NATO: From Wales to Warsaw

Keynote Speech by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the 2BS (‘To Be Secure’) Conference, Budva, Montenegro

  • 06 May. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 06 May. 2016 12:10

Thank you for that kind introduction.  It is always a pleasure to be in Montenegro, especially in such a beautiful town as Budva.  And it is a particular honour to be here this year, as Montenegro marks a decade since regaining its independence, and as it moves to strengthen that independence by taking the final steps toward NATO membership.   

Membership of NATO is a privilege.  It is also a responsibility – a responsibility to the billion people who live within the 28 nations of the Alliance:  to protect them from harm and to defend them from whatever threats they – we – may face.  This has been the rationale of the NATO Alliance since its inception almost seven decades ago, and it remains so today as we face the most challenging security environment we have seen for a very long time.

Today, the Alliance does not face just one major challenge, as we did during the Cold War, but two.  To our south, we see violent extremism, weak and failing states, which have caused instability and chaos across the Middle East and North Africa, and produced mass migration and acts of terrorism; and to our east, an increasingly aggressive Russia seeks to dominate other nations and recreate a divided Europe based on spheres of influence.  I want to speak about both of these challenges – and how NATO is responding – before I speak a little about Montenegro itself.

Defying the hopes of the Arab Spring five years ago, President Assad declared war on his own people, and the world watched as Syria began its long descent into civil war.  The war created a vacuum in which the so-called Islamic State – ISIL, or Da’esh – has flourished.  It has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and caused millions to flee their shattered homes and the brutality of ISIL.  While most remain in the countries neighbouring Syria, many have sought shelter on European shores, prompting the greatest refugee and migration crisis on this continent since the Second World War. 

The extreme violence that has become the hallmark of ISIL has horrified the world.  But it has inspired a few misguided individuals to commit horrific acts of terrorism, whether in Paris, Ankara, Brussels or San Bernardino, California.

The international community has risen to the challenge.  Every NATO Ally is taking part in the US-led Coalition to counter and destroy ISIL.   Even though NATO is not in command, the ability of NATO Allies and Partners from Europe and the Middle East to operate together in the coalition is thanks to years of joint operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

When it comes to the refugee crisis, national governments and the European Union are in the lead, but NATO is assisting.  Ships from NATO’s Standing Maritime Group are in the Aegean Sea helping the EU’s Frontex and the Greek and Turkish coast guards to stop illegal trafficking and to save lives. 

NATO’s most significant role in the south, however, is in helping to tackle the root causes of instability in the region.  NATO is working with our partners, from Jordan and Iraq, to Morocco and Tunisia, helping them to strengthen their own security, to better deter and defend against attack, and to become more resilient to internal disruption.  We are building the capacity of Jordan and training Iraqi officers.  We will soon begin advising Tunisia on counter-terrorism and building the capacity of its special forces.  And we stand ready to help Libya build its security institutions if requested by the new government of national accord.

I hope that, at the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw, the Alliance will commit to an even more ambitious Defence Capacity Building program for our southern neighbourhood.  By projecting stability in this way, we can prevent conflict and avoid the need to deploy military forces.

While the world is watching Syria and the crises to our south, we must continue to address the serious challenge posed by an aggressive and revanchist Russia.  Since the founding of NATO in 1949, the extraordinary success of the Euro-Atlantic area – in terms of both safeguarding freedom and democracy and spreading prosperity – has been based on respect for international law and for the principles laid down in the Helsinki Final Act:  sovereignty, territorial integrity, sanctity of borders, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.  Russia undermined these fundamental principles the moment its troops took Crimea by force. 

With the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea and the subsequent violent destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine, Russia effectively tore up the international rule book.  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.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine are part of a pattern of disturbing behaviour.  It has massively increased its defence spending, expanding and modernising its armed forces.  It holds vast, no-notice ‘snap’ exercises, such as the one it used as cover for the taking of Crimea.  It uses rhetoric and propaganda, and funds right-wing fringe parties in an attempt to destabilise its neighbours and undermine the solidarity of the Alliance.   And it tries to pressure other nations, whether NATO Allies or neutral countries, approaching and sometimes crossing our borders with its ships and its planes. 

The response of the international community has been firm.  The European Union and the United States have led the way in imposing sanctions and travel bans, and in excluding Russia from the G8.  NATO has also responded.  Allies will never recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea and we continue to call on all parties, including Russia, to fully comply with the Minsk agreements and end the Russian-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine.  Until then, we have suspended all practical cooperation between NATO and Russia, even as we keep channels for political dialogue open. 

NATO has also responded by implementing the largest increase in our collective defence since the Cold War.  The Readiness Action Plan, agreed at our Summit in Wales in 2014, increased the size of the NATO Response Force to more than 40,000 troops, with a Spearhead Force that can be ready to deploy within 48 hours.  We opened a series of headquarters across the east of our Alliance to coordinate training, exercises and, if necessary, reinforcements.

But we now need to go further.  Whether it is ‘Little Green Men’ or conventional forces, we need to be able to deter any Russian incursion into the eastern countries of our Alliance.  That is why NATO Defence Ministers agreed in principle earlier this year to enhance our forward presence in the east on a multinational and rotational basis.  In a welcome move, the United States has announced that it intends to quadruple its commitment to European security next year under the European Reassurance Initiative – with more troops on continuous rotation in Europe, more training and exercises, and more pre-positioned equipment on European soil.  This will represent a huge contribution to NATO’s enhanced forward presence, and I hope it will encourage European Allies to do their part in bolstering our deterrent posture by the time of the Warsaw Summit.

Russia should know that if it tries to attack a NATO Ally, whether its methods are ambiguous or direct, it will meet a swift response from Allies from across Europe and North America – and that it would soon regret such action.

Everything that NATO and NATO Allies are doing in response to Russia’s aggressive actions is defensive, proportionate and in line with our international commitments, including the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  We do not want a new Cold War.  We want Russia to return to compliance with international law and respect the sovereignty of its neighbours.  But until it does, there can be no return to business as usual. 

As we increase our strength and bolster our deterrence, we remain open for dialogue with Russia.  Dialogue is essential if we are to manage a difficult relationship.  I believe we can have an effective dialogue with Russia in an atmosphere of mutual respect.  We disagree on many things, but that is all the more reason for us to communicate openly and often.  Dialogue is also important to convey our resolve and to press Russia to conduct its military activities in a more transparent and less provocative manner.  We will maintain our dialogue, but we will not compromise our principles.  That was the message we conveyed at the NATO-Russia Council meeting last month. 

Over the last quarter of a century, membership of NATO has grown substantially, as more and more countries have sought to join our Alliance.  NATO enlargement has done for Europe’s East what NATO did almost 70 years ago for Europe’s West.  NATO’s formation in 1949 created the strong foundation for security, democracy and economic prosperity in Western Europe, keeping the peace during the Cold War and creating the conditions for European integration.  NATO’s multinational approach to security has enabled countries to overcome historic rivalries and work together to reach common goals.

Membership in NATO has enabled countries to pool their resources, to greatly enhance the defence bang that they receive for their tax-payers’ buck.  It allows members to join up their forces, intelligence and expertise, making everyone safer.  And on top of that, membership gives every member an equal voice and an equal say in the decisions taken by the Alliance, as every decision is taken on the basis of consensus.  In short, NATO is a sovereignty multiplier, making countries stronger and more secure.

Euro-Atlantic integration is the key to stability here in the Balkans.  But when I say that, I don’t mean that it’s necessary for every country to seek membership of NATO.  We respect the views of Serbia and other countries in Europe that have chosen not to pursue membership, countries such as Austria, Sweden and Finland.  Nonetheless, we have robust partnerships with all of those countries, including a robust Partnership Action Plan with Serbia.  Neutral countries like Serbia now play an important role in international peacekeeping operations, and we appreciate Serbia’s contribution to the UN Missions in Cyprus and Lebanon, and to the EU missions in Africa. 

Ten years ago, Montenegro finally regained its independence.  This country knows just how vulnerable that independence can be.  NATO membership will underpin that independence and enhance it.  Becoming the 29th member of NATO will ensure Montenegro’s long-term stability, sovereignty and security.  It gives Montenegro a seat at the table and the ability to shape NATO policy. 

And in that atmosphere of security, Montenegro will be able to more effectively press ahead with its domestic reforms, including the fight against corruption and organised crime, and to strengthen the rule of law and press freedom.  We at NATO will continue to help our friends in Montenegro explain what we are, what we do, and what membership will mean for the Montenegrin people.  Here in Montenegro, we talk with people from across the political spectrum, including with the opponents of NATO membership, in the spirit of openness and transparency, and we are happy to continue that conversation.

Later this month, NATO Foreign Ministers are due to sign Montenegro’s Accession Protocol.  Montenegro will then become an ‘invitee’ and will be able to attend almost all NATO meetings, including the Warsaw Summit, as an observer.  Every NATO Ally must then ratify the Protocol in their national parliaments in order for it to become a full member.  That will not be the end of Montenegro’s journey, but the beginning of a new, secure, European chapter in its long and noble history. 

We face many challenges from many different places.  If we stand alone and isolated, the forces of oppression and chaos could destroy us.  But if we stand together, through NATO, united in our values and in our determination to protect them, then we can weather any storm – today as 28 Allies, and soon as 29.