by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the OSCE Security Days

  • 03 Oct. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 03 Oct. 2016 15:24

I’m delighted to participate in this timely and important discussion.  Many thanks to OSCE Secretary General Zannier and the German Chairmanship in Office for organizing this event and inviting me to take part. 

There can be no doubt that the security situation across the Euro-Atlantic area has deteriorated markedly since Russia illegally annexed Crimea and launched its ongoing aggression against Eastern Ukraine two years ago.

As a consequence, we urgently need to make progress in the areas of military transparency, risk reduction and confidence-building.  I encourage the OSCE and others who are interested in peace and security in Europe – including NGOs and think-tanks – to continue their efforts to strengthen all the tools in the political-military tool-box.  This is essential to prevent incidents or misunderstandings from spiraling out of control, and to restore a modicum of stability and predictability to our region.

The OSCE remains the most appropriate, most inclusive forum available for discussing and resolving a host of political and military issues that currently confront the broader Euro-Atlantic area.  Making more extensive use of OSCE as a venue for negotiations would also help to restore trust and rebuild confidence among all 57 OSCE members.

That’s why I am delighted to be here, in one of my final appearances as Deputy Secretary General of NATO, addressing these consequential topics at this OSCE Security Days conference.  And I am pleased to share the stage with Ambassador Grushko, my main Russian interlocutor (and sometimes sparring partner) in Brussels.

Needless to say, NATO’s relations with Russia were high on NATO’s Warsaw Summit agenda this past July.  The Summit took important decisions to strengthen NATO’s deterrence posture and reaffirmed NATO’s two-track approach to Russia:  stronger defense on the one hand, and dialogue on the other.

It’s important to note here that everything NATO is doing to protect our countries is defensive, proportionate, and in line with our international commitments, including the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  In fact, we did not consider these steps necessary in the two decades after the end of the Cold War.  But they are now absolutely essential.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO Allies worked constructively with Russia to build an inclusive Euro-Atlantic security system.  That continues to be NATO’s goal. However, it seems clear that Russia no longer shares that goal.  

To help reduce tensions and the risk of conflict, we have continued our dialogue with Russia, including two meetings this year of the NATO-Russia Council.  At both NRC meetings, Allies restated our principled position regarding Ukraine.  But we have also put transparency and risk reduction high on the agenda, pressing the Russians to come back into full compliance with existing agreements and to agree to even stronger measures, such as modernizing the OSCE Vienna Document.

While the Russians’ response has not been very forthcoming, at the NRC meeting in July, Russia presented several proposals, including on the use of transponders over the Baltic Sea, which may suggest a more constructive approach.  We have asked Russia for more details on their proposal, while making clear that discussions should be broader than just aviation safety in the Baltic Sea, and should include all the ways we can improve risk reduction and military transparency across the Euro-Atlantic area.

We expect to have further discussions on this subject at another NRC meeting in the coming weeks.  We are also coordinating with Finland and Sweden.  They have been part of the Baltic Sea Project Team, along with Russia and other littoral states, which has generated several practical ideas for reducing the risk of incidents between civilian and military aircraft.

Other mechanisms, mostly bilateral, exist to manage potential incidents between military planes and ships, such as the US-Russia Incidents at Sea Agreement.  Agreements like these could be updated to deal with contemporary threats.  The U.S.-Russian de-confliction agreement in Syria has helped avoid incidents between Russian and coalition aircraft, and could serve as a template for other states.  (Had such an agreement been in effect between Turkey and Russia, it might have averted the downing of a Russian fighter that violated Turkish airspace last November.)

All this being said, we need to recognize that technical solutions will only get you so far.  The dangerous buzzing of the USS Donald Cook in April and the near-miss of a US maritime patrol aircraft earlier in September involved dangerous airmanship that, from our vantage point, looked deliberate.  These provocative acts could have led to the loss of life and created an escalatory spiral that would have been hard to control.

Similarly, Russia’s now-frequent use of no-notice “snap” inspections, its circumvention of mandatory inspections under the Vienna Document, and its refusal to modernize that agreement suggest that Russia is deliberately creating military tensions and fear among its neighbors, including NATO Allies and non-Allies alike, rather than seeking to promote confidence and predictability.

Let’s be clear.  The central issue today in European security is not transponders, or Incidents at Sea agreements, or military lines of communication, or the Cooperative Airspace Initiative, or air safety, or arms control and CSBMs.  The central issue, in my view, is the conflicting visions of European security.

Simply put, Russia has, in recent years, been seeking to overturn the rules-based European security system that we have worked so hard to build since the end of World War II.  That includes the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Charter of Paris.

It seems that Russia wants to turn the clock backwards to a time when big powers decided the fate of smaller nations; when Europe was divided into spheres of influence instead of the system we know and treasure today – a system based on respect for state sovereignty and the freedom of every state to choose its own security arrangements, free from outside interference or intimidation. 

In Ukraine, Russia has violated international law, the Helsinki Final Act, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.  This is not acceptable.  We have, therefore, repeatedly urged Moscow and its proxies to fully implement the Minsk agreements.  

Given our conflicting visions of European security, we have to be realistic about how much can be achieved through negotiations on arms control and risk reduction measures.  But being realistic is not the same thing as being fatalistic.  

NATO, therefore, will continue to seek meaningful dialogue with Russia and press for a return to the core principles and rules at the heart of our existing Euro-Atlantic security system.  We would like to see an engaged Russia that offers innovative ways to implement the Vienna Document, rather than to circumvent it; a Russia that responds positively to the proposals by various NATO allies to strengthen the Vienna Document; and a Russia that agrees to join a dialogue on rebuilding the conventional arms control regime that respects long-established principles, such as host-nation consent.

Let me sketch out a brief summary of the proposals NATO Allies are backing to modernize the Vienna Document.  We propose:

  • Lowering the thresholds for notification and observation of military exercises.
  • Closing loopholes that allow nations to avoid notification and observation of exercises, including the snap-exercise loophole.
  • Strengthening verification by improving inspections and evaluations and providing additional quotas for all states.
  • Bolstering the mechanism to address concerns about unusual military activities.
  • Enhancing military-to-military lines of communication.
  • And fully elaborating and activating the hazardous incidents notification provision of the Vienna Document.

Implementing steps like these - some of which Russia supported in the past - would move us away from today’s tense relations and toward greater predictability, transparency and stability.  It would help us to better manage what is likely to remain a competitive relationship over the short and medium term.  The OSCE is the right place for this work, and the best time to start is now.

In the long run, Russia needs to re-embrace the post-World War II European security system – built upon the Helsinki Accords, CSBMs and arms control; a system that recognizes the independence and sovereignty of nations and the sanctity of borders; a system that Russia helped to create and has benefitted from; a system that is the best hope for re-establishing peace and security for generations to come.