NATO stands with Ukraine

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Kyiv Security Forum, Kyiv, Ukraine

  • 14 Apr. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 18 Apr. 2016 17:06

(As prepared)

2014 was a year of crisis for Ukraine, and for European security.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the first time that a European country had taken part of another by force since World War II, and Russia continues to violently destabilise Eastern Ukraine.  Today, I’d like to talk about what NATO is doing in response to Russia’s aggression; and how we are trying to support Ukraine’s reforms and strengthen its sovereignty and independence.

Forty years ago, the Helsinki Final Act set out the principles for better relations between East and West:  respect for the sovereignty of nations, the inviolability of borders, and a commitment to settle differences through peaceful means.  These are principles that have underpinned peace and security in Europe ever since – principles which the USSR and, later, the Russian Federation swore to uphold; principles which Russia has now summarily dismissed.

We will never accept Russia’s military occupation of Crimea.  Russia’s attempts to justify its illegal annexation are based on legal sophistry and a willful distortion of the facts, all aimed at denying what is obvious to most of the world’s nations:  a violation of international law and of Russia’s solemn obligations to respect the sovereignty and post-1991 borders of an independent Ukraine. 

Russia’s aggression was not a total surprise, given what happened in Georgia in 2008.  We’ve known for some time that, for the Kremlin, sovereignty is only for the strong, and definitely not for Russia’s former Soviet neighbours.  As we heard at last year’s UN General Assembly, Yalta, not Helsinki, is now seen as the model for European security.  That can never be our vision.

The effects of Russia’s occupation of Crimea have been disastrous.  The economy has suffered terribly and the cost of living has soared.  Crimean Tatars and other minorities are being persecuted, as are those who oppose the annexation.  And despite Russia’s past complaints about discrimination based on language, Ukrainian-language schools have been closed. 

And the conditions in Russian-occupied areas of Eastern Ukraine are even worse, with crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption, and flagrant violations of human rights by the separatist leaders Moscow has installed.

The people of free Ukraine have chosen a different path, aimed at building an open, prosperous and pluralistic society based on European values.  Russian aggression has made Ukraine even more determined to strengthen its distinct national identity, and to consolidate its position as a modern European state. 

But internally, the people of Ukraine still suffer from a weak state and an often corrupt system of governance.  Indeed, it is remarkable that Ukraine has done as well as it has.  Going forward, failure is not an option, but success is far from assured.

Two years after the start of Russia’s aggression, I believe there is a real window of opportunity to make progress.  But that progress relies on the Ukrainian government – and authorities at all levels and in all sectors – not only embracing the idea of reform, but actually delivering the fruits of reform:  a comprehensive reform package as is outlined in Ukraine’s Annual National Programme with NATO, which includes reform of its defence forces and of its democratic institutions, but also reform to tackle corruption and strengthen the rule of law.  All of this is essential for the future of Ukraine. 

NATO has been helping Ukraine from the beginning of the crisis, and indeed, long before that.  NATO stands by Ukraine and its right to be an independent, sovereign nation.  We back this political support with practical assistance through an advisory mission in Kyiv supporting comprehensive reform of the security and defence sector, as well as five Trust Funds that we agreed at our Summit in Wales in 2014.  The Trust Funds support Ukraine in areas like command and control, cyber defence, logistics, and military medical rehabilitation – all of them key areas of defence reform, and all of them essential to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.

Ukraine’s leaders have stated that they are committed to meeting NATO standards for their defence forces – including democratic civilian control – and to reaching full interoperability with Allied forces by 2020.  Why does this matter?

After two years of conflict, the defence forces of Ukraine have learned the hard way what it means to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.  With the indispensable support of Ukraine’s activist civil society, they have defended the country against aggression.

To maintain Euro-Atlantic stability, and to promote Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration, the NATO Allies have sent advisors to work directly with a wide range of Ukrainian institutions.  Our aim is to help make Ukraine more stable and more capable of defending itself.

Our advisors provide direct assistance on practical issues, and strategic advice on broad reforms that can contribute to the building of modern, efficient and democratic defence forces – forces that will be in a position to guarantee Ukraine's sovereignty and contribute to stability.  What is needed now is the enduring political commitment – the determination – to push these reforms through, even in the face of stiff internal resistance.

For Ukraine to succeed, we need to be frank with one another and talk openly about the problems Allies face when working with Ukraine.  Opposition to reforms, as well as corruption and inertia, lie deep within the current system.  There are entrenched vested interests, and an ingrained Soviet mentality, that continue to work against real change.  Defence reform is a case in point – which is why clear leadership is required from the highest political levels, as well as from the Ministry of Defence, in driving the defence reform process, with the Armed Forces playing a supporting role.

Adopting NATO standards is not just a technical exercise.  Rather, it is about a fundamental change in people’s mind-set, and in the way that institutions act and interact.  Our advisers are helping Ukraine to spell out such a change in the Strategic Defence Bulletin, Ukraine’s roadmap for defence reform. 

Civilian control of the armed forces and democratic oversight of the security and defence sector are essential, interconnected principles shared by all NATO Allies. These are principles that Ukraine needs to embed irreversibly in its own institutional set-up.

Looking beyond the defence sector, NATO is also enhancing its support for the reforms underway in the Ministry of the Interior and its agencies, and within the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).  Security and defence reform requires a holistic approach that encompasses all branches of government.

In this regard, it is also essential to increase the capacity of Parliament and of civil society. The Ukrainian volunteer movement was essential to the defence of Ukraine during its darkest days.  Now, as the defence forces gather strength through reforms, the Rada and civil society should focus on the exercise of oversight and control, to ensure the effective transformation of the military and the effective use of taxpayer money.  That is why NATO is boosting its support to the Rada and to civil society.

Ukraine’s leaders have set an ambitious course towards Euro-Atlantic values and standards; they must now deliver.  But so must we.  Allies will continue to support Ukraine, through NATO and bilaterally.  And we will further improve our own coordination to make the most of the resources we have available for Ukraine.

Peace and security in Ukraine depend on the actions of Ukraine, the support of the international community and, of course, the behaviour of Russia.  Russia continues to provide active support for the illegal insurgency in Eastern Ukraine – with military equipment, training and financial resources, and with the direct involvement of Russian troops and commanders.  Its efforts to camouflage these troops as “volunteers” and “vacationers,” and to suppress information about casualties, are laughable.  And the effects of their presence are all too clear: over ten thousand people killed and over a million displaced, with hellish conditions for those who remain. 

Most importantly, Russia and its proxies are still not living up to their side of the Minsk agreements on the ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, or removal of foreign forces.  Half measures will not do.  Minsk must be implemented in full.  Strengthened security is needed in parallel with the fulfilment of the political aspects of the Minsk agreements. 

Until Russia implements its obligations under Minsk – and that includes the release of Nadia Savchenko and other prisoners – sanctions and other pressure on Moscow must be maintained.  NATO will reiterate its insistence on full implementation of the Minsk Agreements when the NATO-Russia Council convenes next week. 

Of course, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have implications for the security of the NATO Alliance.  Since 2014, we have seen a substantial increase in Russian activities around NATO borders, with ships, planes and submarines venturing close to and occasionally across our borders, snap exercises, and cyber-attacks.  Russia is also engaged in an ongoing propaganda campaign, stirring up inter-ethnic tensions, and funding populist and extremist parties across Europe, in an attempt to split the Alliance. 

NATO has not stood idly by.  In the two years since our Wales Summit, NATO has undertaken the largest boost to our collective defence since the Cold War, with increased readiness and a capacity to move large numbers of forces to counter any attack.  At the Warsaw Summit in July, we will take further steps to strengthen our deterrence for the long term, including enhancing the forward presence of allied troops along our Eastern flank. 

Allies will not just circle the wagons at Warsaw.  They will also reaffirm their continuing commitment to support the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine by holding a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the level of Heads of State and Government.  We will make clear that we will continue to stand up for the right of all European nations, including Georgia, Moldova and the other independent states that emerged from the former Soviet Union, to choose their security arrangements.

If we allow the strong to dictate to the weak, then our world will return to the balance-of-power politics of the 19th and early 20th century – a time characterised by instability and war.  Our vision for the 21st century should remain just the opposite, that of a Europe whole, free and at peace, in which all sovereign nations – including Ukraine and Russia – can coexist and cooperate for mutual benefit.

The security and independence of Ukraine is vital for Euro-Atlantic security and Ukraine has long been one of NATO’s closest partners.  As we approach the Warsaw Summit, now is the time to make Ukrainian defence forces and Ukrainian democratic institutions truly fit for purpose, in line with NATO standards.  Ukraine has missed many previous windows of opportunity in the last 25 years.  Let us resolve not to miss this one.