Vershbow: NATO needs Strategy to Address Threats from the South and the East

Vershbow: NATO needs Strategy to Address Threats from the South and the East
  • By defencematters

On the margins of the Bucharest Meeting, “where nine countries who at one time lived behind the Iron Curtain, joined forces”, NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador, Alexander Vershbow spoke to Defence Matters


Ion M. Ioniță and Octavian Manea


On the margins of the Bucharest Meeting, “where nine countries who at one time lived behind the Iron Curtain, joined forces”, NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador, Alexander Vershbow spoke to Defence Matters. The Ambassador discussed outcomes of the meeting and highlighted central challenges of the upcoming Warsaw Summit as well as the importance of security in the Eastern Flank, the emerging A2/AD challenge, Russian propaganda and the Syrian crisis.


Let me begin by asking you about the conclusion of the Bucharest summit and your point of view on this. What did the Bucharest summit achieve?

I was very honored to have the chance to sit in this meeting. It was a very constructive one and a very important contribution to the preparatory work leading up to the Warsaw summit next year. It was a natural thing that the 9 countries involved, who at one time all lived behind the Iron Curtain, which share a similar perspective on the challenges that we face would join forces to make some recommendations for the summit agenda. But this was not only about the East. This was a declaration that shows that the 9 leaders are very sensitive to the concerns of the other allies and recognize that NATO needs to have a comprehensive strategy that addresses threats from the South and the East. The unity of the Alliance is the most important and most precious element.


Will the Declaration be shared by the whole Alliance?

I can’t speak for the other 19 allies, but I think the statement addresses common themes that all the allies are addressing when they talk about what we need to do at Warsaw. The Declaration is very sensitive to the concerns about the threats from terrorism in the South, instability along our Southern periphery as well as states to the East that are being pressured by Russia. It makes some very concrete recommendations but in ways that I think open up the debate rather than try to settle some of the more delicate issues. But I think it shows the direction that the 9 states want to move in and it is good to have a clear signal from the countries of the Eastern Flank.


Which was the main focus of the meeting? What was the message of the Eastern Flank?

I think one of the themes that I heard from all the countries participating was that the Wales summit was a very important foundation for strengthening our security and our readiness, but that the security situation has become even more difficult since Wales and therefore we need to consider additional measures. So the focus of the discussion and the Declaration identify at least the areas where additional measures will be needed. The Declaration talks about strengthening deterrence, about the possibility of some additional decisions about procedures and structures and forces, it talks about strengthening the presence of allied forces in the East and that can be considered in many different ways. It addresses the need to stabilize the neighborhood,which I think is important for all allies. Last but not least, it makes clear that we face a long-term challenge in the relationship with Russia and that we need to adhere to our principles and to international law in considering our long term relationship with Russia.


Speaking about the security of the Eastern Flank, were any requests for increasing the military presence including through permanent stationed combat troops in this part of Europe?

The discussion today and the statement address this issue in a broader sense, recognizing that there are many different possible ways to strengthen our defenses and deterrence. Some of the allies at the meeting spoke about additional prepositioning of equipment, many were worried about the Russian build-up in Kaliningrad and Crimea and the need to counter that. But I think they are all united in saying that we need to have a strategy for defending all the allies, a strategy that works and that is credible. The more we can show that we can defend every ally the less likely we’ ll have to do it. That is what deterrence is all about.


You have emphasized the need for additional measures. Can you elaborate more on these?

There is a general understanding and this meeting is strengthening that understanding that more needs to be done. NATO has a lot of capability today. People shouldn’t have any anxiety about that. But as we look out over the next decade and face a continuing challenge from a very angry and aggressive Russia we need to consider longer-term measures. We will do this in a common and deliberate way and I think that when we get to Warsaw all allies will be on the same page.


Over the past few weeks and months, in Bratislava at GLOBSEC and in Bucharest at the Aspen Forum, you have been engaged in raising the awareness of the allies about the emerging A2/AD challenge. How do you see the impact of the deployment of access denial capabilities - in Kaliningrad and Crimea – not only for the defense of allies, but also for NATO's ability to reassure and deter?

This is indeed becoming a more central subject of our debates. It is not a new concept. I first learned this magical acronym – A2/AD – when I was at the Pentagon. It was more a focus of US defense policy in the Asia-Pacific against a rising China. Another term that is often used is “bastion defense”. Indeed the Russians are building these very heavily militarized “bastions” in Kaliningrad, in Crimea and now we are watching carefully how far things go in the Eastern Mediterranean too. The very high capability of the Russian forces gives them the capacity to impede the movement of NATO forces, in air and at sea, and it is clearly something that we have to address if we are going to be able to carry out the reinforcement of our Eastern allies. Some of this may involve steps that we take in terms of presence, in terms of additional pre-positioning, some of it may require direct means of countering these Russian capabilities themselves. But it is definitely one of the factors that I think is influencing the debate in favor of steps beyond what we did at the Wales Summit.


We’ve seen the Russian reactions to the measures taken by NATO here and the increased accusations against American capabilities here, specifically the ones in Deveselu base. They emphasize that the missile defense shield is a threat for the Russian strategic capabilities. How do you see these accusations? What is your answer to them?

Russian propaganda is in this case 100% divorced from the facts. The capabilities that are going to be activated in a few months at Deveselu are strictly defensive, they are designed to defend against ballistic missile attacks from outside of Europe, primarily from the South, from the Middle East from countries like Syria and Iran. They have no capability to degrade the Russian strategic deterrent. In this case the Russians seem to think that if they keep repeating the same fallacious argument people will begin to believe them. I want to emphasize that there is no foundation for what the Russians are saying either politically or based on the laws of physics. You would have to be a member of Flat Earth Society to believe that the Russian ballistic missiles targeting the United States - which is what strategic stability is about - that such missiles could be intercepted by the systems deployed in Romania and Poland. It just defies the laws of physics and geography. Even if those systems were miraculously moved thousands of kilometers to the North they still can’t shoot the Russian strategic arsenal because of the qualitative sophistication of the Russian systems. And there are going to be 24 of them. The Russians have thousands of strategic war-heads even under the new START Agreement. In this case the propaganda may be effective, but it has zero foundation. It is important for Romanians to understand that Russia may be making Romania a target of propaganda but there is no justification for making Romania a target for anything else.


How do you see the role of Romania in this new strategic environment after Crimea?
Clearly, Romania is already an important ally. It has been a big contributor to NATO operations, contributes to our standing naval forces. Of course it helps the Alliance as a whole by hosting the shield at Deveselu because the facility will protect all the Southern part of NATO, not just Romania. We start with a good foundation and now with the new challenges that we are facing, Romania is clearly playing a very influential role when developing our response to the Russian threat, in supporting the new Spearhead Force and the other decisions that we took at the Wales summit, in contributing to the assurance measures that are not only building confidence but sending a message to Russia that NATO is serious about its own security.  But especially as a Black Sea state Romania will have a very central role on defining how we deal with this A2/AD problem in the South. As a coastal state Romania may have some additional responsibilities in supporting an effective counter-strategy.


Russia has a strategy to divide the unity of EU or NATO. Does the alliance have a strategy to respond to this challenge?

First of all we are trying to counter the propaganda best we can, although it is tough to fight lies with truth. But at the end of the day the truth usually prevails. So we will continue to set the record straight and try to counter disinformation at least so that our own peoples are not deceived by the Russian propaganda. But the broader political challenge is a continuing one that will be with us all the time. Russia not only uses direct forms of political influence, but supports anti-Western NGOs and even political parties. Its corrupt business practices can create weaknesses or can exploit weaknesses in our societies. So this is not just a NATO responsibility. Each country should be very vigilant and we have to work together whether we are in NATO or the EU to counter this sort of Russian effort to divide us and undermine our confidence and political will. At the end of the day NATO’s unity is its most precious capability above and beyond the planes and the ships that we deploy. I think that today’s meeting was a good demonstration of unity among the 9 Eastern States and I think Russia will be unpleasantly surprised by the Warsaw summit when we will come together with an effective strategy for the future.


The Wales summit was very much about providing reassurance to allies. Beyond Wales going to Warsaw (via Bucharest) there is the expectation that next year's summit will be about deterrence first and foremost. What will be the areas where we should expect additional measures in order to make deterrence more credible? At the end of the day, the reinforcement of the allies depends not only on the availability of rapid reaction forces, but it is also a measure of freedom of movement and logistics. How far can these deterrence measures go having in mind the constraints of the NATO-Russia Founding Act?

As we think about modern deterrence, that I think is a central challenge for the Warsaw summit, we need to look at different aspects of our defense because ultimately deterrence is achieved if the adversary believes you have enough defense capabilities and the political will to use it that the costs of aggression would outweigh any benefits. That means that we do have to consider a range of possibilities and in the near term we are looking at a combination of ensuring that the reinforcement capability is real and can be delivered even in difficult conditions including this A2/AD threat, we need to look at the preposition of some of the key equipment and other war stocks so that when you do reinforce you are ready to run your operations from the very first day, we need to look whether the command and control of the reinforcing capabilities and the follow on forces is robust enough to do the job on short notice, we need to look at the actual boots on the ground which right now we are doing it as rotational deployments. There may be scope for increasing the scale or the nature of those reinforcements but still doing on a rotational basis. I don’t think the paradigm that we adopted in the 1990s about building defense on a strategy reinforcement needs to be revisited. But in a more difficult environment, ensuring reinforcement is more challenging and that is what I think the debate will be about. There are many different alternatives to achieve the same overall effect and that is what we will be discussing in the coming months.


Do you see any role for NATO in the Syrian crisis or in dealing with the migrant crisis that affects the unity of Europe?

In terms of the Syrian conflict at the moment our members are acting in the framework of the US coalition rather than through NATO. The alliance may have additional roles to play in ensuring deterrence of any cross-border aggression against Turkey. Given the Russian intervention there is a higher risk of military incidents, just because you have two military operations with obviously different objectives. But right now no one is suggesting a broader role for NATO. The Alliance may be trying to contribute more to the root causes of the turmoil and instability in the region as part of an increased focus on what we call defense capacity building. That is something that we are working on based on a Wales decision but seeing whether there is scope for expanding it to do more to shore up those states that are still standing on their own two feet to withstand radicalization and withstand the ISIL efforts to create new beach-heads and to deal with regional security problems more effectively on their own. That is also potentially an indirect contribution to the migration crisis. If we can improve conditions and stability on our periphery then the people are less likely to vote with their feet and head towards Europe. A more direct role for NATO in the migrant crisis is not on the agenda today. We do have some capabilities to mobilize the civil-emergency response capacities of the member states but at the moment the European Union is on top of this and no one has proposed a more active role of NATO.


Ambassador Vershbow took up his position in February, 2012 after serving for three years as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.  In that position, he was responsible for coordinating U.S. security and defense policies relating to the nations and international organizations of Europe (including NATO), the Middle East and Africa.

Photo Credit: Adevarul/FP Romania