21st Century Deterrence

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the Snow Meeting in Trakai, Lithuania

  • 15 Jan. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 28 Apr. 2016 08:48

(As prepared for delivery)

It’s great to be back in Trakai – and to have some real snowy weather for this year’s Snow Meeting.  When I spoke last year, I spoke of the Kremlin’s rejection of the values, principles and structures jointly agreed in Europe after World War II and following the end of the Cold War; of Moscow’s use of military power to undermine the rules-based international system, including the illegal annexation of Crimea.

I spoke of a Russia that no longer wanted to be integrated in a common Euro-Atlantic community, and which sought to prevent other Central and East European nations from seeking closer relations with Europe and the West; a Russia which sought to return to the days of spheres of influence and hegemony over its so-called ‘near abroad’.

And I spoke of Russia’s drive to define itself culturally in opposition to what it portrays as ‘decadent’ Western values, as a smokescreen for the suppression of freedom and civil society at home. 

I’m sad to say that, in the 12 months since, there’s been no improvement.  New and increasingly authoritarian laws have further restricted basic freedoms for Russian civil society.  Russia persists with its efforts to undermine Ukraine politically, economically and militarily. Russia has yet to live up to its part of the Minsk agreements, even though there have been a few lulls in the fighting.  Russia’s aggressive military build-up continues, all justified by a false narrative of Western encirclement and betrayal.  Yalta, not Helsinki, is proclaimed as the touchstone for European security.

And, of course, there’s been a new development. The Russian challenge is not just in Europe. Russia has entered the civil war in Syria, but not as part of the US-led Global Coalition to destroy ISIL, but rather to bolster the position of its ally, President Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, and to establish a new outpost of Russian power on the Eastern Mediterranean.  Together with ISIL’s spread and growing Sunni-Shia tensions, the security situation today is even more volatile and more complex than it was a year ago.  

But in that same year, NATO has not stood still.  The Alliance is better prepared and more ready to deal with the many challenges we face. And we will continue to strengthen our collective defense.

We have moved swiftly to implement the Readiness Action Plan, the largest increase in our military capabilities since the Cold War, agreed at our Summit in Wales in 2014.  The very rapid reaction ‘Spearhead’ force is on track.  We have opened a series of small headquarters across our eastern Allies to help coordinate training and exercises, and to facilitate actual reinforcements should the need arise. 

We have held hundreds of exercises, including NATO’s largest for over a decade, to bolster our interconnectedness and interoperability.  And our work to support our partners in the east, especially Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, has continued, boosting their ability to defend themselves and to carry out essential reforms, complementing the work of the European Union and others.

So that is where we are now.  But, today, let me address where we need to go next, as we prepare for the Warsaw Summit that is now just six months away.  I’d like to focus on something that has always been central to NATO’s strategy for keeping our people safe:  deterrence.  The goal of deterrence hasn’t changed:  it’s about convincing potential adversaries that the costs of any form of attack would be disproportionately high, and that such action would be a serious mistake.  But the security environment has changed, and so strengthening and modernizing NATO’s deterrence posture for the 21st century is, in my view, the most important challenge we must meet between now and Warsaw.

During the Cold War, deterrence involved stationing hundreds of thousands of men and tens of thousands of tanks and heavy weapons on our Eastern borders, as well as, of course, sizable nuclear forces. 

In the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, defense spending fell and armies shrank throughout Europe.  We therefore cannot replicate the deterrence posture that existed during the Cold War, even if we wanted to.  The forces and the budgets necessary to maintain them are simply not there.  And with the challenges to the south of Europe, having large numbers of static forces in one place is not helpful. 

Today, our forces need to be flexible and nimble enough to move quickly to wherever they are needed – be that to face threats to the east of NATO or those on the southern flank of Europe.  As such, our overall strategy must be based on mobility and rapid reinforcement.  When faced by the diverse set of 21st century threats, it is essential that we can react with great speed and great power if we are provoked, wherever that may be.  But it is not enough just to be fleet of foot.

Russia’s integrated anti-aircraft and anti-ship capabilities now cover large swathes of NATO territory.  Russia has stationed large numbers of combat forces on our borders and has demonstrated it can move them with great speed and stealth, as well as use cyber and other hybrid tactics with great skill.  At the same time, Russia has eliminated avenue after avenue of military transparency, deliberately creating insecurity wherever it can.  We therefore need to balance the capacity for rapid reinforcement with a significant degree of forward presence on a rotational basis – along with forward-thinking proposals to restore military transparency and predictability in Euro-Atlantic affairs.  This two-pronged effort is imperative if we are to effectively deter short-warning conventional threats or hybrid attacks while at the same time seeking to avoid accidental conflict.

We have to make it clear that crossing NATO’s borders is not an option, whether one uses tanks or “little green men” without insignias.  There should be no doubt that any such action will be met with immediate resistance, and that it will be resistance meted out not only by local forces, but by European and North American forces too.  We have to make clear that Russia’s nuclear activity and rhetoric have no effect on our resolve.  And we have to remain resolute in our values of openness and honesty.

It is vital that NATO be strong.  But this is not strength for strength’s sake.  It is as a platform for stabilizing and eventually improving our relationship with Russia.  In the 1960s and 70s, it was our strong deterrence that paved the way for détente, for arms control agreements, and for our relatively predictable and stable relationship with the Soviet Union. 

While today’s security situation is different, we need a similar approach.  We need to be strong, we need to be clear, and we need to deter; but we also need to keep channels for dialogue open.  Being strong is the best way to engage in dialogue with Russia aimed at bringing it back to compliance with international law and with Helsinki principles. 

Defense and dialogue, these are parallel tracks.  In the short term, as long as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues and the Minsk agreements have not been fully implemented, there can be no return to business as usual.  But in the face of Russia’s provocative military exercises, including its nuclear forces, and its non-compliance with arms control and transparency agreements, it is in our interest to talk with Russia to try to reduce risks and prevent incidents from getting out of control, and to restore and strengthen the regime for transparency and confidence-building, in particular the OSCE Vienna Document  

Over the longer term, this parallel approach is the best path for getting back to a more constructive relationship with Russia.

In the run-up to July’s Summit in Warsaw, Allies will continue to bolster our defense posture, adapting our Alliance to the realities we face today.  We will build on the Readiness Action Plan.  We will strengthen our resilience against cyber threats and other forms of hybrid warfare.  We will assess our requirements for the pre-positioning of equipment, enablers and combat forces on a rotational basis to ensure we have the right balance between our forward presence and our capacity for rapid reinforcement – especially here in the Baltic region.  We will continue to deepen our military and political cooperation with key partners like Sweden and Finland, who share our values and our security interests. 

And, if necessary, we will make adjustments to our broader deterrence posture across the full spectrum of Alliance capabilities.

We will ensure that everyone is very much aware that we will defend and protect all Allies if attacked.  And by doing so, we will make it far less likely that we will ever need to act.  Prevention is, as ever, worth a pound of cure. 

However, our military preparedness will not have a deterrent effect on groups such as ISIL.  Here, a different form of prevention is needed.  ISIL’s success in attracting more recruits to its cause stems in part from its success on the ground in Iraq and Syria.  We must end that success.  All NATO Allies will continue to work with our Arab partners and other moderate forces in the region to reverse ISIL’s gains in Iraq and Syria as part of the anti-ISIL coalition, while at the same time seeking better solutions to address the root causes of violent extremism.

At the same time, NATO will step up its support to Iraq, Jordan and other key partners in the Middle East and North Africa, to better enable them to defend themselves against destabilizing forces from within and beyond their borders.  NATO is training Iraqi officers in areas such as countering IEDs, demining, cyber defense, and military field medicine. We are working with Tunisian intelligence and the country’s Special Forces to fight terrorism, and we stand ready to support Libya in rebuilding its defense institutions when the situation allows.

We are doing a great deal when it comes to Defense Capacity Building, but we need to do far more if it to have the desired effect.  This will be another major point of discussion at the Warsaw Summit.  We need to commit greater resources to building stability along NATO’s periphery if we are to have a real impact on the ground.

Ladies and gentlemen,

With a modern deterrence strategy that is fit for purpose – one that balances a sufficiently robust forward presence with sizable, fast moving reinforcements; that provides substantial support for our partners to help them defend themselves; and that creates a platform for dialogue with Russia – we can better fulfil our primary task:  protecting the people, territory and values of our Alliance.  We will ensure that freedom, democracy and the rule of law remain strong as we uphold our commitment to a Europe whole, free and at peace.