by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria Conference on Black Sea Security, Sofia, Bulgaria

  • 22 Apr. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 22 Apr. 2016 11:01

Good morning, everyone.

May I first of all thank the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria for organising this event – and inviting me to speak. Congratulations on this, your 25th year. Your efforts in providing a forum for dialogue and discussion are very important – both in communicating what the Alliance is, and does, to the world at large, and in helping to shape our thinking.

I want also to acknowledge the contribution of Solomon Passy to NATO in Bulgaria and the region as a whole. Solomon, your tireless work in support of the Alliance and transatlantic security is well known. Thank you for all that you have done – and all you continue to do.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today’s conference addresses an issue of great importance to this country and the Alliance as a whole. The significance of the Black Sea region – as a NATO frontier, as a crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as the site of several so-called ‘frozen conflicts’, and as a source and transit route for energy – means that what happens here is a key concern for NATO. As the Wales Summit declaration rightly acknowledged, stability in the Black Sea region is ‘an important component of Euro-Atlantic security’.

In contributing to your discussions today, I want to outline NATO’s robust approach to Black Sea security. And in doing so, I will explore how the Alliance assesses the current strategic landscape; what NATO is doing to respond; and what more we can and should do.

Let me first of all say that NATO takes a 360-degree approach to deterring threats and, if necessary, defending Allies. Our situational awareness is comprehensive – alert to all potential threats from all directions – and our capacity to respond is the same. Experience has taught us that we cannot allow them to be anything less. 

In that context, we face a more complex array of challenges than we have for decades. International terrorism, hybrid warfare, threats to energy security, cyber attacks. These are issues which we know we must tackle urgently and robustly.

Significantly, we face strategic threats from two different directions at the same time. On the one hand, a more aggressive Russia is challenging international law and the sovereignty of its neighbours, with its illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, instability and violence on our southern doorstep risks spilling over into Allied territory in the form of terrorism and uncontrolled migration. Because of Bulgaria’s location at the intersection of these two threats, I know they are of great concern. Indeed, the Alliance benefits greatly from your insight and experience.

NATO is very alert to these dangers, and we are responding accordingly. That was the rationale behind the design and implementation of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan, adopted at the Wales Summit two years ago. It includes tripling the size of our NATO Response Force, which now numbers more than 40,000 troops, with a Spearhead Force able to move within days. We have also set up a chain of small headquarters – including here in Sofia – to support planning, training and, if needed, reinforcements.

And we are taking further steps. In February of this year, NATO defence ministers agreed in principle that an increased capacity for rapid reinforcement is important, but it is not enough. They concluded that we also need an enhanced forward presence in the east of the Alliance: a presence that will be multinational and rotational; a presence that will make it plain that crossing NATO’s borders is not an option, whether it’s with tanks or with ‘Little Green Men’, and that any such action will be countered by Allies from across Europe and North America.

At the same time, in an extremely welcome move, the United States has announced that it will enhance its own military presence in Europe in support of the Alliance. The U.S. is planning to quadruple its European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion in 2017, a very significant boost for European security. This will mean more troops, more exercises and more forward-positioned equipment and infrastructure. This provides a foundation on which, I hope, European Allies will build to generate a truly multinational forward presence along NATO’s eastern flank.

Looking to the South, the tide of violence and instability along our southern borders – including the rise of terrorist groups like ISIL, and a refugee and migrant crisis of a scale not seen since World War II – also demands a response. We have already said that we will increase the presence of AWACS early warning aircraft over Turkey, and we will intensify intelli-gence, surveillance and reconnaissance along Turkey’s border with Syria.

We are also stepping up efforts to “project stability” across the region as a whole. We will do this by expanding our efforts to build greater defence capacity – training, advising and assisting local forces so that they are better able to secure their own countries and, where appropriate, to support or train others. This is something we are already doing for countries like Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia. We are also stepping up our work with regional partners such as the Gulf Cooperation Council – and exploring how we could work together on issues like counter-terrorism, maritime security and missile defence.

Both of these challenges - a more assertive Russia, and instability in the Middle East and North Africa – will be very high on the agenda at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July. In Warsaw, the Alliance will be making decisions which further strengthen our collective defence and deterrence. That will include, for example, defining the scope, scale and composition of the enhanced forward presence on our Eastern flank, especially in the countries most exposed to direct military threat. It will include ensuring that our nuclear deterrent is both credible and fit for purpose. I also expect Allies to take steps to address challenges such as hybrid warfare and cyber attacks, and to restate NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan.

That’s the overall strategic picture and how we are responding. But we are not taking anything for granted. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Russian actions are, of course, of paramount concern. The illegal annexation of Crimea, coupled with a major militarisation on the occupied peninsula – including the modernisation and enlargement of the Black Sea fleet – have gravely destabilised the security landscape. At the same time, the Kremlin’s underhanded involvement in the wider region – including in ‘frozen’ conflicts in NATO’s partner countries Georgia and Moldova – threatens to prolong instability indefinitely. 

Of particular concern is Russia’s basing of ‘anti-access and area denial’ – or A2AD – capabilities in Crimea. A2AD refers to the potential use of anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons to impede the movement of NATO forces to reinforce Allied territory, if required, and is something we are devoting much effort to understand and counter.

Another significant concern is energy. By its annexation of Crimea, Russia has seized control of essential energy infrastructure – including two billion cubic metres of Ukrainian natural gas storage – and access to subsea hydrocarbon resources in the Black Sea, potentially worth trillions of dollars. This has dealt a severe blow to Ukraine’s ambitions to become energy independent, and it has weakened the energy security of several other Black Sea states. The truth is that all NATO Allies have a stake in the Black Sea being a region in which energy can be freely developed and transported.

I have presented a rather bleak picture. How should the Alliance respond?

We have already implemented a series of assurance measures for our eastern Allies, which also have an important deterrent effect. These include AWACS surveillance flights, and the intensification of NATO maritime patrols in the Black Sea itself. And as part of the European Reassurance Initiative, the US plans to expand its exercises and training with NATO Allies and partners, and to augment prepositioned equipment – including in both Bulgaria and Romania. 

The US Marine Corps Black Sea Rotational Force, meanwhile, will maintain its presence close to Constanta in Romania – presenting an excellent opportunity for local and American forces to train together, and learn from each other. The basing of the AEGIS Ashore missile defence system in Romania also contributes to overall regional security and stability. (It does not, by the way, pose any threat to Russia, but is designed to help protect European Allies from ballistic missiles fired from the Middle East.)

Importantly, we continue to take a coherent and comprehensive approach to the security of the Alliance. Russia’s strategy in the Black Sea is part of a global effort to assert itself – an effort which stretches from the high Arctic to the deserts of Syria, and which threatens to challenge Alliance unity, as well as our territorial integrity. Our approach to deterrence and defence must be equally broad far-reaching. To limit ourselves to a series of regional responses would arguably play into Russia’s hands.

As part of that comprehensive approach, NATO continues to provide support to our partners in the region – in particular, Ukraine and Georgia, both of whom continue to face significant pressure from Russia. The Alliance is engaged with both countries through a series of partnership instruments, and we are helping, where we can, to bolster their political independence and territorial integrity. For example, we are working closely with the Ukrainian military to strengthen maritime and airspace security. As part of a wide range of measures included in the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package, we are supporting better coordination between the Georgian Ministries of Interior and Defence in order to strengthen the capacity of the Georgian Coast Guard.

We will continue to counter Russia’s false communications narrative, part of which claims that it is NATO, and not Russia, that is to blame for military escalation in the region. At the same time, as open societies we must resist efforts to divide and weaken us through the use of propaganda. Our message is clear and we will keep saying it: NATO is a defensive alliance. We do not seek confrontation with Russia, nor do we seek a new Cold War. 

But we cannot allow Russia to simply dismiss the principles on which the European security system was founded. To do so would betray our values, and only encourage Russia to risk further aggression. Our response therefore has two key elements: to strengthen our defence and deterrence; and to seek to engage in dialogue with Russia with a view to demonstrating that we are united and resolute, but determined to reduce the risk of conflict through transparency and predictability. That combination of strength and dialogue is the best way, I believe, to bring Russia back into compliance with the Helsinki principles and with international law.

That is what NATO is already doing to respond the strategic picture – but clearly the seriousness of the security situation requires us to look at new ways of maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Key to this, of course, is the commitment of Allies to meet the Defence Investment Pledge they made in Wales: to stop the cuts in defence budgets and gradually increase defence spending to the NATO goal of two percent of GDP within a decade. And, in this regard, I welcome the recent announcement by the Bulgarian government that it will spend more than 2 billion leva to increase and modernise this country’s air and naval assets.

Along with spending more money on defence, Allies need to ensure the highest levels of ‘interoperability’: the ability of their militaries to cooperate against common threats. Interoperability is an essential consideration for governments buying new equipment and military platforms. Cooperation between Allies – especially between our Black Sea Allies Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and involving the United States, will be key to the security challenges we face.

That cooperative approach applies, equally, to the way we anticipate threats. The Alliance is good at sharing intelligence and situational awareness – but, of course, we can do better. The further deployment of Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance capabilities, for example, would help us to see threats coming sooner – and so help us regain the strategic initiative.

We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region – with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities – a presence which is robust, certainly, but also defensive in posture, non-permanent, and in compliance with the Montreux Convention, which regulates and limits the transit of non-Black Sea state warships through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

As an Alliance, we also need to get better at thinking about energy – and how it impacts the strategic landscape. This is a capability I’m pleased to say we are already developing, but there is more to do. We need to anticipate risks, and build resilience into our energy systems. In that regard, better interconnectedness of natural gas networks in south-eastern Europe would be a great boon. The gas interconnector planned between Greece and Bulgaria, for example, would improve the security of energy imports, and reduce dependence on Russian supplies.

The final thing we must do is maintain our strong and open societies through our commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Ultimately, it is our principles, not our military might, that make our societies strong and resilient. And it is those principles which are the surest guarantee we have that, in any confrontation with militarism and adventurism, we will always win out.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I, and my colleagues at NATO, are well aware of the security challenges faced by those in the Black Sea region.

We do not underestimate their complexity, nor the effort that will be required to resolve them.

But the Alliance is resolute in its determination to support NATO Allies and partners, and to work for long-term peace and stability in the region.

Looking forward to the Warsaw Summit, we will continue to explore all avenues to achieve that goal – including bolstering our defensive military posture and presence.

It is essential, above all, that we invest in our collective defence now – Allies, and the Alliance, together – and I urge this country, along with all NATO member states, to do exactly that.

Thank you for your attention – I look forward to your questions.