Jens Stoltenberg: replacing NATO with EU defense cooperation impossible

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

PHOTO: Max Rossi / Reuters / Scanpix

The European Union cannot replace NATO not only because 80 percent of allied defense spending will come from outside the union after Brexit, but also for geographical reasons, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg told Postimees in an interview Monday.

At the NATO foreign ministerial meeting two weeks ago, you said NATO needs to be prepared for a world without the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). What does that mean?

It is a serious matter that one of the most important arms control treaties that has remained in effect for decades is in jeopardy. Russia is violating the treaty by deploying its new SSC-8 missile. All allies clearly stated that at the foreign ministerial.

We have given Russia one more chance to return to compliance inside 60 days. If not, the US has made it clear they will withdraw from the INF.

If that happens – the treaty breaks down over the new Russian missiles – we need to respond. Exactly what that response will be is now a discussion in NATO. We will respond in a measured and carefully considered way, and it is too early to say what that reaction will be exactly. Because this is serious.

It is partly about our deterrence and defense posture, but also whether it’s possible to undertake new initiatives in arms control that could help preserve as much of the recent arms control regime as possible.

Because one of the problems with the INF treaty is that it is between Russia and the US. Countries like China, Iran, North Korea are not part of the treaty and are developing intermediate-range weapons that would have been banned by the treaty were they among the signatories. It is also about the challenge of addressing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology.

These new Russian weapons systems are primarily a threat for allies in Western Europe?

These intermediate-range missiles would reach Europe but not the United States. It was a discussion we had in the 1970s and 80s when Russia started development of the SS20 missiles.

The whole idea of having intermediate-range weapons underpins the idea of a kind of limited use of nuclear weapons, which is dangerous as it reduces the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. It aims to delink European security from North American security. That is why the INF treaty was so important. It didn’t just reduce the number of intermediate-range weapons or missiles but in fact banned them altogether.

These missiles are especially dangerous because they are mobile and difficult to detect, there is hardly any warning time – they can reach European cities in minutes – and they reduce the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.

That is why it is so serious Russia is violating the treaty and has been for years and why we’ve given them one more chance to return to compliance.

You mentioned the 70s and 80s and it has been said in other contexts that the threshold for the use of nuclear arms has already been lowered. Do you think your job might be more complicated today than that of your predecessors during the days of the Cold War?

During the days of the Cold War, we had the clear challenge of deterring the Soviet Union. NATO was successful in that for 40 years. We had a lot of tension and confrontations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but it was still a predictable situation the rules of which were well-known in a way.

Today, it’s a more unpredictable world. Partly because we have a lot more threats and challenges. Not just a more assertive Russia in the east, but ISIS terrorism close to our borders and in our cities, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea, Iran, while China is also becoming stronger and stronger. And then we have cyber- and hybrid threats, instability in the Black Sea region, with Russian forces present in Georgia and Ukraine.

There is a high degree on unpredictability which makes the situation more difficult, even though the level of confrontation and troop numbers in Europe have been reduced.

So, resources are stretched compared to the Cold War?

We have to remember that NATO had 16 members during the Cold War and the dividing line between the East and West went straight through Germany. The Baltic countries were not only part of the Warsaw Pact but were in fact a part of the Soviet Union.

We have a different Europe today and the challenge NATO faces is totally different as well. The Warsaw Pact doesn’t exist anymore and nor does the Soviet Union. Seven out of eight former Warsaw Pact members are in NATO (Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, GDU, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union made up the Warsaw Pact – ed.). NATO also has former Soviet republics. It’s a much bigger NATO.

Looking at number of nuclear weapons and combat-ready troops on both sides of the East-West divide, we clearly have fewer nuclear missiles and lower tensions today. Having said that, there is more unpredictability and a more blurred line between peace and war. We have cyberattacks, hybrid activities, meddling in domestic politics. We have seen cyberattacks against Estonia and many other countries.

I think it is dangerous to try and be very specific in terms of predictions for tomorrow. We could not predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 or the Arab Spring. But we had to be prepared for the unforeseen.

We have increased our readiness, we need to be agile and able to react quickly when something unforeseen happens.

Rapid reaction was recently practiced in your homeland in the form of the Trident Juncture exercise (50,000 participants, held in Norway in October-November – ed.). What are the first lessons coming in from there?

The most important lesson was being able to reinforce. That is important for Norway and also for the Baltic countries.

Trident Juncture demonstrated how NATO has adapted since 2014. We have implemented the highest level of reinforcement or collective defense since the end of the Cold War. We certified the high-readiness element of NATO rapid response force, led by Germany, for 2019 as part of Trident Juncture, and we moved tens of thousands of troops, heavy equipment, ammunition across Europe and the Atlantic.

Trident Juncture showed NATO’s strength: that 29 allies, joined by two close partners – Finland and Sweden – can work together and reinforce an ally if needed to prevent conflict. That NATO offers credible deterrence every day.

The purpose of Trident Juncture was to exercise our forces, certify the high-readiness joint task force, but also to send the message that we are capable of reinforcing our allies. It is important for the Baltics and Norway bordering Russia.

It illustrated the importance of military mobility. We are investing in infrastructure. NATO has an infrastructure funding program. The United States are also investing in infrastructure: airfields, harbors, to boost the capacity of moving troops quickly.

We are adapting our command structure with our new command in Ulm, Germany. The task of that command is to plan, exercise and build capacity for quickly moving troops in Europe.

We often did this during major exercises in Western Europe in the days of the Cold War, while we now have to do it all over Europe. It is not something we have been concentrating on for a few decades as NATO turned its attention to expeditionary operations outside of Europe, Afghanistan for example, after the end of the Cold War.

Now, we have increased our focus on collective defense in Europe again. We have a new command in Norfolk [USA] that is responsible for the vital transatlantic link that forms the heart of NATO.

I grew up in Norway during the Cold War. There were no NATO or US troops based there. Exercises were held, but there was no permanent presence. But we still felt safe because we saw how they exercised reinforcement and moving forces into Norway if needed.

NATO deterrence is partly based on the forces we have deployed – battle groups in the Baltic countries and Poland for example – but also on how we can reinforce and quickly strengthen our [troop] presence before there is conflict.

To discourage a potential aggressor?

Exactly. To send a strong signal that we are there to protect.

This is the first time in history we have combat-ready troops in this part of Europe. No one was talking about that possibility before Crimea. It is a direct response to Russian aggression in Crimea and against Ukraine.

The battle groups are multinational and have troops from several allies. The US is also present in the Baltic region. It sends a clear signal of allied unity. If one ally is attacked, the whole alliance will respond, and Trident Juncture demonstrated our ability to move troops and heavy equipment.

Of course, we will learn lessons from Trident Juncture: we need more infrastructure investments, we need more transport and we need to continue to adapt. But I also think it showed the strength of NATO and the big adaptation that has taken place since 2014.

How serious should we be in interpreting the bad news from Trident Juncture? For example, your country losing a valuable high-tech vessel (the HNoMS Helge Ingstad collided with an oil tanker on its way back from the exercise – ed.) or that Russia managed to jam NATO's signals?

It is of course a serious matter for Norway to lose one of its five frigates, but I’m sure they will find a way to address it and make sure they maintain naval capacity.

The Norwegian navy – like all NATO navies – will do whatever they can to prevent these kinds of accidents. Sometimes they happen, which is when we have to learn lessons and avoid such incidents in the future. It is too early to speculate as to why it happened. An investigation has been launched in Norway, and we have to wait for its outcome before drawing any conclusions.

As concerns jamming of GPS signals in Finland, Norway and elsewhere, it is part of a pattern we’ve seen in hybrid activity, attempts to interfere with our political systems, jamming, electronic warfare. All of it is part of the reality that makes it important for NATO to adapt, to strengthen, modernize. Therefore, we are now establishing our cyber operations center in our European headquarters in Mons [Belgium]. We have the cyber center of excellence in Tallinn where Estonia is the lead country, you have a lot of know-how and have hosted the biggest NATO cyberdefense exercise Locked Shields.

The important thing here is that allies are learning from each other. We are helping to develop technology. We have created an allied cyberoffense framework that was used in the fight against ISIS. Cyberoffense capacity was vital in knocking out resources they were using to recruit foreign fighters, raise funds and communicate.

We are strengthening our cyber capabilities and the ability to protect our electronic, communications and command systems against jamming.

One reason for exercises is to learn. We see that allies are now taking it seriously After years of cuts, all allies have started to increase defense spending again. More and more are reaching the 2 percent target (recommended NATO defense spending level of 2 percent of GDP – ed.).

Estonia has been an example – you have been spending 2 percent for several years. I commend Estonia for that. If in 2014, only Estonia and two other countries spent 2 percent on defense, eight allies will spend or are very close to spending 2 percent this year.

We expect that to increase further: most allies have plans to reach the 2 percent spending target by 2024. Allies investing more means more resources to modernize everything from cyber, command, air, naval and ground forces, infrastructure – all that.

The EU seems to be serious about defense ever since 2014. To what extent do you believe these initiatives to be useful? What do you feel when you hear the words “European army”?

This is not about what I feel, it’s about facts and reality. I have always welcomed the European Union’s efforts in defense, meaning the European defense fund, PESCO or EU efforts for military mobility because that will strengthen NATO.

If European allies can develop new capacity, work together, develop new drones, aerial refueling or armored personnel carriers, it benefits both the EU and NATO.

We have to remember that more than 90 percent of EU residents live in a NATO country. We share the same security environment, neighborhood and challenges. By strengthening European NATO allies, we strengthen the European pillar in NATO.

Increased defense funding, addressing the fragmentation of the European defense market, new capabilities, increased interoperability among European allies and increased cooperation with partners, like Sweden or Finland, are all good things. We welcome it.

Finland and Sweden as non-NATO EU members are particularly important for the Baltic countries as they are the closest. They participated in Trident Juncture, we have a host agreement with them, we exercise together, also on the level of Nordic exercises, not just Trident Juncture.

What we need to avoid is anything that would duplicate or compete with NATO. EU efforts should complement, not compete with NATO.

European leaders interpret the words “European army” in different ways. Often an army will be connected to territorial defense and command and control, and that will duplicate NATO. It depends on how it is understood – whether it duplicates or complements NATO.

The EU can never replace or substitute NATO. European unity cannot substitute transatlantic unity. Especially after Brexit, when 80 percent of NATO funding will come from allies outside the EU.

Three of the four battle groups in the Baltic region will be led by non-EU allies: United States, UK and Canada (in Poland, Estonia and Latvia correspondingly, while Germany is in charge of the battle group in Lithuania – ed.). This is partly due to money, but partly due to of geography.

Turkey plays a key role in our fight against ISIS in the south; Norway and Iceland, who are not EU members, are important in association with Russia’s presence in the North Atlantic, their submarines, and to keep the transatlantic link open and secure. Canada, USA and the UK in the west are not important just because of their size, but also location.

If you look at the map, you see that geography makes non-EU NATO allies extremely important for Europe’s security.

So, we must avoid duplication and competition, and as long as we do that, I welcome EU efforts.

Looking at two long-time NATO mission areas – Kosovo (the KFOR mission began in 1999 – ed.) and Afghanistan (the ISAF mission spanned 2003-2014 after which it was replaced with training mission Resolute Support – ed.), is there any hope for the alliance to finally withdraw from one or both?

It is always dangerous to designate an exit point. It makes life much easier for those who want to see you go – knowing that once that date comes, they’ll win.

Which is why I’m glad that NATO allies have decided that our presence in Afghanistan and Kosovo is conditional. We will not stay longer than necessary.

Talking about Afghanistan, the cost of staying is measured not only in money, but also casualties and the political cost of having been there for years. But we need to compare the cost of staying to the cost of leaving. If we leave, we must be prepared for an Afghanistan where the Taliban is back in power that will once more become a platform for international terrorism – Al Qaeda, ISIS.

ISIS wants to reestablish the caliphate they lost in Iraq and Syria in Afghanistan. That would not only be bad for the people of Afghanistan, not least its women, but also for Europe and NATO allies. We have seen the consequences of terrorists having a safe haven in Afghanistan in 9/11. So, the cost of leaving is higher than the cost of staying.

We had to stay in Kosovo as KFOR plays an important role in helping to stabilize the region.

Translation from Estonian language by BNS.

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