Security challenges in the Baltic region in the perspective of the Wales NATO Summit

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at Multinational Corps (North East), Szczecin (Poland)

  • 18 Sep. 2014 -
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  • Last updated: 11 Dec. 2014 10:00

It is a pleasure to be here at the Baltic Barracks to mark 15 years of continued service of the Headquarters of the Multinational Corps North East. 

And thank you, Lieutenant General [Bogusław] Samol [Corps Commander] for inviting me to play a part in today’s proceedings: celebrating the past but also looking ahead to a very different future.

Let me start  by paying tribute to Platoon Sergeant Rafał Celebudzki, who was so tragically killed in Kabul on Tuesday.  I would like to send my condolences to his family and to all those here who counted on him as a colleague and knew him as a friend.

Sergeant Celebudzki served his country for 18 years.  He represented the spirit of NATO, serving in Iraq as part of the NATO Training Mission as well as in Afghanistan.  And he embodied the bravery and the professionalism of all of the Polish armed forces.  I pay tribute to you all.

Fifteen years ago, in March 1999, Poland joined NATO.  In doing so, it exercised a fundamental sovereign right: the right to choose its own security arrangements and its own allies. 

NATO did not ‘take’ Poland.  NATO did not annex Poland.  NATO did not push its way into Poland by force or stealth.  It was Poland that chose NATO. It was Poland that made the reforms necessary to join NATO.  And it was the unanimous decision of the then 16 Allies to welcome Poland, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary, into our Alliance. 

From the day it joined, Poland has been a committed and active member of NATO.  Next year, Poland will spend more than 2% of its GDP on defence.  At our recent NATO Summit in Wales, President Komorowski committed to continue spending at this level.  He also committed Poland to investing not 20%, but 25% of its defence spending in new equipment and capabilities.  And he announced that NATO’s next summit will take place here in Poland in 2016.

This headquarters is yet another demonstration of that strong commitment to defence and to our Alliance.  For the past 15 years, the purpose of this headquarters has been wide-ranging: to support the defence of the Alliance under Article 5; to contribute to crisis management; and to provide command and control for humanitarian operations.  The headquarters’ support to our ISAF mission in Afghanistan is a particular testament to the professionalism and skill of all who have served here. 

But the headquarters’ main purpose has been as a visible NATO presence in the east:  to fly the NATO flag on Polish soil and, alongside your colleagues from Germany and Denmark, to help Poland and other new Allies integrate into NATO in a deeply practical way. 

Today, personnel from thirteen Allies serve here in Szczecin.  At an operational level, you really are one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of our cooperation.  And you have become a widely respected and highly valued part of NATO’s integrated military structure as a result. 

But while headquarters such as this one were always important, they have now become vital.  The reason is Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.

All 28 Allies stand united in our condemnation of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its attempted illegal annexation of Crimea, just as we all stand resolute in our determination to defend every Ally from every threat. 

This is not how we had hoped things would turn out with Russia.  In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, NATO has consistently viewed Russia as a partner for security.  To us, good relations with a democratic Russia made perfect sense.  We share a wide range of common interests, from countering terrorism to fighting piracy.  We have developed a good track record of working together, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Kosovo and Afghanistan.

In 1997, the year that Poland began the formal negotiations that led to NATO membership, NATO and Russian leaders signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations.  It stated clearly how neither saw the other as the enemy.  It cemented our commitment to a “lasting and inclusive peace,” to a vision – back then a shared vision – of a “Europe whole, free and at peace.”

As more and more former Warsaw Pact countries sought NATO membership, we went out of our way to make sure that Russia felt neither intimidated nor threatened.  We unilaterally committed ourselves not to station substantial combat forces or nuclear weapons on the soil of our new members. 

We did not have to make these commitments; but we did, because we no longer saw Russia as the enemy and we wanted Russia to understand that.

Sadly, President Putin has now chosen a different approach.  During his first term as President, he still showed interest in partnership with the West, and in Russia playing its full part in the rules-based international system.  Indeed, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we “upgraded” the NATO-Russia partnership with the signature of the Rome Declaration.  Russia assumed a special place at the table as an equal member of the NATO-Russia Council, and cooperation began to expand. 

Sadly, since Mr. Putin’s return to the Presidency in 2011, the opposite has been true.  For some time now, Russia has presented NATO as the bad guy in a zero-sum game, where any improvement in a neighbour’s security is seen as detrimental to Russia’s security. 

In my view, this has far more to do with Russian domestic politics than with geopolitics.  Ukraine wished to become a part of the West.  It wanted to get closer to the European Union and to take its place among the free, open and prosperous nations of Europe, societies based on genuine democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

As Mr Putin’s regime became increasingly authoritarian, the success of such a democratic alternative, especially from a ‘fraternal’ neighbour such as Ukraine, presented an existential threat to his leadership.  Today, I believe that Russian policy can be most accurately understood through the prism of Mr Putin’s personal determination to defend the monolithic system he has built in Russia by seeking to deny Ukraine the freedom to choose a path to the West.

That is why, when the Ukrainian people opted for change, Mr. Putin acted to thwart it.  And it is why, when President Yanukovych was forced to flee in the wake of the Euro-Maidan protests, he responded by creating the worst security crisis the continent has seen since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s actions in recent months have violated agreement after agreement, and they have trampled on many of the basic tenets of international relations.  Russia has tried to take by force part of a sovereign, independent nation and to destabalise the rest – something we have not seen on this continent for a very long time.

Until recently, Russia did not do this openly.  Instead it relied on covert support for separatists within Ukraine – arming them, financing them, directing them.  But even with thousands of heavily armed Russian soldiers fighting on Ukrainian soil, Mr. Putin claimed that Russia could not agree to a ceasefire as they were not a party to the conflict, and Russian spokesmen said that the hundreds of Russian soldiers returning in coffins were “volunteers” who had been “on vacation” fighting with the separatists.  As a seasoned Russia-watcher, the sheer gall of these statements surprised even me!

It is little surprise then, that the level of trust in Russian words has hit rock bottom.  Disinformation, propaganda and deniability have always played their part in creating the fog of war.  But now they are an essential strategic weapon in Russia’s arsenal and NATO needs to work out how to counter them.

The current crisis is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, thousands of whom have been killed.  And, the tragic downing of the  Malaysian airliner – apparently by a surface-to-air missile launched from rebel-controlled territory – has shown the global consequences of the crisis.

Of course, I welcome the current ceasefire.  I hope that it holds and that it can lead to a genuine and lasting peace.  But for it to last, Russia needs to treat Ukraine as an equal, sovereign state, to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to abide by international rules and practice.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine present a very real threat to the countries of the Alliance.  President Putin has claimed the right to use force to protect Russian minorities and Russian speakers wherever they may be.   NATO needs to adapt to this new strategic reality and defend our Allies against all threats, from wherever they come. 

We have already sent a clear message. And our response is fully in line with our international commitments. We have significantly strengthened our collective defence.  We put more planes in the air, more ships at sea, and more boots on the ground, including here in Poland -- visible assurance measures that will continue for as long as necessary. 

And at our NATO Summit in Wales earlier this month, we agreed the Readiness Action Plan, or RAP. This will ensure that in the years ahead the Alliance can respond even more swiftly and firmly if a crisis arises on our doorstep. The RAP represents the biggest change in NATO’s posture since the end of the Cold War.  It includes a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force – a so-called ‘Spearhead Force’ that will be able to deploy within a matter of days.  This will improve significantly the effectiveness of the NATO Response Force, both as a deterrent and as a fighting force. 

The viability of such a force demands that there are appropriate reception facilities, command and control, logistics and equipment all in place in each of the Eastern allied countries that are on the front lines.  It requires the construction of bases and fuel and ammunition depots that can be used at a moment’s notice.

From now on, there will be a far more visible NATO presence in the East with far more large-scale exercises.  And this is where this Headquarters in Szczecin will have a big role to play.  While the details are still being worked out, this headquarters will play an increasingly important part as a cornerstone of the planning and direction of our collective defence. 

The three Framework nations – Poland, Germany and Denmark – are already planning to increase both personnel and resources to move the headquarters from low readiness to high readiness.  I’m confident that similar additional contributions will be made by other Allies and perhaps also by NATO partners, as we further internationalise the headquarters.

This headquarters will also be a hub for regional cooperation to develop the capabilities of the Alliance, especially command and control and training, as part of the German-led, 10-nation Framework Nation group.  

Now, as Szczecin is a headquarters and not a Corps, we do not envisage  permanently based Battalions or Brigades in these barracks.  I believe this is actually one of the greatest strengths of our plans, because the troops that come here will have been tried and tested in the field, everywhere from Kosovo to Afghanistan.  They will have first-hand experience of working with colleagues from across the Alliance, and that experience will then be enhanced by their time here.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even as tensions build in the east and the mission of this headquarters focuses on collective defence, it would be entirely wrong to assume that we only face a singular threat.  All Allies must always be prepared to protect and defend all other Allies – not just to the east, but also to the south, where the barbarous so-called Islamic State terrorist group is on the march, leaving terror and chaos in its wake.  There is instability and violence across North Africa and the Middle East.  And so while Szczecin will primarily look east, NATO as a whole must retain the agility and flexibility to respond to any threat, using all the tools in our toolbox, including partnerships and capacity building as well as hard power.

Multinational Corps Northeast has a strong record as a low readiness headquarters.  It can be proud of that record.  In years to come, it will, I am certain, have an even greater record as a high readiness headquarters: protecting Poland, protecting Europe, and protecting NATO.