29 Mar 2013

Deputy NATO Secretary General Alexander Vershbow: Our primary concern is that Assad regime could use chemicals weapons

Deputy NATO Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, who is visiting Moscow for an informal conference of former U.S. ambassadors to Russia and Russian ambassador to the United States, has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about NATO-Russia cooperation, as well as pressing issues on the international agenda, such as the missile defense issue, North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan.

Question: What is the purpose of your visit to Moscow? What did you discuss here? Maybe it‘s about the preparation of the NATO-Russian Council ministerial meeting or a visit of the Secretary General to Moscow?

Answer: I just arrived last night. So I‘m just beginning my visit. I‘ll be here through Monday. And actually the timing of my visit is related to my past. I‘m here to participate in the informal conference of former ambassadors of the United States to Russia and of Russia to the United States, which will begin on Sunday. I‘ll be there two of the four days of that conference. So I thought this is a good opportunity to come a little early and review Russia‘s agenda reflecting my present responsibilities, and in particular to see whether we can build on the cooperation we have and add some new dimensions to the NATO-Russia partnership. The last few years have seen certain difficulties. Even though I think there are a lot of positive achievements that we can talk about. But especially with the latest United States‘ announcement upon the missile defense we see an opening to reinvigorate the dialog on that issue. So I‘m looking forward to my talks here at the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also the presidential administration to see what new impulse we can give to the relationships.
I expect the Moscow conference in May will come up. At this point the secretary general has not made a decision whether he will be able participate, and of course each of the allies will make its own decision about the level of representation. But regardless of the level of representation we welcome the opportunity to have a dialog on issues of European security, not just missile defense but many other aspects. So I look forward to hear more fr om my Russian interlocutors about the agenda and the goals of the conference.

Q.: Yesterday Russia announced unexpected military drills in the Black Sea region. Was there notice in advance about the exercise and what is your attitude to such unexpected military drills by Russia?

A.: First I would say that exercises, what militaries do, is a part of their normal routine in terms of ensuring that the appropriate level of readiness and that they are able to respond to unexpected crises. NATO of course conducts program of exercises every year. In this case Russia did not notify NATO in advance. According to Russia‘s statements that I‘ve seen the scale of the exercise stands below the thresholds that would require notification. At the same time I think that one of the subjects we would like to talk about with Russia in general and maybe at the Moscow conference in May as well is the question of transparency regarding exercises. NATO views that the more transparency the better. So Russia may not have been required to notify us, but I think in the future it is always beneficial to have predictability in our relationship, have a maximum level of transparency.

Q.: Is there a chance that the U.S. decision to abandon the fourth phase of the European missile defense system will help break the stalemate? Do you think that this will to a certain extent ease Russia‘s concerns?

A.: I do hope that the recent U.S. announcement will give a new impulse to our dialog on this issue. It‘s important to remember that even before the U.S. announcement, Russian concerns about the NATO system really were not consistent with the facts. The system is designed and it will be configured geographically and in terms on capabilities in a way that never would pose any danger to the Russian strategic capability. With the American announcement and the cancellation of the fourth phase, it is absolutely obvious now that there is no threat to the Russian strategic arsenal today or in the future. The system is now focused exclusively on protecting the European part of NATO against short, medium and intermediate range missile and will have no capability against ICBM, including from Iran. The United States is now looking for alternative ways to protect North America against future Iranian ICBMs. I hope that now that the picture is unambiguous that we can get back to the very intensive dialog that we had in 2011 and the first part of 2012 in order to design a cooperative structure, a cooperative architecture that would link NATO‘s missile defense system and Russia‘s, so we could protect both sides‘ territories more effectively. In that respect proposals NATO had made that were expanded in fact at the Chicago summit are still on the table. I‘m pleased that there are some signals that Russia wants to renew the high-level dialog on missile defense, including between the Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense. We look forward also on the NATO side to reinvigorate our missile defense working group, so that we can, as I said, design a cooperative architecture that would protect everybody‘s territory.

Q.: What are the alternative ways of protecting against Iran‘s threat?

A.: Under the terms of the announcement by Secretary [of Defense Chuck] Hagel my understanding that the U.S. will first of all increase the number of interceptors in Alaska to protect against the North Korean threat. The U.S. will also be studying options for other potential sites for missile defense interceptors in North America, which would consider ways to better protect the United States against future Iranian ICBMs. The changes were prompted by the acceleration of the threat from North Korea. I know that the United States was still worried, if we look at the end of the decade and into the next decade about the growing range Iranian missile as well.

Q.: If we talks about North Korea and the Korean peninsula. The situation is getting more and more tense there. North Koreans threaten launch missile attacks at U.S. military bases in South Korea. What is NATO‘s attitude to such threats and the situation in general? May Article 5 of the Washington Treaty be used if North Koreans realize their threats?

A.: Well, as a general matter NATO is not directly engaged in the Asian Pacific region, although we have partners there, whose security we care about, including South Korea and Japan. NATO has on several occasions expressed its concern in official statements regarding provocative behavior by North Korea, including their nuclear tests, their long-range missile tests. I‘m sure that all the members of NATO are greatly concerned about provocative statements and threats. I think it is a hypothetical situation at this point to determine what is going to happen next. Just as we saw on September 11, 2001, if the territory of the United States is attacked that would raise Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Let us hope that this is posturing on the part of North Korea and there will be no actual military hostilities.

Q.: Does NATO member work on contingency plans to prevent chemical weapons in Syrian fall into the hands of terrorists and extremists? Does NATO plan to intervene Syria?

A.: I just want to point you back to statement by our Secretary General, even a couple of days ago, regarding NATO‘s position on Syria. We are not planning any military intervention in Syria, and as the Secretary general explained there are many differences between the situation in Syria and the situation two years ago in Libya. Of course the members of NATO are deeply concerned about the rising violence, the terrible destruction and humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Syria. But our view is that it is still desirable to steer events towards a political solution and orderly transition in Syria. And we support efforts by the international community to that end.
Clearly of this tremendous concern about a possibility that chemical weapons could be used. At this point there is no confirmation of any actual use of chemical weapons by anyone in the conflict. At this point there is no evidence that opposition forces possess chemical weapons. Our primary concern is a possibility that the Assad regime, which does indeed have considerable stockpiles of chemical weapons, could use them against its own people. That would of course be a very significant development if it were to occur. President Obama and Secretary General Rasmussen have indicated that that would cross a red line if they were to use chemical weapons. I think that here Russia and the members of NATO have common interest and I think a common position that is made clear in other certain conflicts that any use of chemical weapons would be unacceptable, would be the violation of Syria‘s obligations under the Geneva Convention. Hopefully, President Assad is listening to what he is hearing not only from his Russian friends but also the members of NATO.

Q.: What is NATO‘s assessment of the armed conflict in Syria? Will it be long or short? What does this depends on? Is it possible that the internal conflict in Syria will proliferate to other countries? Mr. Rasmussen said that the days of Assad‘s regime numbered, what makes NATO think so?

A.: The situation in Syria is of course getting worse and worse every day. I think it‘s worth remembering that this began as a peaceful protest movement against the regime following the early stages of the so-called ‘Arab Spring‘. At the early stages there was an opportunity to solve the conflict peacefully and provide for a peaceful transition to leaders more acceptable to Syrian people. I think it is a tragedy that the international community was then and remains divided, and I think it‘s made chances for a political solutions dimmer and dimmer up until the present day. The legitimacy of the Assad regime has clearly been undermined by its own actions: violent suppression of peaceful protests, the escalation of violence using the armed forces and irregular militias against Syrian people in the last few months, the launching of ballistic missiles against unarmed civilian centers in Aleppo and other cities – more than 175 missiles have been fired since December. This I think makes it inconceivable that the regime is going to regain the confidence of its own people. Unfortunately, the regime still possesses considerable military capability and is unrestrained in its readiness to use it, so the conflict may go on for many more months. I think that our analysts in NATO and I think most experts see the tide turning progressively in the favor of opposition. The regime is loosing control of more and more parts of its own country. That is why we believe that its days are numbered. But it is still not too late to try to end this through a political solution, but that would require the international community to come together in a way that unfortunately has not been possible.

Q.: Moscow is concerned about the creation of U.S. and NATO military bases in neighboring countries after 2014. Does NATO have such plans? Can you confirm the reports that after troops are pulled out from Afghanistan NATO is going to leave a part of its arms for a number of Central Asian countries?

A.: First of all, it is important to remember what NATO has accomplished up until now and what the larger vision is of the post-2014. We believe we‘ve a considerable progress in diminishing the Taliban insurgency and building up Afghanistan‘s capacity to provide for its own security. The Afghan national security forces, both the army and the police, now number more than 50,000 and they are increasing their profession skill. They in fact take the lead now for more than 80% of operations. By the end of 2014 we think it will be possible for NATO to carry crew on its agreed strategy and to turn the full responsibility to Afghans, and that would move to a much smaller mission focusing on training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces. We still planning for that, we don‘t know exactly the size of the mission. I think it will not be a combat mission but there still be a need to support that smaller force. In that sense we will continue to look to the neighbors of Afghanistan and also to Russia to assist us in the transit of personnel and equipment and support of the mission.
At this point I am not aware of any of the members of NATO having a need for permanent bases in Central Asia in support of that post-2014 mission. We hope for cooperation, continued arrangements to ensure the smooth transit of our materiel but not the permanent bases.
On the question whether some of the weapons and equipment might be provided to Central Asian states, I don‘t think this – first of all this is not something that NATO itself deals with, each of the member states that have forces in Afghanistan are in the process of redeploying back to their homelands the vast majority of the equipment and materiel that were used to support the ISAF mission. It‘s possible that there may be arrangements on a bilateral level to sell or donate some of that equipment to neighboring states, but I think the vast majority of the equipment is going home to be reintegrated in the militaries of the contributing nations.

Q.: What else do you expect of Russia after 2014? Are you counting on Russia‘s military assistance to the Afghan armed forces?

A.: This is an area wh ere we are very pleased with the level of NATO-Russia cooperation up to the present time and we hope that we cannot only continue that but expand it in the future. Russian support takes a number of forms. First of all, the assistance with the transit of materiel and equipment via the Russian territory both using the railway network and air transport. Hope we can continue in these areas post 2014. Russian has also made very concrete contributions to the effort that I mentioned to help train Afghans to better take care of their own security. This also deals with the problem of narcotics trafficking. In case of military, Russia has contributed to what is called a ‘trust fund‘ to improve the Afghan Air Forces capacity to maintain and operate the Mi-17 helicopters which are the backbone of the Afghan air capability. Russia has also provided some of the actual helicopters that would be very important to long-term future of Afghanistan.
Secondly, Russia has trained hundreds of Afghan counter-narcotics security forces at a training facility in Domodedovo. We hope that that can continue.
There may be other ways that Russia can assist in the future, and that is something we talk about regularly on the NATO-Russia Council. In fact as we look post 2014 the challenges in Afghanistan will not just be in the area of security. The international community, but especially the countries in the neighborhood and that includes Russia, will have an interest in Afghanistan to develop its economy, track its legal and political institutions, develop cooperative relationships on a regional level, promote prosperity, and reduce various transnational threats. NATO I think is exploring with Russia now, before we reached 2014, what additional ways we can try to cooperate to help Afghanistan to become a stable and prosperous, and here I say it, ‘normal‘ country that will never be a threat to security in the region again.

Q.: Will NATO continue to reduce the arsenal of tactical nuclear arms in Europe? Does it count on similar moves on behalf of Russia? Is NATO concerned by Russia‘s tactical nuclear missile potential in Europe?

A.: This is an important issue for NATO. It‘s one on which NATO adopted some very important decisions at the Chicago summit last year that we conduct a comprehensive review of our defense and deterrence policy, including NATO policy on nuclear weapons. The allies made it very clear that they are strongly interested in engaging with Russia, first of all to increase the transparency of the current nuclear weapons systems that exist on the NATO side and on the Russian side, and then looking to the future to discuss the possibility of reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons, recognizing that this has to be done on the reciprocal basis. Dialog is still at a very early stage. NATO has a special new committee to coordinate its position and to come up with ideas on these issues. We hope that the NATO-Russia Council, which has a special forum on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, can serve as a mechanism for finding a common approach. I imagine it would also be a very important subject in the bilateral U.S.-Russia dialog given that the nuclear weapons on the NATO side – primarily they belong to the United States - but NATO takes a coordinated approach to this and to look forward to engaging with Russia on this issue. No one is concerned about stability of the situation right now, but we believe we can reach greater stability through transparency and reciprocal reductions from the current levels.