by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at The National Library of Romania, Bucharest

  • 26 Apr. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 26 Apr. 2016 14:59

(As prepared)

NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow delivers a speech at the National Library of Romania

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for that welcome.  It is a great pleasure to be back in Romania – a country which, in the 12 years since it joined NATO, has proven itself an extremely steadfast and effective member of the Alliance.

I want to thank your country for everything it does to support transatlantic security and NATO’s longstanding goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace.  Romania’s involvement in NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo; its hosting of key elements of NATO’s missile defence capability; its commitment to meet NATO’s defence spending targets; its influence as an advocate of greater cooperation between NATO and the European Union: these are all important contributions to the Alliance’s overall strength and effectiveness. So, thank you.

Keeping the Alliance strong and effective is as important today as it has ever been.

For almost seven decades, NATO has preserved the peace in Europe – the longest sustained period in its history – and we have extended NATO’s values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law across Central and Eastern Europe, and beyond.

Despite all that the Alliance has achieved, however, there is a lot more to do. The challenges we face today are of such complexity and breadth that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.

Of most concern are the destabilising actions of a more aggressive and unpredictable Russia, and the tide of instability which has swept across the Middle East and North Africa in recent years.  But we are also wrestling with other complex risks and threats – to our cyber security, to our energy supplies, and, in the case of international terrorism, to the safety of the people on our streets. 

Naturally, NATO is doing everything it can to understand these challenges and to respond appropriately. The Alliance takes a 360-degree approach to deterring threats, to protecting its member nations and, if necessary, to defending them.  That is the thinking behind our ‘Readiness Action Plan’ – a series of measures that we agreed at our last Heads of State and Government Summit in Wales in 2014.

These measures include tripling the size of NATO’s Response Force, to more than 40,000 troops, while enabling its Spearhead Force to be ready to deploy within days.  We have also set up a series of small headquarters – including here in Romania – to support planning, training and, if needed, reinforcement. And Romania is doing its part, providing the core of a multinational division headquarters that will contribute to collective defense for the region.

As we develop our understanding of the evolving security environment, our responses develop with it.  In February of this year, NATO defence ministers agreed that an increased capacity for rapid reinforcement is essential, but it's not enough.  They concluded that we also need to enhance our forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.  At the same time, the United States announced plans to quadruple the money it spends on Europe’s defence as part of its ‘European Reassurance Initiative’ – to $3.4 billion next year – and to increase its rotational presence of troops in Europe.  And Romania and other Eastern European Allies are looking at how they can also make a stronger contribution to their own security and to NATO's collective defence. 

As recently as 2013, these were not measures we expected to have to take.  In the years following the Cold War, our relations with Russia became increasingly constructive.  We shared a common interest in forging an integrated, rules-based European security architecture grounded in military restraint and respect for the sovereignty of all independent nations, including those that emerged from the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union.  And we succeeded in cooperating on shared concerns such as stabilising the Western Balkans and Afghanistan, fighting piracy, and countering terrorism.

NATO’s ambitions for a mutually beneficial partnership evaporated the moment Russia launched its aggression against Ukraine – illegally annexing Crimea, and organising a separatist insurgency in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.  By its actions, the Kremlin has torn up the international rule book and gravely undermined the European security order that it first helped to create – including through the Helsinki Final Act, and numerous post-Cold War agreements, such as the Charter of Paris and the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

Russia has engaged in a series of destabilising actions – using propaganda, subversion and cyber attacks – both to undermine the security and stability of Ukraine and to test the readiness and resolve of the NATO Alliance.  It continues to assemble so-called ‘Anti-Access and Area Denial’ capabilities close to our borders – anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons that could hinder the Alliance’s ability to reinforce eastern Allies in an emergency.  That includes, of course, the ongoing militarisation of occupied Crimea and a build-up of other capabilities in and around the Black Sea – which Romania has rightly highlighted as an area of key concern for the Alliance.

NATO is responding in a number of ways. We are intensifying our maritime patrols; exploring the need for increased military training and exercise activity; providing support to partners like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova; and encouraging efforts to strengthen energy security. In this regard, Romania’s efforts to build a gas pipeline to Moldova, for example, will be critical in reducing that country’s energy dependence on Russia.

Disturbingly, Russia has also amplified its nuclear rhetoric and posture, and withdrawn from, or ignored, many of its obligations under existing arms control and transparency agreements.  And it has done all this while falsely portraying NATO as seeking to weaken and encircle Russia, and claiming that Russia's provocative military activities are a response to NATO’s actions.

NATO’s message is clear and consistent: we are a defensive alliance, and we do not seek confrontation with Russia.  A new Cold War is not in anyone’s interests.

But we cannot simply ignore Russia’s actions. To do so would not only betray our own principles and encourage Moscow to risk further aggression against its neighbors.  It would also be an inherently unstable basis for our future relations with Russia and other Eastern neighbours.  Citizens in countries like Ukraine and Georgia will never accept the idea that they should permanently be consigned to what Russian leaders have described as Russia’s sphere of ‘privileged interests.’  In the 21st century, security cannot be based on spheres of influence in which the great powers dictate the choices of their neighbors, and change borders by force. 

The best response to Russia’s behaviour, I believe, is to take a two-track approach, one that combines strength with dialogue.  First of all, we must – and we will – bolster our defence and deterrence, so that Russia or any other potential adversary would not even think of launching aggression against a NATO member.  At the same time, we will continue to engage in dialogue with Russia, with a view to communicating our resolve, restoring military transparency, and thereby reducing the risk of conflict. We did just that when we met with the Russian Ambassador in the NATO-Russia Council last week.

But one thing should be crystal clear: until Russia comes back into compliance with international law, ends its aggression against Ukraine, and fully abides by its obligations under the Minsk accords, we cannot return to any kind of ‘business as usual’.

Looking forward, as an Alliance, in order to bolster our deterrence, we will need to go beyond the measures we agreed at our Summit in Wales two years ago.  In particular, at our next Summit in Warsaw this July, NATO leaders will agree on the scale, scope, and composition of the enhanced forward presence along the Eastern flank of the Alliance – in particular in those countries most exposed to a direct military threat.  That presence will be rotational, multinational and combat-capable.  It will thereby send a clear message to any potential aggressor that, if they violate NATO territory, they will face a strong response from the whole alliance – Americans, Europeans and home defence forces – and pay a disproportionately high price for their actions.

Here in the Black Sea region, Allies need to consider a more persistent, multinational NATO presence, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities.  Such a presence could be robust, but defensive in posture, and consistent with the Montreux Convention.  It could be based on enhanced cooperation among the regional states – Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey – in the air, land and maritime domains, reinforced by other allies and the longstanding presence of US forces in the region.

The Summit will also ensure that our nuclear deterrent is credible and fit for purpose, especially in the face of the increasingly irresponsible nuclear rhetoric by Russia in recent years.  It is important to remember, however, that nuclear weapons will only ever be a last resort for NATO.  Indeed, the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.  But no one should think that nuclear weapons can be used as part of a conventional conflict. Their use would change the nature of any conflict fundamentally and irrevocably.

In Warsaw, we will also take important decisions to address the situation along our southern borders.  Even as we confront the Russian challenge and bolster our deterrence, we face equally daunting security threats from an increasingly unstable Middle East and North Africa – a region where terrorist groups like ISIL have proliferated, where fragile states risk becoming failed states, and where we have witnessed a huge exodus of millions of refugees and migrants.

Here too, NATO cannot simply sit back and hope that these things resolve themselves.  While the Alliance itself is not involved directly in the US-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, all 28 Allies are part of the coalition and NATO contributes in other ways to increase stability and security in our southern neighborhood. 

We are already working closely with several partners in the region to help them to bolster their own security.  We are running defence capacity building projects with Iraq and Jordan – training Iraqi officers, for example, in tackling Improvised Explosive Devices.  We are helping Tunisia improve its special operations forces. And we stand ready to assist Libya in building its defence institutions if requested by the new unity government.

But, in my view, NATO can do much more to ‘project stability’ in North Africa and the Middle East.  I believe we should seek closer cooperation with regional organisations such as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the African Union.  And I hope that other means of boosting our defence capacity building programmes – training, advising, assisting – will get the attention – and the extra resources – they deserve in Warsaw. 

I also believe that we should take our cooperation with the European Union to a new level – including in projecting stability in our common neighbourhood, East and South.  And here I wish to applaud the efforts of the Romanian government in both advocating and facilitating that cooperation.  Our efforts are all the stronger when we work hand-in-hand and side-by-side with the EU.  And there is much to be gained from NATO and the EU working together on issues such as hybrid warfare, cyber defence and civil preparedness.

The final issue I want to address is defence spending. If the Alliance is to secure its own territory while also projecting stability in our neighbourhood, we need far greater investment in defence.  That is why, at Wales two years ago, all Allies committed themselves to halting the cuts in their defence budgets, and gradually increasing their spending to 2% of GDP within a decade. 

Romania, I am pleased to say, is one of sixteen European Allies that spent more in 2015 than they did the year before.  I warmly welcome the agreement between all parliamentary parties here to hit the 2% target by 2017.  And I congratulate the government on its intention to spend more than a quarter of its defence budget this year on major equipment – a greater share than the 20% guideline agreed by Allies.

Our recent assessments show that it will not always be easy to live up to these expectations, even for Romania.  I urge you to continue that overall upward trend, ensuring, at the same time, that the capabilities in which you invest are effective, appropriate for the threats we face, and suitably interoperable – meaning that your military is able to work seamlessly with other NATO Allies against common threats.  Along with spending more money on defence, it is essential that all Allies ensure the highest levels of interoperability.

Before I finish, let me also commend Romania for agreeing to host an Aegis Ashore missile defence system at Deveselu.  NATO remains committed to defend its members against any kind of attack.  Contrary to Moscow’s claims, our ballistic missile defence system is entirely defensive in nature, and is optimised to defend against ballistic missile threats from the Middle East.  The missile defence site at Deveselu – in terms of its capabilities and location – has absolutely no capacity to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent.  This is a question of geography and physics, which Russian rocket scientists understand full well, despite the propaganda that is constantly repeated by Russian officials. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a little over ten weeks until NATO’s leaders gather in Warsaw to discuss the many challenges we face.

The decisions we take there will be crucial to the continuing security of our nations.

I am confident that, together, we will prove ourselves more than capable of delivering a strong response to the many challenges we face, and that NATO has the resolve and the capabilities to face down aggression from wherever it may come – and to project stability well beyond our own borders.

Thank you for listening. I very much look forward to your questions.