Ambassador Alexander Vershbow on NATO

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, NATO Deputy Secretary General, discusses NATO and its response to Russian’s recent interventions in Ukraine and Syria with Editor Gideon Rose.

This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

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Gideon Rose: Sandy, thanks for being here.

Amb Vershbow: My pleasure.

Gideon Rose: You've been involved with NATO for many, many decades in many capacities. There were periods in there, even a decade ago, when it wasn't the most exciting organization with the most compelling mission. These days, it seems to be hopping again. What's going on with NATO?

[chuckle]

Amb Vershbow: Well, NATO is a pretty busy place these days. I've been there for almost four years as the Deputy Sec. Gen. And it was kind of dull the first two years but thanks to Russia plus the meltdown of the countries to our south, we have more than enough to do. It kind of recalls for me as more happy period when I first served in NATO in the early '90s when we were dealing with the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Europe and bringing not only central Europe but Russia into our family as partners and eventually some of them became members. Sadly, some of that hasn't worked out as well as we would like and talking about Russia as a partner seems, at best, a very distant proposition.

Gideon Rose: Does NATO have one mission or many and has that mission remained constant over time?

Amb Vershbow: Well the basic mission of NATO has remained constant. That's the collective defense of our members. An attack on one is an attack on all. But we've taken on additional missions over the years. In the '90s, we decided to do crisis management with the interventions in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. We also established this global network of partners where we're trying to kind of export security and stability by helping other countries strengthen their own capacity and become contributors to the international system. All those missions continue but collective defense has gone back to being job number one, thanks to the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Gideon Rose: Now, the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Ukraine was not a member of NATO, is not a member of NATO, and it doesn't have the Article V security guarantee that NATO members have, so why have so many people been so worried that Ukraine will be followed up with some kind of Russian move against an actual NATO member?

Amb Vershbow: Well, unfortunately, for Ukraine, as you said, they don't benefit from the Article V guarantee, and so we've had to put other forms of pressure on Russia to try to impose costs for its aggression, but we have to look at what the Russians did in Ukraine and reckon with at least the possibility, it may be a remote possibility, but it's a real possibility, that they could engage in the sort of hybrid attacks that they used, especially with the annexation of Crimea. So we have to ensure that our members are more resilient, that they're less vulnerable to the sorts of subversion and covert meddling that the Russians carried out in Ukraine and we have to ensure that the Alliance can deliver on the Article V pledge, that we can get forces there to defend them quickly and that's exactly what we've been trying to do since our big summit meeting last September in Wales.

Gideon Rose: So the danger is no longer tanks coming through the Fulda Gap, it's little green men showing up in Estonia or some place like that.

Amb Vershbow: Indeed. I mean it may be a remote possibility. I don't think Russia is looking for a direct conflict with NATO. We don't think the threat of aggression is immediate or imminent, but given the willingness to tear up the international rule book that Putin has displayed in Ukraine and given the fact that he talks about the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, greater than the Holocaust or other minor events like that, we have to at least be prepared for the possibility that our expectations are wrong.

Gideon Rose: How would you describe how NATO has responded to the entire Ukraine crisis?

Amb Vershbow: Well of course, I work for NATO, I would say the response has been just right, but it's a difficult challenge, because Ukraine isn't a member, but they deserve to be respected as a sovereign state, so we've tried to help them, but not to pour oil on the fire. We've provided them some assistance to their defense reforms. We've set up some trust funds to help them improve their capacities, like in command and control, logistics. We're not directly encouraging them to seek a military solution, 'cause there is no military solution.

Gideon Rose: Is time on the side of NATO or its opponents?

Amb Vershbow: I think time is on the side of NATO. I mean, we have work to do to actually deliver on all the pledges we've made to strengthen our defenses, nations need to start spending more on defence. But in an era of globalization, Russia sooner or later are gonna realize that isolation from the International community will leave Russia behind, and they will be, if not on the dustbin of history, at least more and more marginalized in world affairs.

Gideon Rose: So their involvement in a new theater such as Syria is something that they're gonna end up regretting, and it's our job not to get in the way of them screwing up?

Amb Vershbow: Well, I think they may find themselves in over their heads in Syria, but we can't be complacent, I mean they're clearly trying to defeat moderate opposition, they're not countering ISIL, they're not targeting ISIL so far at least. And so, there may be some strengthening of the Assad regime, which seems to be their main agenda. But over time, I think they're gonna find that they're turning the whole Sunni world against Russia by lining up with the Shiite axis, and I think they're gonna find that as casualties begin to mount for their forces, that this may not be such a winner for Russia or for President Putin, personally.

Gideon Rose: You began your career in one Cold War, are you gonna end your career in another Cold War?

Amb Vershbow: Well, it kinda looks that way on the surface, 'cause my career isn't over yet, I do hope that we can come up with an effective response to Russia so that we avoid another Cold War, and there are so many areas where we should be able to cooperate with Russia, and the last 20-25 years show that cooperation is possible. And people forget that we had Russian forces operating under NATO command in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. We've worked together on fighting terrorism and dealing with hijacked aircraft. So, it's not foreordained that we're forever doomed to this sort of tense relationship. But unfortunately, the present leadership in Russia seems to want NATO to be an adversary, I think it's part of their strategy for maintaining control at home, and for exerting hegemony in their neighborhood. So we have to have strategic patience, make clear that partnership is where we'd like to return to, but not by compromising our principles.

Amb Vershbow: Some people have argued that NATO helped provoke the European... The Ukraine Crisis by holding out the prospect of eventual NATO expansion to Ukraine. Peeling off some of core Moscow's clients. Do you buy any of that?

Gideon Rose: Well, I can't deny that the Russians attach special importance to Ukraine and to the other neighbors that were in the Soviet Union, such as Georgia and so they've never liked NATO enlargement, although I would maintain, as I've said when it first started, that ultimately it's good for Russian security to actually have stable neighbors who are part of a collective security and defense system, who don't have border disputes with their neighbors, who are interested in mutually beneficial trade and economic development. Russia however seems to like weak, unstable neighbors. That seems to be their formula for security for Russia, which is simply not an acceptable way to proceed.

Gideon Rose: We're in the midst of yet another presidential campaign in the US right now. You hear in the US discussion of foreign policy, there's always a discussion about, "my opponent did this horrible thing. I'm going to do this great thing." And it's almost a portrayal of this exaggerated change from administration to administration, party to party. You've been around the block several times. You're now deputy secretary general of NATO. Is American Foreign policy and the policy of organizations such as NATO, far more constant overtime than you would get the sense of just reading the politicians statements.

Amb Vershbow: I think basically yes, unfortunately, yes. I've been around since so my first job in the Foreign Service during the Carter Administration so I date myself. I think there have been many transatlantic differences but a kind of commitment to NATO and to European Security has always been a constant from one administration to the next but some problems have been constant as well. The whole burden sharing issue, that's never gonna be maybe solved but it's gotten worst in the last decade. Since 9/11, the proportion of NATO defense spending shouldered by the United States has risen to over 70% of the total and that's just not healthy. While Europeans are beginning to recognize that they can't keep cutting, and a few of them are starting to increase. That burden sharing issue could become a real challenge if we continue to have our own domestic financial and political challenges as well.

Gideon Rose: Is that the biggest takeaway that the Europeans need to understand? They need to up their game to hold up their end of the bargain?

Amb Vershbow: It is, although they've been hearing that for decades and somehow, the problem hasn't gotten better, it's gotten worst, but I always as an optimist think, "this time it will be different."

Gideon Rose: What's the biggest thing that American audiences need to understand that they don't fully appreciate?

Amb Vershbow: I think they understand that even though there maybe these concerns about Europeans are not always pulling their weight, they do a lot for us. That NATO is in some ways a bargain for the United States in terms of the capacity that we can tap into when we have a security problem that we need to solve and to solve on our own would be both too risky and too expensive.

So this is an enormous asset for the United States and as we go into a period of rising threats, rising uncertainty, rising instability every way you look, much better to have allies than not.

Gideon Rose: You mentioned rising threats, rising instability, rising turbulence, that's what the papers are filled with, that's what everybody always says. But you mentioned that you began your career in the Carter Administration, you lived through the Reagan years, you lived through lots of turmoil after and insecurity and uncertainty, do you feel like the world is more dangerous and threatening now than it was back then or that we're still dramatically more secure now than we were, just a few short decades ago?

Amb Vershbow: Well, my instinctive answer is that it is more dangerous, I just can't recall threats of this scale and proportion during my career and I've been a student of Soviet Affairs over the years. So I kind of, not through direct experience, but through my studies, know what it was like and I think not since... These started with the time that Stalin was still alive, was the relationship quite unpredictable as it is now with Russia. And Brezhnev, once he consolidated power in particular, it became status quo power, the whole Helsinki final act was something Russia would want desperately to basically freeze the results of World War II. Now we're doing a leadership that is ready to overturn status quo, who wants to revise the whole post cold car war settlement and even some of the principles of the post World War II settlement. So that for me is very formidable, when you add that to this Islamic State and all the other terrorist movements and the weakness of the states around us, the authoritarians may have fallen, but democracy has not taken its place with only a few notable exceptions.

So it is a much more dangerous neighborhood for Europe and continued US leadership and engagement is indispensable for them to get a handle on it.

Gideon Rose: A not an entirely reassuring talk. [chuckle] Ambassador Sandy Vershbow, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, thank you very much.

Amb Vershbow: You're welcome.

 

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