and obscure its true purpose, all within a cloak of deniability. 

We must be ready to deal with every aspect of this new reality, and that means working closely with allies and like-minded partners to decide how best to prepare for, deter, and – if necessary – defend against hybrid threats.

A few years ago, Sweden and the Allies enjoyed a benign security environment in the northern region.  But we have to recognise that this has now changed.  Sweden has responded with an increase in its defence budget, by investing in new defence capabilities, and by increasing its cooperation with its northern neighbours, including Allies like Denmark, Norway and the Baltic states.  More interaction with NATO can also increase Sweden’s security. 

Recent Russian behaviour is provocative and destabilising.  It is only by cooperating closely, by sharing our insights, and by being strong and standing up to Russia that we can hope to one day encourage it to return to its rightful place at the international top table.

Sweden, of course, is a member of the European Union, and closer partnership between the EU and NATO is an area long championed by Sweden, and we are grateful for your efforts to bring our two institutions closer together.

These past few years, the relationship between NATO and the European Union has continued to strengthen.  We have held more regular political consultations, including on the situation in Ukraine.  We have cooperated in operations, including in the Western Balkans and the fight against piracy.  And we have worked together to improve our capabilities by encouraging pooling and sharing, and multinational projects.

But given the scope and complexity of the challenges before us, I feel that we must do more, demonstrating even greater unity of purpose.  Especially as we deal with hybrid threats and efforts to destabilise our neighbours.  The countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova all aspire to a European future.  NATO is working with these countries to reform their defence sectors and to build effective armed forces.  And I hope there will be a role too for Sweden to help here, both directly and through complementary activities within the EU framework.

We are also helping those that wish to move towards the possibility of NATO membership.  For instance, by the end of this year, NATO Foreign Ministers will assess Montenegro’s reform progress, with a view to deciding whether to invite the country to join the Alliance.  The European Union is helping these countries too – helping them to stay on the path of democratic reform, to open up their economies and to build effective institutions.

Together, we are helping our eastern neighbours to become stronger and more able to chart their own course.  This is our moral duty and it is also in our own strategic interests.

The same logic applies to our southern neighbours.  By complementing and reinforcing each other’s efforts, NATO and the EU can help them to become stronger, better able to look after their own security, and to project stability in their region.  

There is more that NATO and the EU can do and we are discussing how we might work more closely together in areas such as countering Russian propaganda, defence capacity building, maritime security, and cyber defence. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

The reason Sweden is such a close and long-standing partner of NATO is not simply because we face the same challenges, but because we share the same values.  We are all committed to maintaining a Europe that is peaceful, prosperous and free.  We are all committed to democracy, to human rights and the rule of law.  And we know that we are far more likely to protect all of these things if we work together.

NATO-Sweden cooperation is a win-win situation for us all.  It is a way for Sweden to make a major contribution not just to its own security but also to global peace and stability – in full respect of Sweden’s tradition of non-alignment. 

So I look forward to our continued active engagement in the years ahead.