Remarks by the NATO Deputy Secretary General

Alexander Vershbow at the Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation

  • 23 Jun. 2014
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  • Last updated: 23 Jun. 2014 11:20

President Burkhalter, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to say a few words at the start of this tenth Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation.  This conference has become NATO’s largest regular outreach activity.  It is a global forum for frank and open dialogue on non-proliferation and disarmament and a unique networking opportunity.

Mr. President, let me thank you and your colleagues from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs for your warm hospitality and for your hard work in organising our meeting.  And let me also thank you – ladies and gentlemen – for finding the time in your busy schedules to travel to this beautiful part of the world to take part in our conference.

The truly splendid setting for our meeting cannot disguise the fact that this is a critical time for the security of all our nations. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine these past few months has been a stark reminder that seemingly local events can have wider regional and even global consequences. And I appreciate that you, as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, have been making significant efforts to bring a peaceful solution to this crisis. Any solution must respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as each country’s freedom of choice, which is a fundamental principle of European security as enshrined in the Charter of Paris and many other agreements. 

At the start of this year, we were in a very different place. NATO and Russia were discussing a joint escort operation for the US ship Cape Ray as part of the mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons.  As recently as the last week of February, a NATO delegation represented the NATO-Russia Council at a special planning meeting to prepare that operation.  But not even two days later, violence broke out in Crimea.  And almost overnight, Russia’s actions plunged our relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

NATO’s long-term aspiration remains the same – a true strategic partnership with Russia.  But as long as Russia favours confrontation over cooperation, we are forced to put that aspiration on hold.  Russia’s violations of its international obligations have made it impossible to conduct business as usual.

In the face of Russia’s aggression, we have already bolstered our collective defence.  We are developing a Readiness Action Plan in time for our next NATO Summit in Wales in September, as part of our efforts to strengthen NATO’s defence capabilities.  And be in no doubt: we will do whatever is necessary to protect our territories and our people.

Two years ago, at our last NATO Summit in Chicago, NATO leaders endorsed the Review of NATO’s Deterrence and Defence Posture.  This was the result of one-and-a-half years of thorough discussion – among Allies and with outside experts.  We looked at how conventional, nuclear and missile defence forces interact.  We looked at the role of arms control and disarmament.   And we concluded that existing arms control and disarmament agreements  “have not yet fully achieved their objectives, and the world continues to face proliferation crises, force concentration problems, and lack of transparency.”

The Deterrence and Defence Posture Review anticipated some of our current security dilemmas in relation to the Ukraine crisis remarkably well.  We have seen the collapse of the Budapest Memorandum, Russian snap exercises of surprising size and speed, the appearance of soldiers without markings, and the kidnapping of OSCE observers who were supposed to guarantee at least a degree of transparency. 

One of the issues that we have sought to discuss with Russia was transparency on short-range nuclear weapons. We felt that the vast asymmetry in numbers between Russia and NATO would make negotiations about their reduction or eventual elimination difficult and protracted.  But we also felt that transparency measures would serve a most useful purpose: to enhance our security by building trust.  Regretfully, that trust is now at a new low.

I do not believe we are entering a new Cold War, as some observers suggest.  Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, NATO sought engagement with the Soviet Union.  And perhaps we need to revisit some of the approaches that we developed during that period.  Even if some of our interests during the Cold War were irreconcilable, we managed to make progress in other areas.  And we concluded some far-reaching arms control agreements.  Such an approach – pragmatic, and without overblown expectations – might be the right way forward again now.  It is certainly an interesting topic for you to discuss.

Meanwhile, of course, other, serious challenges remain, and you will also have those on your agenda.  North Korea has been escalating its rhetoric and its threats to new levels.  We have seen some progress in the nuclear talks with Iran, but doubts remain about the prospects for a true breakthrough that addresses fundamental security concerns.  Next week is the UN Security Council deadline for the destruction of the most dangerous substances in Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.  While these substances may soon be removed from Syria, the destruction deadline is not likely to be met.

Of course it is one thing to declare intentions and it is another thing to translate them into lasting success, as we see with Syria and Iran.  But it is even more challenging to make progress where there is no trust.  And this is the situation we are in with North Korea.  The only way our nations can move forward is by continuing to work to increase Pyongyang’s confidence in our motives, our objectives and our actions, and to demonstrate that, far from being exhausted, international diplomatic and political efforts can still produce concrete, positive results.

When it comes to WMD arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, NATO is not one of the most visible players.  But the Alliance does offer a unique forum for informal, off-the-record consultations among officials and experts from Allies, partners, and other nations and organisations.  I believe it is highly significant that neutral Switzerland is the first of our NATO partner countries to host this annual conference, and that so many nations and organisations are represented here today.

You have a full agenda ahead of you, and many distinguished speakers.  And there are a wide range of interesting issues for you to discuss.  What confidence can other countries have in security assurances after Russia’s flagrant breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum?  How can we make sure that the current Russia-Ukraine crisis doesn’t totally eclipse the global non-proliferation agenda?  And is there scope for strengthening NATO’s role in this area as we respond to the crisis and prepare for our next Summit in Wales?

Those are just some of the questions that sprung to my mind when I prepared for this meeting.  I have no doubt that everyone in this expert audience will have his or her own questions, answers and observations.  And I would encourage you all to speak freely.  The goal of our conference is not to arrive at any unanimous positions, but to achieve a fuller and better understanding of each other’s opinions.

This is a year of many anniversaries.  It is the 65th anniversary of NATO.  The 20th anniversary of our Partnership for Peace.  And the tenth anniversary of this conference.  But it is also the centennial of World War One.  And this anniversary should remind us all of the disastrous consequences of ill-conceived military escalation, and the true horror of chemical weapons.

We have one big advantage over our forefathers a hundred years ago.  We have effective multinational institutions, like the United Nations and NATO.  And we have a variety of frameworks for trustful dialogue and consultation – some big, some small, some formal and some less formal.  This conference is a perfect example.  It offers us all a unique opportunity to shape the global non-proliferation and disarmament agendas, and to take them forward.  So let us seize that opportunity.