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Munich Security Conference debate on future of NATO turns attention to Russia


Antagonistic remarks by the Russian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (photo with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) earlier in Munich on Saturday, created a sense in the air that their statements had not been met with the appropriate response. Or put differently: what many perceived as factually incorrect remarks by the Kremlin’s emissaries had not been debunked or received the necessary pushback from Western leaders.

Whoever may have shared that notion, should have watched the debate about “the future of NATO,” which – with few exceptions – was essentially a discussion about how to deal with a single country: Russia.

Interestingly, the most ironic comment in the discussion was probably made by the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee General Petr Pavel who said that “containment is not our aim with Russia, deterrence is.”

Poland’s Defense Minister Witold Waszcykowski, not surprisingly, was more outspoken and decried Russia’s aggression vis-a-vis Ukraine and also what he described as Moscow’s efforts to redefine international order.

Non-NATO Sweden

Waszcykowsk was seconded by Peter Hultqvist, defense minister of Sweden, a country that while not a NATO member is currently mulling that option in light of Moscow’s increasingly aggressive stance. Hultqvist delivered an unusually blunt assessment of Russia.

The Kremlin’s goal, Hultqvist said, was to keep the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region off the international agenda. Hultqvist added that “Russia is the biggest challenge to Europe’s security” and that “we cannot accept what Russia has done.”

Hultqvist’s strongest point, however, was made via a rhetorical question: “Why does Russia continue to bring up its nuclear capabilities?”

Russia’s ambassador to NATO, who was in the audience and later posed a question himself, perhaps wisely, chose not to answer Hultqvist’s question.

Defending NATO to the east and west

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg for her part agreed with the sentiment expressed especially by the Polish defense minister that NATO should consider the defense of its eastern flank as equally important as the defense of its western flank. The alliance, she said, must “ensure security for all allies.”

But she was less willing to accept that improving NATO’s eastern defense capabilities required deploying permanent troops and building new installations there.

“The biggest threat is hybrid warfare”, Solberg said. “You don’t address that threat with more military bases.”

The conference continues in Munich on Sunday.