Opening remarks

by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Warsaw Security Forum 2015

  • 06 Nov. 2015 -
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  • Last updated: 06 Nov. 2015 11:30

It is a pleasure to be here in Warsaw, just over half a year before our next NATO Summit in this great city.  Our leaders will come together at a time of great uncertainty and great change to review the progress we have made in the two years since our Wales Summit, and to chart a course for the future. 

Before we begin our discussion, I would like to briefly set out the challenges we face, what we have been doing about them so far, and some of the things we will need to do to maintain our security in the years ahead.

In the two and a half decades since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Poland has transformed itself into an open, economically prosperous, democratic nation.  The prospect of joining NATO, followed by actual membership, gave it confidence in its own security.  It is now a proud member of the international community and of the EU, as well as a strong contributor to European and international security.   Poland is no longer living in a “grey zone” or a target of competition among major powers; it is now an anchor of stability and democracy in the heart of Europe.

This has been possible because the countries of Eastern and Western Europe, with active support from the United States, came together after the Cold War, rejecting Cold War animosity and any ancient national rivalries.  Instead, they opted for a better future, based on unity, friendship and shared values within a peaceful security environment. 

But today, that environment is under threat.  For the first time in NATO’s history, we are under pressure on two flanks.  To the south, we see chaos and violence, failed and failing states, and the potential end of the century-old system of Arab states.  Millions have been forced to flee for their lives, seeking safety in distant countries.  Many have come here to Europe, prompting the biggest refugee crisis this continent has experienced since the Second World War. 

And to the east, a newly assertive Russia is throwing its military muscle around in an attempt to get its own way and re-establish hegemony over its neighbours, undermining the foundations of the post-War and post-Cold War order.  This is our new strategic reality.

But these challenges are not going unanswered.  NATO has stepped up.  Allies have stepped up.  We are demonstrating once again that our strength lies in our unity: unity of purpose and unity of action. 

Last year, at our Wales summit, NATO leaders agreed to reverse the cuts in defence budgets that have been the trend since the Cold War.  Allies committed themselves to increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP within a decade.  There is still a long way to go, but many countries have turned a corner – none more so than Poland, which this year is due to join those Allies that spend 2% of GDP on defence.  This is an act of leadership that gives reassurance not only to all of your European partners, but also to the United States.  It shows that you are serious about your defence and do not simply rely on the support of the US for your security.  It sets a strong example that, we hope, other Allies will follow in the run-up to the Summit in Warsaw.

This political unity, this political will, is just as important as the adaptation of our defence and deterrence posture.  But there has been substantial progress in this area as well. 

The mainstay of our military adaptation is the Readiness Action Plan, the RAP.  Through the RAP, we have more than doubled the size of the NATO Response Force to over 40,000 troops, and our very high readiness Spearhead Force is ready to deploy within a matter of days.  This Spearhead Force is ready to defend any Ally against any threat from any direction.   

We have opened new headquarters across our eastern Allies, including one here in Poland, to help coordinate training and exercises, to support collective defence planning and, if necessary, to aid the rapid deployment of NATO reinforcements. 

NATO is stronger and more agile than it has been for a very long time, as demonstrated through Exercise Trident Juncture across Spain, Portugal and Italy.  This exercise, which is ending today, is NATO’s largest and most complex exercise for over a decade. 

But all of this is just the first part of NATO’s adaptation.  The Warsaw Summit will be a landmark event.  By then, we should have achieved all we set out to do at Wales.  But there will be much more to be done as we look beyond the horizon to the long-term needs of the Alliance.  We need a strategy that will deter any potential adversary from even thinking of attacking us, and one that equips us to counter the full breadth of potential threats for the long term.

The Summit will be a chance to take stock of our relationship with Russia, to see what more we can do to introduce greater predictability and transparency, even if Russia appears more interested in surprising, intimidating, and creating as much instability as possible – be it in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, or now in Syria. 

Russia seeks a return of the Great Game of influence and control over those weaker than itself.  This is not a game we wish to play.  So how do we dissuade Russia from engaging in such tactics – tactics we believe are not only against our interests and those of Russia’s neighbours, but against Russia’s own long-term interests as well?  That is what we must decide at Warsaw.

The RAP is a solid foundation, but we need to build on it if we are going to effectively deter a revanchist Russia.  We need to counter Russia’s ‘anti-access and area denial’ (A2AD) capability, so that we can be confident of always being able to reinforce our Allies.  This has long been a concern in the Baltic Sea region, but since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its latest moves in Syria, it is now also an issue for the Black Sea region and the Eastern Mediterranean.

To address this threat and ensure deterrence for the long term, we need to look at additional pre-positioning of equipment, of enablers and, potentially, the forward stationing of additional combat units on a rotational basis.

But Russia’s tactics go beyond the conventional.  We need to increase our resilience against non-conventional hybrid attacks.  We saw this in Crimea and again in Eastern Ukraine, with a powerful propaganda campaign, the infamous ‘Little Green Men’ and the implausible denials of even the most obvious Russian military presence.  Countering such tactics requires better intelligence sharing, more effective means to counter cyber-attacks, and far closer cooperation with other international organisations, notably the European Union.

NATO will always do whatever it takes to keep our Allies safe.  But in today’s interconnected world, trouble abroad can quickly become trouble at home.  We cannot be an island of stability if we are surrounded by a sea of fire.  If we want our countries to be secure, then we must ensure that our neighbourhood is stable.  That means investing far more than we do now in our partners. 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes.  That is why we are investing heavily in our collective defence – to deter aggression – and it is why we are looking ahead to NATO’s long-term adaptation.  It is also why we must do far more with our partners in our wider neighbourhood:  We must help our eastern neighbours who are under pressure from Russia – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova – to stand their ground and maintain their sovereignty.   And we must help our southern partners to strengthen their defence capabilities, to combat extremism, to destroy the evil that is ISIL, and to calm the explosive atmosphere of North Africa and the Middle East.

Doing this, and doing it properly, will require both political will and significant resources.  This will be one of the most pressing challenges for NATO leaders in the run-up to the summit here in Warsaw.

Ladies and gentlemen:  In the last couple of years, our world has gone from relatively benign to relatively dangerous.  But in the same period, NATO has adapted to make sure we are still able to keep our countries and our people safe.  And this is what we will continue to do in the years ahead. 

I very much look forward to our discussion.