Our security cannot be taken for granted

Keynote speech by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Jagello Conference, Prague

  • 29 May. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 06 Jun. 2016 10:39

Thank you very much for that kind introduction.

It’s a pleasure to be back in Prague – not just to be able enjoy this beautiful and historic city, but to have the opportunity to reflect on the Czech Republic’s important contributions to the Alliance.

The continuing support this country gives to NATO is valued very highly. Your long involvement in our operations in Afghanistan, your support for the NATO Response Force, the contribution of your highly-skilled pilots and aircrews to our assurance measures, your leading role in the Alliance’s ability to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards – together these are helping to make our Alliance stronger and more effective.

It is no coincidence that NATO’s most senior military officer – General Petr Pavel – is a former Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Czech Republic.

Being in Prague again, I am also reminded of the many achievements of the Prague Summit in 2002 – the so-called “Transformation Summit”. Decisions at that Summit included the invitation to seven countries to begin accession talks – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – talks that resulted in full membership in NATO for these seven countries in 2004.

We also agreed in 2002 to create the NATO Response Force, to enhance our ability to respond to terrorism, to explore the feasibility of a new NATO missile defence capability, and to upgrade cooperation with partner countries in our neighbourhood.

The Alliance today is reaping the benefits of the choices we made that year.

Looking back to the Prague Summit, the other striking thing is how contemporary the themes we discussed 14 years ago feel today: the need for a rapid reaction capability, the threat from terrorism, missile defence, partnerships. These are phrases you are as likely to hear in the North Atlantic Council meetings of 2016 as 2002.    

That reminds us – as this conference’s theme rightly points out – that “our security cannot be taken for granted”. And that is as true for NATO as it is for any nation-state.

The reality is that the North Atlantic Alliance – its health and its strength – is as important as it has ever been. 

NATO has kept the peace in Europe for almost seventy years now. We have helped to extend our common values across Europe and beyond. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

But our job is far from done. The challenges we face today are real and complex, and to ignore them would be to ignore the Alliance’s very reason for existence.

Front and centre, of course, are the troubling actions of a more aggressive and assertive Russia to NATO’s east, and the wave of violence and instability which has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, NATO’s southern flank. But there are other concerns too: cyber-attacks, threats to our energy security, international terrorism, missile proliferation, to name just four.

NATO, as you would expect, is alert to these different threats, and taking steps to respond. Importantly, we are taking an all-round, comprehensive, 360-degree approach both in the way we view the world, and in the way we respond to the threats we see. 

That is the philosophy, for example, which guided the creation of our Readiness Action Plan – a series of comprehensive measures agreed by our leaders at our Summit in Wales in 2014. That plan has resulted, among other things, in the trebling in size of our NATO Response Force (the NRF) – to more than 40,000 troops – the establishment of a Spearhead Force within the NRF capable of reinforcing any ally within 2-3 days, and the creation of a chain of small headquarters in the east of the Alliance.

But that was just the beginning. A few months ago, NATO Defence Ministers agreed on the need to enhance our forward presence in the east, and to take other steps to strengthen our deterrence as key outcomes for our upcoming Summit in Warsaw in July.  That decision came in parallel with the announcement by the United States that it plans to quadruple – to $3.4 billion – what it spends in 2017 on Europe’s defence as part of its ‘European Reassurance Initiative’. (I'll have more to say on enhanced forward presence in a minute.)

Those are the kinds of decisions we would prefer not to need to take. But Russia has forced our hand.

It seems hard to believe today, but the Prague Summit declaration spoke of NATO and Russia working together as equal partners “towards our shared goal of a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe”. The same declaration also spoke of the Alliance’s determination to “intensify and broaden” that cooperation.

For NATO’s part, that long-term ambition remains. But, frankly, the near-term prospects for a meaningful partnership vanished the moment Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and began supporting the separatist insurgency in Eastern Ukraine.

These actions are flagrant violations of international law. They have gravely undermined the post-Cold War European security order that is based on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent states – an order that Russia helped to create, starting with the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act.

At the same time as it has been undermining the security and stability of Ukraine, Russia has used a variety tactics – including propaganda, subversion and cyber-attacks – to test the readiness and resolve of the North Atlantic Alliance itself.

Moscow has amplified its nuclear rhetoric and posture, and shown a disturbing willingness to ignore or evade many of its obligations under arms control and transparency agreements. Russia also continues to assemble anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons close to our borders, a capability which could hamper our ability to reinforce our eastern Allies in an emergency. 

All of these steps have been justified by a deliberate narrative which claims that NATO’s objective, since the end of the Cold War, has been to weaken and encircle Russia.  Clearly, that narrative is false.  NATO is a defensive alliance.  We have tried to engage with Russia since the late 1980s with the goal of forging an inclusive European security system with a prominent place for Russia. 

When NATO decided to admit its first new members following the end of the Cold War, including the Czech Republic, we assured Russia that enlargement was not directed against them, that it would not lead to the deployment of substantial combat forces or nuclear weapons on Russia’s western borders.  And we kept our word.

Let me be clear. We have never sought confrontation with Russia.  We do not seek a new Cold War.  And we do not seek an arms race.  That does not, however, mean that we can ignore Russia’s actions and wait for a fairer wind to blow.  To do so would be to betray our own principles and encourage Moscow to risk further aggressive actions. It would also set dangerous precedents for our relations with Russia and with other Eastern neighbours.

The path NATO has chosen is one of strong deterrence combined with meaningful dialogue. We are ensuring, as ever, that we can respond to any threat – bolstering our defence and deterrence. And that is the rationale behind the decisions we are taking on our enhanced forward presence.

But we will also persist in our efforts to engage Russia in dialogue. That helps us to communicate our determination, to explain the defensive character of our military capabilities, and to improve the transparency of our military operations. It enables us to encourage Moscow to be more transparent and accept measures aimed at reducing the risk of conflict.  That is exactly what we did at our recent meeting of the NATO-Russia Council – and it is what we will do again at the NATO-Russia Council meeting we aim to convene in advance of the Warsaw Summit.

Our message is clear: there cannot be any return to “business as usual” until Russia comes back into compliance with international law. The first step toward that end should be the full implementation of the Minsk agreements – ending the Russian-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, implementing a real ceasefire, withdrawing Russian forces and heavy weapons, and creating conditions for free and fair elections, under Ukrainiain law and OSCE supervision, aimed at re-integrating the occupied portions of the Donbas into Ukraine. 

Political dialogue is even more important at times of tension. At the same time, at the Warsaw Summit, we will agree on the scale, scope, and composition of an enhanced forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance. That presence will be multinational, rotational and combat-ready.  In scale, it will be fully consistent with commitments made under the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  Crucially, it will send an unambiguous message to any would-be aggressor: if you try to violate NATO territory, you will face a strong response from the entire Alliance – and the price you pay will be very high.

The Warsaw Summit will also see us take further important decisions to respond to the situation along our southern borders.  An increasingly unstable Middle East and North Africa – where terrorist groups have thrived, and where fragile states are at risk of failure – is a strategic challenge we cannot ignore. The resulting refugee and migrant crisis – with its knock-on impact on countries like the Czech Republic – is also an important piece of the puzzle.

NATO’s response is comprehensive and multifaceted. Our goal, above all, is to better project stability in our neighbourhood, using all the tools at our disposal.

All the allies are contributing in some way to the US-led Coalition to destroy ISIL, together with many European and Middle Eastern partners.  While that is not a NATO operation, the success of the coalition in integrating Allied and partner forces reflects the interoperability gained through years of NATO-led missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

NATO may contribute directly to the coalition in the future – for example, by providing AWACS support for Coalition air operations in Syria and Iraq. But NATO’s main contribution is likely to be in bolstering the defence capacity of partners in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  We are already working closely with several partners in the region to help them to boost their own security, because their being more stable makes us more secure. We are supporting Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia – for instance, training hundreds of Iraqi officers at a Centre in Amman, Jordan, in countering Improvised Explosive Devices, and we are helping the Tunisians improve their special operations forces.

Following a request from Prime Minister Al-Abadi, we will soon be sending an assessment team to Iraq to explore means of expanding our training and capacity-building efforts into Iraq itself.  Those efforts will seek to complement what the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL is already doing.

On Libya – another source of instability in the region, and a magnet for ISIL and other terrorist groups – we are exploring ways we can help the new Government of National Accord to rebuild its defence and security institutions, if requested and as part of UN-led efforts. Last week, NATO Foreign Ministers also agreed that the Alliance can do more in the Mediterranean Sea, in cooperation with the European Union and others. So we are in the process of converting our Operation Active Endeavour into a broader maritime security operation.

A lot of the partnership tools that we are extending to the Middle East and North Africa were first developed here, in Central and Eastern Europe.  They helped former Warsaw Pact countries transform their militaries and, in the case of 12 nations, become members of the Alliance.  Another key development at last week’s Foreign Ministers’ meeting was the signing of the accession protocol for Montenegro to join the Alliance. The parliaments of all 28 Allies still need to ratify that decision, but I fully expect that we will be able to welcome Montenegro as the 29th member of NATO in the near future.

Montenegro’s accession reaffirms the principles underlying our open-door policy. It is a clear sign that the Alliance remains open to partners who share and promote our values and can contribute to our common security. Membership in NATO for Montenegro will help to bring more stability, security and prosperity to the Western Balkan region.

Another important issue our Foreign Ministers discussed last week is the need for even greater cooperation between NATO and the European Union. Our efforts are all the stronger when we work side-by-side. There is much to be gained from NATO and the EU working together on issues such as hybrid warfare, cyber defence and civil preparedness – and I would urge the Czech Republic, as a member of both NATO and the EU, to continue playing its part in helping us move toward closer cooperation.

Before I conclude my remarks I want, finally, to say something on the issue of defence spending. The security situation the Alliance faces means we cannot afford to be complacent. At Wales two years ago, all NATO Allies committed themselves to halting the cuts in their defence budgets, and gradually increasing their spending to 2% of GDP within a decade. And that pledge is as important today as ever.

I applaud everything that the Czech Republic continues to do in support of our collective defence. Earlier I mentioned your many contributions – to our CBRN capability, Afghanistan, the NATO Response Force. And I want to congratulate you, for example, on the role you play as part of the Visegrad 4 Group. NATO knows as well as any organisation that we are all stronger when we work together. In this regard, I am pleased by the news that the Visegrad-4 will contribute a military unit to NATO's forward presence in the Baltic States.  

But there is more for all NATO members to do. The NATO guideline for defence spending is 2% of GDP. Last year, the Czech Republic spent 0.97%. I know that the trend is now upwards – and that the spending figure is expected to hit 1.4% by 2020 – but I hope you will appreciate that there is a need to do everything you can. The longer any of us waits to invest in defence, the more difficult it is to remedy the capability gaps that still exist and, in some cases, are growing. The plain truth is that NATO is only as strong as the will of Allies to invest in their individual and collective capabilities.

The serious security situation we face obliges us to take steps now to ensure that we are prepared – that we have sufficient manpower; that we have appropriate, modern equipment; that we have sufficient heavy forces; that the training of our aircrews, soldiers and sailors is of the very highest standard; that we heighten our readiness; and that we do everything we can to ensure interoperability between Allies.

We must do these things because we can’t afford not to. Your conference theme says it well: “Our Security Cannot be Taken For Granted”.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Prague Declaration in 2002 spoke of European and North American Allies “united by history and common values” who were “determined and able to defend our territory, populations and forces against all threats and challenges”.

That is as true today as it has ever been.

Six weeks from now our leaders will gather in Warsaw to discuss how best to keep our Alliance safe and strong.

I know that, together, we are more than capable of doing exactly that. We have the ability and the resolve both to defend ourselves, and to project urgently needed stability into our mutual neighbourhood.

We cannot afford to fail. And we will not fail.

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