Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s factual involvement in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine has prompted Ukraine and NATO to considerably activate their relations. Resolving the Ukrainian crisis, revitalizing the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and reforming the defense and law-enforcement sectors have been high on the agenda of meetings of North-Atlantic alliance member states’ ambassadors and sessions of the Ukraine-NATO Commission at the level of foreign and defense ministers.
In an exclusive interview with The Day, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander VERSHBOW spoke about these plans in greater detail, including on NATO’s attitude to Poroshenko’s peace plan to settle the crisis and his proposals to draw up a new security treaty, which will give Ukraine real guarantees of security rather than assurances, as was the case with the Budapest Memorandum. Mr. Vershbow represented the North Atlantic alliance at the inauguration of Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko.
“I had the honour of representing NATO at the inauguration, and I was very impressed by the ceremony and by President Poroshenko’s speech. He outlined a very clear agenda, aimed at finding a peaceful solution through dialogue with the East on this conflict. At the same time, he reaffirmed fundamental principles, as well as Ukraine’s European prospects, which we very much respect. I found it to be a positive agenda, and I hope it will be received positively in Moscow. Now it is time for Russia to stop sending illegal weapons and to work with the legitimate president of Ukraine and find a solution that is consistent with Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity.
“Russia has clearly violated the Budapest Memorandum, and one can understand Ukraine’s interest in new guarantees. But I think the first question has to be posed to Moscow – is it prepared to once again comply with the terms of the Budapest Memorandum itself? That would ultimately mean reversing its illegal annexation of Crimea. That is why this may be not something we can envisage happening over night. But certainly, from NATO’s point of view, we will not waiver our position that we do not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and we believe that all nations should live according to, not just that particular document, but by fundamental documents of European security. In Russia’s case, this is the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which requires respecting the sovereignty and integrity of all nations.”
Do you see any sign of Putin trying put the Geneva agreement into effect or other agreements to deescalate and stop illegal weapons to enter Ukraine?
“Right now I cannot say I see any clear indication of a change in course on Russia’s part. There have been some reports today [this interview was recorded on June 7. – Author] about ordering measures regarding the closure of the Russian side of the border with Ukraine. However, at the same time, there were new reports of continuing illegal arms supplies. We will want to see what happens on the ground before taking any statements at face value. But it is a good thing that Russia was represented at the inauguration, that President Putin at least had a short conversation with President Poroshenko the day before this event, and that Western leaders make clear what they expect Russia to do. So, the next few days should be interesting.”
One of the major Allies, France, is going to supply its Mistral to Russia in spite of opposition by the United States and other Allies. President Obama even stated that this deal should be put on hold. Do you think this is the right signal to send Russia at this point in the crisis?
“This is an issue that still is being discussed among the Allies. At the end of the day, these kinds of decisions regarding military sales and military contracts are national decisions. However, at the same time, the Allies do at least take the views of other Allies into account. I think the overall picture within NATO and within the whole Euro-Atlantic Community is one I would characterize as unified in rejecting what Russia has done, both in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, and already taking firm steps with respect to holding Russia accountable through sanctions and by suspending many forms of cooperation.
“We have, of course, suspended all our cooperation within the NATO-Russia framework, and we are united when it comes to our direct response in strengthening our own collective defense. All the Allies are now participating with respect to measures of reassurance and deterrence, which have been occurring on the ground, in the air, and at sea. We are now reviewing our longer-term relationship with Russia. This shall be discussed at the Foreign Ministers meeting, which will take place on June 24-26 and, of course, it will be a major issue for the September Summit. So, I would not overly emphasize one particular issue against this broader picture of a strong and unified response.”
But how can one say that there is unity within NATO when one Ally does not take into account the concerns of its Allies and especially when it does not listen to the words of the Secretary General, who stated in Vilnius that this issue should be looked at in the larger context?
“Well, that is a reflection of the fact that NATO is an Alliance of democracies. We do not dictate what anyone nation must do, even if we happen to hold different views. I think this is a broader question of how we are dealing with Russia in face of this crisis, where you can still see a strong united response and we will see what the French government decides. They still say the final decision will not be taken until October. So, it is not over yet.”
As for me, the other sign that there is a lack of solidarity within NATO is Germany’s decision to not increase defense spending. Germany spends only 1.29 percent GDP on defense, when the requirement agreed upon by the Allies in 2006 is that they should spend 2 percent of GDP, and there are only three countries actually fulfilling this agreement. What can you say about this?
“This has been a serious issue within NATO for many years, even before this crisis and even more recently then 2006. All the Allies agreed that the goal still should be two percent of GDP when it comes to total defense spending. They also have emphasized that, within the defense budgets, spending should be allocated to the right things and that as much as 20 percent should be earmarked for actual equipment and modernization. Some Allies meet those standards but, unfortunately, they are very few.
“That was a major subject of discussion among defense ministers at the meeting last week, and it should be a big issue for the Summit meeting in September. I think there is a growing sense of urgency because not only are some Allies carrying an insufficient share of the burden, but, in comparison with Russia, we see a picture where NATO has cut total spending by about 20 percent in the past five years and Russia has increased spending by 50 percent. Thus, defense spending is not everything. There are many different ways to contribute to security: through participation in operations, through other forms of support to partners like Ukraine, who are facing serious threats. However, in light of the new dangers we see from Russia and the doctrine that it has enunciated in justifying its action against Ukraine, in NATO, we believe that now is the time for the Allies to get more serious about defense spending and we hope to generate some real results through the Summit.”
Yesterday British journalist Edward Lucas published an article, where he criticized the European Reassurance Plan proposed by Obama in Europe. He sees it as demonstrating the Alliance’s weakness rather than strength and argues that it is insufficient to bolster security in Eastern Europe. Can you comment on this?
“I generally respect what Mr. Lucas says, but I think, in this case, he is missing the point. What has been undertaken thus far is just the beginning of a long-term process. I believe the Allies have been very quick to take urgent measures to reinforce our Baltic air-policing mission, and to provide additional forces through exercises in a number of countries in the Eastern part of the Alliance. NATO itself has been deploying AWACS planes over Poland and Romania just at the beginning of this crisis, and now we, 28 Allies, are doing something in support of this Reassurance plan. We will sustain these measures and add additional ones between now and the end of the year. At the Summit, we will take a decision regarding long-term strategy, which could include additional deployment, prepositioning equipment, and accelerating exercises – a combination of measures to provide a long-term answer to the increased threat we see from Russia. So, don’t just look to what happened today, but look at what is coming before you reach your conclusions.”
You mentioned that you did not see any sign of the situation in eastern Ukraine’s de-escalation on Russia’s part. And considering that Putin told French journalists in Sochi that, during times of crisis, he considers his Army and Navy to be Allies, do you not think that NATO may be too late, with a September adoption of its Readiness Action Plan, to stop Putin’s ambitions of subordinating Ukraine?
“No. I do not think NATO is late. I think we are responding very quickly. The United States was very quick in its traditional leadership role within the Alliance and has taken the first steps with respect to the Baltic air policing and exercises across Eastern Europe, and the other Allies quickly followed suit. I think Mr. Putin has great respect for NATO’s overall military capability, which, of course, goes far beyond the specific forces that have been deployed as a part of this Reassurance Plan. We still hold a very strong and effective deterrent, which reflects a mix of conventional forces in the air, at sea and on land. Of course, we have nuclear forces backing us up, and we have missile defenses. At the same time, we have to be more capable, more flexible in responding to threats at short notice. I think that is one thing we are trying to address – both of these immediate measures, but also as we look at the longer term. We should improve the response time of our NATO Response Force (NRF), so that it can be launched and deployed within days rather than weeks because we now recognize Russia’s capacity to mobilize forces very quickly. I think our deterrence is effective but we clearly have to make some adjustments and that would be the focus of discussion and decisions from now until the September Summit.”
Could you please tell us more about the comprehensive package of long-term measures, which is now being developed by NATO to make Ukraine’s reforms more effective and its armed forces stronger?
“I cannot provide too many details. We are working very hard to present some more detailed proposals and programs to Ukraine by the time our foreign ministers meet in two weeks. We have already been very actively engaged with the Ukrainian side through visits by different survey teams reviewing the different aspects of the requirements for Ukraine. The Head of the National Security Defense Council, Mr. Parubii, came to Brussels and participated in a Joint Working group on reform meeting. Thus, we are already continuing some of our long-standing work on defense reform, and helping to strengthen defense institutions. Now we are looking to provide advice on a comprehensive security and defense sector review, which the NSDC is going to be carrying out. We are looking at providing additional support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in such practical areas as logistics, command control and communications, and managing the procurement process. We are also looking to provide support in the area of strategic communications, recognizing that the challenge presented by the current crisis, namely the massive disinformation campaign, is being undertaken from the Russian side. Of course, in addition to what NATO is working on, some of our members also have bilateral relations with Ukraine. My successor, Assistant Secretary of Defense Mr. Chollet, was here not long ago to talk about the additional steps that were recently publicized by President Obama. So, we can expect a sustained and broad effort to support the defense reform and modernization process. That being said, there is no quick fix. There are some very fundamental challenges, which will take time them to overcome. We hope that President Poroshenko’s efforts to promote a political solution, dialogue, and reconciliation will succeed and that further bloodshed can be avoided.”
We know that the United States has already given nonlethal military materials to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. What can you say about the other Allies?
“You should ask each Ally individually. I think that with the recent announcement by the United States, other Allies are likely to join. But I cannot say what nation will do what. It is still too early to say.”
Is it true that the main topic during the Wales Summit will not be Afghanistan, as was originally planned, but Ukraine?
“Yes and no. Of course, Afghanistan was the initial driver for the timing of this Summit. We were about to mark the end of the lengthy ISAF mission and the anticipated transition to the Resolute Support Mission. Both of the candidates in Afghanistan have said that, if elected, they will sign a Security Agreement and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement so we can maintain a follow-on mission. So, we were optimistic about that. But the agenda was always focused more on the future of NATO and a broader agenda for the Alliance, and this is still the case. I think the development of the crisis over Ukraine and Russia’s actions have put all of the different agenda items in a somewhat different perspective. If we look at defense capabilities, six months ago, NATO may have been more focused on deployable forces for future crises management far from Europe, but now we are focusing heavily on collective defense. However, at the same time, NATO cannot become Russo-centric. We have to continue to prepare for potential challenges in the South, to distant areas in South Asia, and perhaps in terms of maritime strategy. We, as the Alliance, still need to have full spectrum capabilities. The other thing that was always part of the agenda was to strengthen our Partnerships, and originally the focus was expanding what we do in the Middle East, North Africa, the Gulf, partners in Asia Pacific region, building more interoperability, and helping Partners to build their own defense capacity. All of those issues were key parts of the Summit agenda, but when we think about defense capacity building, perhaps a little more emphasis will be shifted to Ukraine and some other Eastern neighbours, such as Moldova and Georgia too, but not to the detriment of our engagement with the Middle East and North Africa. NATO must, as Americans say, be capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. We should be able to do more things at the same time.”
Is there a possibility that some countries may join NATO, or at least receive the MAP, at the Wales Summit?
“As you know, there are four countries that officially aspire to membership. In June, our Foreign Ministers will have very serious discussion, reviewing how each of them is doing in terms of meeting the standards and conditions for NATO membership. Thus, at this point I cannot predict exactly what conclusions they will reach or what the outcome in Wales will be. At this point, one cannot exclude that one or more of the candidates might receive an invitation. But I think that even if that does not happen, there would be measures to recognize the progress that has been made, and also to give the contenders for membership additional means to engage with NATO in order to help them meet outstanding requirements and overcome remaining obstacles. So, proactive support is likely to be provided to those who are still not quite ready. What form that will take also needs to be determined. I cannot give more specific details.”
So this will be done at the Ministerial meeting at the end of June, but what will be discussed during the meeting of the North Atlantic Council on June 10?
“On June 10, meetings will be held on Ukraine, both by the North Atlantic Council and the EU’s Political and Security Committee. We held a meeting in early March to demonstrate a united position between NATO and the EU, and also to discuss the different ways that we can support Ukraine. I think this may be even a more practical meeting because with the inauguration of President Poroshenko, I think both NATO and the EU are looking for ways to bolster their support: NATO – in the security and defense sector, and the EU – in some other areas of strength, such as the rule of law and economic reform. Even though NATO and the EU do not have a straightforward institutional relationship, I believe this calls for much more coordination between the two. So, we can help Ukraine, as well as other Eastern Partners, who face a real threat to their sovereignty from Russia.”
During the meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Georgian Minister Irakli Alasania said that he expected that, after the Wales Summit, Georgia would feel safer. Could this also mean that, after that Summit, Ukraine should also be safer?
“I think we certainly want all of our partners to be safer by giving them more opportunities to work with NATO, to benefit from NATO assistance and from NATO support in defense capacity building, as well as from political solidarity.”