NATO: Seventy-Five Years Later

Wednesday, April 24, 2024
Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery/Wikimedia

William J. Perry Lecturer, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; Former Deputy Secretary General, NATO (2016-2019); CFR Member

Senior Fellow for Europe, Council on Foreign Relations; Dean Acheson Chair and Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; @m2matthijs

Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council; Former Deputy Secretary General, NATO (2012-2016); Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and Russia; CFR Member


Kravis Professor, Johns Hopkins-SAIS; Author, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate; CFR Member

This year NATO celebrates seventy-five years of collective defense, expanding from twelve founding members in 1949 to thirty-two today. 

Panelists discuss the evolution of NATO as it has sought to adapt to geopolitical shifts throughout the years, the challenges it faces in responding to global threats today, and the role of NATO in the future.

For those attending virtually, log-in information and instructions on how to participate during the question and answer portion will be provided the evening before the event to those who register. Please note the audio, video, and transcript of this hybrid meeting will be posted on the CFR website.

SAROTTE: All right. Welcome, everyone, to “NATO: Seventy-Five Years Later.” Today is on the record. There will also be video and transcript available afterward. And I understand we are being joined by hundreds of people out there in the ether somewhere. So we will be taking questions both from within the room and from Zoom as well. 

I’m Mary Sarotte. I am the Kravis professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS. I’m the author of the book Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. And as a historian, I was very pleased to be invited to preside over this panel, partly because of the topic, partly because of the jaw-dropping qualifications of the panel to discuss this topic. 

So I’m under strict orders to only give you a few of their astounding accomplishments, because otherwise we could sit here all day. 

Down at the end we have Rose Gottemoeller, who is currently the William Perry lecturer out at Stanford at CISAC. She is a former deputy secretary general of NATO, a former undersecretary of state for arms control, and of course a Council member. 

Next to her is my colleague at SAIS, Matthias Matthijs, who is the senior fellow for Europe here at the Council. He’s also the Dean Acheson chair and associate professor at SAIS, and he is a newly minted Council member—despite my best efforts to tell them not to take him. (Laughter.) 

And to my immediate right is Alexander Vershbow, currently a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council—former deputy secretary general of NATO, former U.S. ambassador to both NATO and Russia, a former assistant secretary of defense, and last but not least a Council member. 

So we have been in touch with each other by email once we found out that we would have the honor of doing this panel, and we thought that what we would do today is talk not about the details of the history, but about what matters now. What matters to NATO at seventy-five? And we’re going to start with Ambassador Vershbow, who’s going to talk a bit about the upcoming summit agenda, in particular about burden sharing and the questions of increased European strategic responsibility, and then a bit about Ukraine—setting Ukraine on a path or a bridge to NATO membership. Then we’ll go to Matthias, who will look at things from the European angle, talk about the rapid new developments in EU defense that the war in Ukraine has unleashed, and talk about the prospects for a European pillar—a European pillar within NATO. And then we’ll finish up with Rose, who will draw on her experience working in the first Trump administration to talk on that basis about how she would expect NATO to cope with a second Trump administration, if it happens, and also changing alliance attitudes towards burden-sharing in general. And she also, based on her expertise, can talk about NATO and Ukraine, NATO and Russia, and the nuclear weapons. And then after that we’ll open—we’ll have a little discussion here, we’ll open up to questions here and to the ether, and then we’ll wrap up at 1:30. 

So, Sandy, over to you. 

VERSHBOW: OK. Thanks very much, Mary, and thanks to all of you for coming, and thanks to the Council for inviting me to this event, which is especially meaningful for me since I spent it seems like half my life working at or for NATO. 

And indeed, I first visited NATO on my first Foreign Service assignment back in 1977, came here to start the discussions on the dual-track decision. So I’ve done a lot on NATO and I’ve attended a lot of summit meetings, and this one, I think, ranks as one of the most important because it’s kind of like the culmination of a lot of different efforts that NATO’s been carrying out since 2014, basically, go back to basics to—after attempting to build a Europe whole and free—which, of course, we still are nurturing outside of Russia. The relationship with Russia underwent a sea change in 2014, as you all know. And so this summit will, I think, be the culmination of a lot of different strands of work that have been going on since 2014 in terms of increasing the collective defense capability of the alliance, readiness, adopting new technologies, developing partnerships in a wider circle, including the Indo-Pacific region. 

I was at the last two summits under Secretary General Rasmussen, and Rose picked up where I left off as my successor. All these decisions taken together represent the establishment of a new strategy and a new force posture to protect the now thirty-two members of NATO against an aggressive revanchist Russia. So there’s going to be a lot of achievements to celebrate. The most recent is the development of comprehensive regional plans for the different strategic directions facing the alliance. And allies will commit to providing the all-important resources to underpin this, including eventually bringing the high-readiness forces up to a level of 300,000. 

So I think in addition to what we’ll be doing in terms of defense and deterrence, the alliance will be, you know, underscoring its continued support for Ukraine in the current war. Our political solidarity, which I think has become stronger than ever since the war began, has now been further reinforced with the accession of Finland and Sweden. They will be present, underscoring the unity of the alliance as a whole. 

And while a lot of the achievements will be celebrated, I think that it’s a little early to start popping champagne corks. We dodged a bullet, really, with the recent congressional legislation restoring the funding for military assistance to Ukraine. And I think one less appreciated good-news story from the period when we were unable to ship any weapons to Ukraine was how our European allies stepped up in ways we hadn’t seen before. They weren’t able to fill the entire gap, and I think they understand that they have a ways to go in terms of continued increases in defense spending, ramping up defense production. But I think that this supports what I’ve been arguing for a long time, that the alliance needs to work with the European members of the alliance, with the EU to kind of rebalance the transatlantic defense relationship. We need even a new paradigm in which the European members of the alliance and the EU—and the members aren’t entirely coterminous, but I think for that—to have the European members of the alliance aspire to contribute 50 percent of the—of the minimum capabilities required for collective defense and take up the role of being the first responders to crises in Europe’s neighborhood. This would be not only a question of equity with respect to the balance of responsibility with the United States; it would also be, I think, a practical necessity given that we all recognize the possibility that U.S. forces may be drawn into an Asia-Pacific contingency and the European forces would need to pick up the slack. So moving to a new paradigm in which—you could call this enhanced European strategic responsibility would go hand in hand with accommodating the continued global responsibilities shouldered by the United States. 

Now, the Ukraine war itself, of course, will be the top issue on the agenda. Having dodged this bullet, I think this is an opportunity to show not only continued political support for Ukraine, but to make a quantum leap forward in terms of the weapons and the technologies that we’re providing to the Ukrainians. I think it’s not an uncommon view in this town that the U.S. and the allies have been taking a painfully slow, hesitant, incremental approach to security assistance for Ukraine, and I think that contributed to some degree to the disappointing results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year. So in addition to resuming—in addition to picking up where we left off in terms of arming and equipping the Ukrainians, we need to pull out all the stops, lift any self-imposed constraints on advanced weapons systems—precision strike like the ATACMS, F-16s—and help the Ukrainians regain momentum with a view to hopefully being able to go back on the offensive late this year or in 2025. So I think winning the—winning the war should be a centerpiece of this summit. 

And the last thing I would mention—and maybe we can come back to this later—is winning the peace is as important as winning the war. And in this regard, it raises a whole question of security guarantees for Ukraine after this war is over. There was a good initiative at the previous summit in Vilnius by the G-7 nations to extend bilateral security commitments to Ukraine, and these are, I think, valuable as a sort of interim measure to complement the bilateral weapons systems that many allies and other democracies are providing. But these bilateral commitments are not a substitute for the ultimate guarantee, what will be the most convincing to deterring the Russians, and that of course is NATO membership. Allies couldn’t agree on this issue at the Vilnius Summit; I’m not sure there’s going to be a consensus for an invitation to Ukraine at the Washington Summit. But I think that the idea of setting Ukraine on a clear path toward NATO membership is something that the allies should continue to work on in the—in the remaining weeks before the summit. This could entail a process of helping prepare the Ukrainians for eventual membership, eventually getting them closer to the threshold so that they could plug and play with NATO forces from day one after membership becomes a political possibility. So ideas along these lines are being discussed in the alliance. Hopefully, we’ll do more than just repeat the Vilnius formulation, which was disappointing to the Ukrainians—said their future is in NATO, but it gave them no clarity at all on what they need to do to actually cross the finish line. 

So many other issues will be on the agenda as well, but I would highlight these as the most important. 

SAROTTE: Thank you, Ambassador. 

Matthias, how does this all look from the point of view of Europe? 

MATTHIJS: Yes. Thank you. And again, delighted to be on this—on this panel. 

So in general the European Union and the European project has a kind of uncomfortable relationship with anything to do with defense and security, right, for the simple reason that the EU started as a peace project. And I think often forgotten on any sort of histories of European integration is just how important the U.S. role was in the beginning to make this very easy, right? I mean, it meant that Europe didn’t have to choose—sorry, didn’t—you know, could choose between guns and butter, and clearly chose butter. So the great achievements of European integration and the welfare state and so on, social spending and all that, were always possible because the United States took the burden, the main share of the—of the burden for Europe’s defense. 

Even in the 1990s, right, there was a kind of lost opportunity for the EU to get serious about defense. I guess the closest we came was the Saint-Malo agreement in 1998 between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, a kind of French-U.K. agreement that Europe, the EU, had to be a serious actor for defense. But I think as everybody on this stage and in this room probably knows, there was not very strong American support for the EU to do this, to duplicate things that NATO did. They really wanted everything security and defense to remain within NATO, even though in the 1990s the American calls for Europe to spend more on defense started, right, and of course then accelerated over the—over the last few administrations. 

So in many ways—and I remember I came to the United States from Europe, Belgium, where I grew up, in 2002, and you know, this was in the midst of the leadup to the Iraq War, and it was very much seen that, you know, Europe should not develop its own capacity because it would compete with America’s role, and constrain America’s role for that matter. And of course, that was the time of Donald Rumsfeld dividing Europe into old and new Europe. 

So what’s kind of been extraordinary in the last few years is how quickly things have changed in Europe, and you could even say the last six months where it’s gotten even added urgency, right? So I’ve written a lot on the great leap forward Europe has taken on the geoeconomic and the macroeconomic front in the last five years, really, in the von der Leyen Commission. And I am probably more optimistic in where Europe is headed on that front, and I think the geopolitical, the military defense part, will be—will be a lot harder for Europe to develop, even though there is clear American support for it now, right? 

So it’s clear on the one hand that the status quo of NATO providing and the Americans providing the lion’s share of American security is no longer sustainable. It’s also clear that the French alternative that goes back to, I guess, de Gaulle, really—but to Chirac through Sarkozy, and now Macron—of European strategic autonomy, almost as a competitor to the United States, has very little support, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. 

So the obvious medium solution is for Europe to develop a very strong pillar within NATO, right—use NATO capacities, don’t duplicate anything but, you know, provides—as Sandy was hinting at earlier—kind of at least half of the spending for NATO, right, and many people here are calling—Marina Henke at SAIS, Tara Varma at Brookings, have been arguing for this, right? And as far as I can tell, it’s really—Macron’s evolution on that front is there, but it’s still slow; they’re still blocking things within NATO to move in that direction. 

So where does that leave the EU? As I said, the European Union has a very uncomfortable relationship with defense. It struggles with a democratic deficit, and here, actually—I mean, the latest Eurobarometer shows that 79 percent of Europeans want more—or are strongly or somewhat in favor of more EU-level defense cooperation, while 65 percent of Europeans agree that this will need more defense spending, right, so that’s actually one of those issues where there seems to be broad popular support for this. 

So what worries me a bit, then, is that the EU, when it comes to defense, has created a lot of new acronyms in the last five years, right, and I’ve written them all down because I wouldn’t have remembered them. So there’s the European Peace Facility, which is about five billion euros, and it was just replenished. That’s mostly been used for weapons acquisition and support for Ukraine. And so that’s been real, and that’s been, I think, a real step the EU has taken. But it remains small. 

There’s EDIRPA, the European Defense Industry Reinforcement through Common Procurement Act; there’s ASAP, the Act in Support of Ammunition Production; and then, very recently, EDIS, right, which I immediately got excited about because I thought it was European deposit insurance system—(laughter)—but it was Europe’s Defence Industrial Strategy, really to bolster EU’s industrial defense base. There is also MBCC, the Military Planning and Conduct Capability—(laughs)—to have a joint command and control structure. 

So where are we? Clearly von der Leyen wants a European commissioner for defense, but what does that mean? Does that mean that Europe will develop its own army and anything like that? Probably not, right, but Europe can do—and I can see them do—is do much more in procurement, provide money for joint acquisitions and so on. What worries me, though, is will the American side, especially the American industrial—American industrial complex, allow Europe to develop its own industry so they can actually provide the weapons, and the support systems, and so on, that now they have had to rely on for from the United States. And so that’s another number—since 2022, 76 percent of the entire EU weapons acquisition has come from outside of the EU, and 63 percent of that was from the United States.  

And so I think my final point here is that what the Europeans in general, right, need to think about—and this goes beyond the EU—think of Norway, the U.K., and Turkey, key NATO members that are not EU members—is to think a little bit more imaginatively about what European defense can look like in the next ten years, right? For me it’s hard to imagine the U.K. not playing a leading role because it is—together with France—the only real military power that Europe has with some global reach, even though, you know, of course Ukraine, Poland are quickly catching up. 

So there has to be a way that Europe finds, outside of the EU framework—even though the EU can play a role—a way to organize European defense that moves beyond the sort of hard language that we’ve seen since Brexit, since the Trump administration, and so on. But let me keep it there. 

SAROTTE: Yes, that’s great. So the—it sounds like the discussion from just before the war in Ukraine of strategic autonomy has now given way to discussions of strategic responsibility and burden sharing. 

Rose, what are your thoughts? 

GOTTEMOELLER: So I will pick up—I wanted to really emphasize a point that both Sandy and Matthias made with regard to the way the Europeans have stepped up during this period of uncertainty with our own legislative process. I like to point to the example of Petr Pavel, who was the chairman of the Military Committee when I was deputy secretary-general at NATO and is now the president of the Czech Republic. He stepped forward with this initiative. They found 800,000 rounds of ammunition of the appropriate caliber, and they began raising the money for it. I haven’t seen the latest number; I don’t know if they have the money for all 800,000 rounds, but they were up to 300,000 rounds the last time I looked. So it’s clear that the NATO member states in Europe have joined together, and they are trying to really step up. And I think both of the previous speakers underlined that point. 

So I wanted to start there because I will talk about my time at NATO as deputy secretary-general, which coincided with the first term of President Trump in office. And it was quite a roller coaster ride, as you can imagine. 

But first—and before I get there, I want to give a great deal of credit to Sandy Vershbow, who as DSG before me at the time of the Crimea invasion—the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. And so Sandy, along with others at NATO, they are the kind of team of architects who put together the initial response to this invasion, which included this famous pledge at the Wales Summit in 2014 that the allies should spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024—so ten years, 2014 to 2024. We’re at 2024. Yes, OK. I’ll come back to a bit of good news there in a moment.  

But in 2016, when I arrived at NATO, it was not such a pretty picture. Fewer—at that point, fewer than half of dozen members of NATO were at 2 percent of GDP, including the United States, and it inched upward during my time there. I think we were up to like eight members toward the end of my time when I departed in October 2019, but it was a very, very poor picture.  

And this drove President Trump mad. He was really furious at NATO. My first experience in a summit meeting with him was the famous meeting in May of 2017 when we were inaugurating our new building. We’d just moved across—many of you know the old hospital building on one side of the road. We’d just moved across the road to the brand-new building, and things were still, you know, in their shakedown crew, so to say, so it wasn’t easy just in terms of running the summit. 

I’ll just tell a quick vignette. The night of the summit, you know, between the two days, the—how shall I say—plumbing broke down so we had a very, very smelly flood in the basement, which was quickly cleaned up overnight. So the leaders never knew anything about it. But it was that kind of summit meeting, so you get the picture. It was also the famous summit meeting where Trump climbed up on stage and—most of you will remember this—decisively shoved aside the president of Montenegro—by the way, the newest NATO member. So it was—you know, it was a very tough environment overall.  

But that was also the meeting at which President Trump—well, he’d done it on the campaign trail, but before the NATO allies, he rolled out his doubts about fulfilling NATO’s Article 5 commitment, under the Washington Treaty should it be required—defense of one NATO member is, you know, carried out by the defense of all, if one member is attacked and asks for assistance. He said, I’m not going to do that. If you haven’t paid up, the U.S. is not going to respond. This indeed was a shocking message for the NATO member states throughout that meeting, and very, very difficult, I think—again, many of you have been in those summit meetings, as Sandy has recounted. They’re very formal, everything is very scripted; this was far from scripted, believe me. And it was very, very difficult to take. 

But I will say that the secretary-general—still the secretary-general—Jens Stoltenberg, became very skilled at, first of all, using this message—which I agreed with. I agreed with the need to push the allies on burden sharing. So Secretary-General Stoltenberg just kept saying to the allies, you know you took the commitment up at Wales; it is a commitment around the NAC table. Come on, you need to get moving. And then he was very good at talking very clearly to President Trump about the results. 

Many of you, again, may know that Stoltenberg began his life as a statistician in the federal statistics service of Norway. He loves to play with numbers, and he was very good at both accounting—very assiduously accounting to the way the allies were beginning to spend more, and then presenting that in a very clear and comprehensible way to President Trump. And believe me, this did a lot during my time at NATO, to sustain a kind of—a difficult dialogue, yes, but also one where, over time, the president became more satisfied with how NATO was responding to the 2 percent commitment. 

So I will say that my experience is that, you know, Trump, in his transactional way, can be—can be brought along with very, very careful homework. He is a good businessman, so he wasn’t going to be—he wasn’t going to be fooled by careless numbers and careless charts. But again, the fact that Secretary-General Stoltenberg both enjoyed the numbers and also was very good at presenting them helped, I think, to get us through that period. I will say the next secretary-general of NATO, should Trump be elected, should perhaps, well, spend some time talking to Jens about this phenomenon. 

Now let’s fast forward because I do want to talk about burden sharing today, and it is related to, not so much Donald Trump and his pushing during his first term in office, but to Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. NATO recently announced that twenty members of the NATO alliance are now at 2 percent of GDP, and I’ve also heard from Brussels that they expect, within 2024—so this is the deadline year, 2014 to 2024—they expect two more members to be at 2 percent of GDP, and these include the largest members: Germany, France, Norway—very big countries stepping up in a way that they were not able to commit to in 2017, ’18, ’19.  

Angela Merkel and Donald Trump—there is no surprise about this; it has been in the media—but they tangled all the time because Angela, in her very straightforward way, kept saying, Donald, we can’t possibly spend 2 percent of GDP until the 2030s, and this really, really drove—again, drove President Trump mad. So the fact that the Germans now are saying, we are at 20 (sic; 2) percent of GDP. I know they have constitutional difficulties staying at 2 percent of GDP, but the Scholz government seems very much seized of this matter, and I think it’s an excellent set of messages to impart to President Trump, should he arrive in office again. 

There have been quite a few, I would say, concerning comments out there. I’ve seen—I’ve seen Ambassador Bolton several times in the press or on interview shows saying that he fully expects a withdrawal—that Trump will attempt to withdraw from NATO. We do have in place legislation now. That last NDAA put in place legislation saying the president would have to commit to consultation if he chose to withdraw from the Washington Treaty. My own personal view of this matter is that probably the political capital burned to undertake such a move would be too great, even for a Trump White House so they might instead attempt a soft withdrawal, such as not appointing a U.S. ambassador to NATO; kind of removing the United States from the leadership of NATO, so something in that nature rather than an attempt at a legally binding withdrawal from a legally binding treaty, the Washington Treaty. But that’s neither here nor there. 

The last thing I will comment on very, very briefly is my view of how NATO member states have been participating in interwar deterrence during this war. We can talk more about the nature of the nuclear saber-rattling and the threats emanating from the Kremlin, if you wish, but the main point I’d like to make is that, in my view, all NATO member states, in addition to assisting Ukraine, have also been contributing to continuing interwar deterrence in this case. The Russians haven’t dared to touch the shipments of weapon systems, materiel, and equipment while they remain on NATO territory. Just yesterday, Minister of Defence Shoigu said again, we will do everything we can to attack NATO assistance, but—he underscored—once it arrives in Ukraine. So there has been, I think, a very firm deterrence effect emanating from NATO. 

Furthermore, in some very special ways, the Ukrainians have taken advantage of a kind of bolstering of deterrence from NATO countries without actually actively engaging the member states. And I’m talking about the way they established what I call proximity deterrence with NATO along the Black Sea littoral of the NATO states—Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey—to facilitate the opening of their humanitarian aid—a sea line of communication to get grain shipments and other equipment and materiel out through the Bosphorus. 

So NATO is participating, I think, in some very interesting ways, also, in the deterrence function. Again, I’m very happy to talk about that during our discussion period. But just to give you a sense, I actually am feeling rather positive about NATO going into this summit. I think we should be cautious about too much, you know, party time, too much celebration during this summit. We need to be sober and somber about the challenges facing NATO, but to my mind, NATO is much better positioned now than it was when I became the deputy secretary-general in 2016, and again, those commitments to defense expenditure, to the defense industrial capacity, to being able to acquire real modernization capability, really modernized systems that are so important to the future of NATO’s defense mission. 

Last thing I’ll say, just another tiny—I would say, and it’s not so tiny, actually—but a good point is that the former Warsaw Pact members of NATO in Central and Eastern European countries did their utmost essentially to send Ukraine assistance very early Warsaw-Pact-era equipment from their own stocks. And to my mind this is a net benefit for NATO because they were sitting on the equipment, and that meant—that was their equipment basically, but it meant they weren’t fully interoperable with NATO. Now they’ve had to empty out those stocks, and they are acquiring new modernized equipment that is fully NATO interoperable. So as sad and tragic as this conflict in Ukraine is, it is excellent that it will end up with—we will end up with a more interoperable NATO out of it I believe. And so perhaps I will leave it there, Mary. 

SAROTTE: Excellent. Thank you, Rose. 

So I’m about to go to audience questions, so start thinking about your questions. I just want to make one comment—(laughs)—which is that I’m in violent agreement with everything you’ve said, except for Trump is a good businessman. (Laughter.) Considering that he is currently on trial for business practices that are criminal, I’m not sure I can follow you there. 

GOTTEMOELLER: I saw a few smiles around the room when people said—when I said that, you know, he liked to see good books because we know, of course, that he doesn’t seem to like good books. But he likes the appearance of good books. I’ll put it that way. So that’s my caveat. 

SAROTTE: OK, I will accept that as a friendly amendment. 


SAROTTE: So I have been told that we can take questions from the room. Also there’s this—all the people out in the ether will hopefully chime in as well. But we’ll start—I guess we’ll start right here in the front. Sir? 

Q: Thank you. Steve Charnovitz from George Washington University.  

Ambassador Vershbow said that—suggested that the doctrine should be to pull out all the stops for winning the war. And I’m wondering, do you really mean that? I mean, are there no stops? What is the doctrine now? There haven’t been that many armed attacks in NATO’s history. What is the doctrine now—or what should be the doctrine now in NATO regarding the—and Article 5 does talk about the use of armed force to restore and maintain security, so what is the doctrine for the use of long-range offensive weapons, use of NATO troops? Are there—what stops are there, and why are those the right stops? 

VERSHBOW: Well, I think first the basis for NATO’s action, and I think the reason why we’ve persevered, is because this is consistent with the United Nations charter, that a country that is under attack can receive armed assistance from other member states of the United Nations. And I don’t think there has been any question about that principle.  

But I do think NATO has taken the position that it’s in our strategic interest to support Ukraine in its effort to beat back the Russian aggression, and that the—President Biden’s guidance on this is that we should do so that doesn’t turn the United States into a direct combatant, so we don’t want to turn this into a NATO-Russia conflict. But other than that, providing the—you know, the range of capabilities that will help the Ukrainians to repel the Russian aggression, eventually recover their lost territory and, you know, force a diplomatic solution that is equitable I think enjoys broad consensus within the alliance. 

My concern is that we’ve been a little bit cautious because of fears of escalation fueled by Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, which I think has always been a bit of a bluff. But of course we don’t want to test that, but I think it has been a bluff. And he has been actually very consistent in what he has said about the circumstances in which Russia would use nuclear weapons, and he has been pretty careful not to imply that U.S. intervention, through arms supplies, is enough to constitute threatening the existence of the state, which is the threshold in Russia nuclear doctrine. But I think my concern is that we’ve been a bit self-deterred by the saber-rattling, and have withheld some very sophisticated, long-range strike systems, including one you’ve read about a lot in the papers lately—the Army Tactical Missile System or ATACMS.  

We were very slow in agreeing to send main battle tanks—modern, Western-style tanks, F-16 fighters. We should have started training the pilots a year earlier than we actually did. All these things I think give the appearance—I don’t want to accuse anybody of anything—but it gives the appearance of wanting to do enough to enable Ukraine to survive, but not enough to enable them to win. And so my argument is that the Washington Summit is an opportunity to kind of turn the page, lift some of these self-imposed constraints; as a first step, try to reverse the gains that the Russians have made during this period when we’ve been unable to provide anything, and hopefully they can kind of hold the line for the rest of this year, and then in 2025, have one more shot at a counteroffensive that could both remove Russian forces from Ukrainian territory and maybe cause political instability in Russia that would eventually lead to more Western-oriented leaders. But that’s—that would be gravy. That would be a bonus. That’s not part of the strategy. 

SAROTTE: Rose, given your expertise in nuclear issues, could I bring you in here, and what is your thinking on the risks now that the conflict could verge into the nuclear domain? 

GOTTEMOELLER: Yes, it has gone through phases, and I think we all realize, from attention in the media, that in the period September, October, November 2022, when the Russian army had its back to the Dnipro River, and there did seem to be a chance that the Russian army would be defeated in eastern Ukraine, that is the point at which, to my mind, the nuclear saber-rattling passed over into an actual nuclear threat. And we know, again, from the media, that evidently the general staff was considering this matter a battlefield use of nuclear weapons, and in the end of the day, recommended to President Putin not to go there. 

So I do think that that was a moment of grave threat, but generally speaking, I think about the nuclear saber-rattling as, first of all, a way to shape NATO and U.S. behavior, so I agree with Sandy on that, but also a way to keep everyone on edge about exactly what the intentions of Vladimir Putin are because a lot of it—although he—you know, people—the Russians—you’ll have heard about this, as I do, in Track II meetings, as well—President Putin never says nuclear, but he says, you know, the weapons the like of which you have never seen, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So others say—his former prime minister and one-time president, Medvedev, speaks very, very—very, very frankly about using nuclear weapons. 

So, to make a long story short, I think there is this effort to keep the anxiety levels high, and to shape NATO and U.S. behavior, and to create this sense of, well, it might not be quite, you know, what we would consider rational or comprehensible behavior emanating from the Kremlin, essentially, again, keeping everybody on edge. 

That kind of actual threat, though, has really dissipated since that point in November of 2022. I really—I really put it down to the fact that Putin was publicly warned off by president of China, Xi Jinping, and by the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, at the SCO summit meeting that took place in Kazakhstan in November of that year. And again, I’m hearing in Track II meetings that there is a consistent and persistent message going forth from Beijing and Delhi to every level of the Russian government: do not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So here is a case, I think, where other countries have stepped forward. 

I do agree that President Biden and his administration have done the right thing in terms of balancing their responses and conveying a real commitment to respond should it become necessary, but in other ways keeping the temperature down as much as possible. I think that’s been quite responsible on their part. 

SAROTTE: All right. Thanks very much. 

Liz, in the room, or—OK, another question in the room. Who else has got one? Sir? 

Q: Hi, Jeff Pryce, Johns Hopkins SAIS. 

And first, I’d like to take Rose up on the domain. So we—a lot of talk about stalemate in the land that’s controlled by Russia, but if you summarize it brutally as Ukrainians’ prospects for victory at sea, then victory in the air, regaining air sovereignty, which they have prospects of doing, and then regaining control of their territory, not only have they regained sea lines of communications, but they have driven the Black Sea fleet out of Sevastopol, which was Putin’s number one talking point— 


Q: —going in in 2014, so I wonder if I could draw you out on that. 

And then second, for the panel, on European leadership, any thoughts on the capability coalitions that are being developed in the Ramstein process? 

SAROTTE: So that sounds like Rose and then Matthias. 

GOTTEMOELLER: It is really ironic because that was the primary talking point for the invasion of Crimea in the first place, back in 2014—that whole notion of krym nash—Crimea is ours—it grew out of this, you know, feeling that we must have our naval base and naval headquarters in Sevastopol; in short, we do not want to be negotiating constantly with these pesky Ukrainians going forward about basing arrangements. It must be ours—krym nash. 

But it’s so ironic—you are absolutely right—that the Russian navy has now been driven to eastern reaches of the Black Sea, and essentially Crimea is denied to them, not only as a naval base, but also it was very much their logistics center for supplying the Russian army in eastern Ukraine. So all of that has now been denied to a large extent. 

Yes, they continue to launch long-range missiles out of Crimea from time to time. I think they are, again, demonstratively trying to send another signal that we can still—we can still control this territory, but I believe that Crimea is essentially denied to them now and, in many ways, they are limited in their—in their deployment activities to the eastern parts of the Black Sea. 

I also agree with you very much on denying the Russians air superiority. The Russians are not flying fixed or helicopter aircraft over Ukraine. They know they will get shot out of the sky immediately. There was word over the weekend that the Ukrainians had succeeded in bringing down a Tu-33 bomber, 300 kilometers inside Russia with an old S-200 Soviet-era missile that they had modified to hit that moving target at that range. 

Of course, Ukrainians put that story out; the Russians have said, yes, the aircraft suffered a malfunction and crashed. So, you know, decide on who you want to believe. But they are already sending the message to bolster the air denial message: do not mess with us in the air. We can deal with you, and we can even deal with you with old equipment that we have indigenously modified. 

SAROTTE: Matthias? 

MATTHIJS: Yes, thanks, Jeff, for the question, and as far as the Ramstein coalition goes, I think this is, you know, obviously something that they should build on going forward, right? I mean, it’s not clear—my understanding is that there are still discussions within NATO on whether NATO can fully take over this format and actually chair this rather than have the U.S. fully lead this. My understanding is that a decision will be made by July in D.C. during the anniversary summit. 

The main role the European Union can play in this is money, right? And that’s something, as a political economist of European integration that worries me, because there are so many constraints being put up on spending rules, right? There is still this kind of mindset where you seem to have these NATO meetings where there’s foreign ministers and defense ministers, but there’s never any finance ministers in the room, either. I think they should bring them along—(laughter)—to kind of see what’s possible and where money can be found because, as we’ve seen, I mean, it does seem to be a priority for many European publics, but I don’t think they are willing to make the tradeoffs quite yet, right, between cuts here in favor of defense spending there. It’s not clear that they would have to make that choice, right?  

I mean, strategically I think the Mario Draghi report on competitiveness has been held back until the end of June, until after the EU elections because he is talking about, you know, 500 to 750 billion new engagement by the EU and raising joint bonds for not just defense—defense is a big part of it—but things like climate transition and so on. 

And so that’s where I see the EU play this role. But I think the Ramstein format has been quite successful. Maybe there’s just not quite enough money behind it yet.  

But to my earlier point, it seems to me, in the last six months there has been a kind of—almost a sea change in European thinking of this, right? I mean, no European thought Donald Trump had a serious chance of either becoming the candidate again, the flag bearer for the Republican Party, let alone be president again. Now it has almost shifted to, like, everybody in Europe seems to already think that Trump is coming back and the election is over—(laughter)—which, you know, I’m not quite convinced by. But I think it really has been a wakeup call, as has been everything happening in Congress. Most op-eds you’ll read in the editorial pages of LeMonde or like in Publica, or the German newspapers is that this is, again, a wakeup call. We cannot be hostage to this stuff going forward, especially as the smart money seems to be—in this city at least—that whatever happens in November, Congress will be split; it might swap between Senate and House, but again, where you could see continued gridlock on this issue. 

SAROTTE: Yeah, all right, so Liz is giving me the sign that it’s time to go to the ether. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Peter Swiers. 

Q: Peter Swiers, retired U.S. Foreign Service, old Soviet hand.  

Matthias mentioned about U.K. and France being the only significant really military powers in Europe, although Poland and Ukraine have real possibilities coming. You didn’t mention Germany at all. My experience—and Rose referred to this in a sense—the Germans have now committed themselves. My experience with the Germans is they never do anything at half measure. So they’re going to move out and probably will soon be the major military power in Europe within the next few years. They’re already the most significant economic power in Europe. 

What I’d like to get a sense from you is both the Germans—what they are doing, but also of other Europeans—my generation of Europeans including family in Denmark—obviously, they were nervous about the Germans, remembering World War II, but I don’t think that’s the case with millennials and Gen-Zers in Europe. Why don’t you—would you comment on it—or any of you, Sandy maybe and Rose, as well—what your reaction is about the Germans now, frankly, will be assuming a significant leadership role both in NATO and in the EU. 

SAROTTE: Interesting—sounds as if he’s taking the Zeitenwende very seriously. 

GOTTEMOELLER: Could I maybe just start really quickly? 


GOTTEMOELLER: Peter, thank you for that. One thing to just introduce this answer is that that nervousness was very much, I think, driving the German government and Angela Merkel in the ’16 to ’19 period to say, hey, we can’t go that fast. It’s going to take us till 2030, and we were hearing—again, on editorial pages from Berlin—well, the rest of Europe is going to be nervous, because of the World War II experience, if suddenly Germany is arming again.  

But I agree with you, Peter, that that view seems to be changing in younger generations, and now I’m going to hand over to my colleagues to continue. 

MATTHIJS: Yeah. And, obviously, Mary should feel free to weigh in on this as well. I mean, I—yeah, the question of German leadership is—I mean, it’s an excellent question. It’s very complicated. I deliberately did not mention Germany when I mentioned—(laughter)—military powers with global reach for the simple reason that I see this Zeitenwende—I mean, I think like many of us, I almost fell off my chair when I heard that speech. That said, the last two years it has been incredibly slow moving, right?  

It does seem real. A hundred billion euros is real money over the next five years. It’s not clear where the money will come from, especially after that in 2027, especially if they stick to their debt—constitutional debt brake, their Schuldenbremse—it seems to me it will need a Christian Democrat-Green coalition to finally get rid of that because strategically I think probably those two parties think the closest. 

Scholz is still equivocating, right? I mean, you’ve seen this from his last trip to China. I mean, Germany still—and I say this as a Belgian, so I guess I’m comfortable enough saying this—but they still have this sort of small country, open economy mentality where they think whatever they do in Germany’s interest doesn’t have any repercussions for the rest of Europe. And obviously it does, right? Their whole industrial economic model has been based on exports to emerging markets—I think that’s changing very fast—and also I think there’s frustration in the rest of Europe with the lack of coordination in what Germany is doing with this money, right? I mean, clearly—(laughs)—the first disappointment in Paris was that a lot of this money was being used to buy American fighter jets, right, rather than develop a European industry. 

So I don’t think Germany has made the switch into a kind of military strategic power, right, and you see this. I mean, all best German analysts of defense and security affairs are in Washington, D.C., right, and 80 percent of them seem to be women, as well, which is very refreshing and significant. But it seems to me that this kind of shift in the way that Paris and London think about defense hasn’t happened in Germany. I hope that it will, but I don’t think they are there yet. 

SAROTTE: Do you want to say something? 

VERSHBOW: Yeah, I would agree with that last point. I think the Europeans are actually crying out for more German leadership, more readiness to get tough with the Russians, to threaten the use of force in some situations. 

I remember Radek Sikorski making that immortal comment that I worry more about too little German activism than too much. And a decade has passed, and they’re still lamenting that. 

But the Zeitenwende, I think, is slowly but surely delivering, but when it comes to Ukraine, there is still hesitation on the part of Scholz. This equivocation applies also to not just the Taurus missile but to other possible ways of supporting Ukraine. He’s hiding behind President Biden. Hopefully after we finally hear the details of the arms packages that the U.S. military is going to be sending, that the ATACMS will be approved, and hopefully that will put some heat on Mr. Scholz to— 

GOTTEMOELLER: On the Taurus— 

VERSHBOW: —release the Taurus and maybe other advanced technologies. 

MATTHIJS: Even on that point, Sandy, I think it was either today or yesterday—I think it was today—in a joint press conference of Scholz with Rishi Sunak in Berlin, where Scholz was asked this question. He said, I’m not going to change my decision on these weapons. So I think he is still hiding in— 

VERSHBOW: I agree. 


VERSHBOW: It’s a change hopefully will come, but it’s not coming fast. (Laughs.) 

MATTHIJS: And the final point on youth, I mean, they do have eastern Länder elections coming up, and there is a huge youth resistance to all of this, right? I mean, there’s an extraordinary survey where they asked if Russia attacked Germany, how many young Germans were willing to fight, and I think it was less than 20 percent—attacked Germany, not Poland. (Laughs.) 

SAROTTE: (Inaudible)—yeah. Yeah. I think just a report for the Munich Security Conference, the sense there was not the Germans are really moving out; the sense there was the Germans just are still sorting themselves out. There was—it was widely noted that Scholz, Macron, and Tusk did not appear together, despite many people hoping for the so-called Weimar Triangle to, you know, put in an appearance. It didn’t happen, then Scholz made clear his position not to send the Taurus weapons. That was then followed by the very embarrassing leak of internal conversations between German generals. And there is a, shall we say, energetic domestic debate over what the correct response of Germany should be. 

Our colleague, Marina Henke at SAIS, we actually—Matthias and I just attended a talk. She is a German security expert, and she said her take is that the invasion happened February 24, 2022; Scholz gave this electrifying Zeitenwende speech on a Sunday, no less, because it seemed as if, you know, the Germans—sorry, it seemed as if Kyiv was going to fall in three days and, you know, there was a whole new world of threats. And then suddenly—and in my view, marvelously—the bravery of the Ukrainians pushed back that threat, and so—again, I’m paraphrasing Marina—there was a sort of collective exhale, and, OK, maybe we don’t need to, you know, be on a crisis footing here. But now, obviously, things are changing. 

GOTTEMOELLER: The war is going on. 

SAROTTE: So I don’t want to jump in front of more questions, so in the room or on the ether, Liz? Room—room question. All right, who has a room question? Sir, you’ve been waiting. 

Q: Hey, thanks so much. Paul Jones, Squire, Patton, Boggs law firm. 

I want to pick up on Sandy’s comment that—you know, that Europeans could become the first responders in the European theater—obviously, something discussed before. I want to know is it realistically part of the sea change in the European mindset? What actually would need to be done to make that a reality, and what sort of time frame are we talking about to make that real? Thank you. 

VERSHBOW: Well, I think it is definitely realistic. Europe deploys already a lot of forces. What they don’t deploy are the so-called enablers that are provided to NATO, to the transatlantic community almost exclusively by the United States. So they need to get to work now on producing more of these capabilities so that they could carry out crisis management operations without as much direct U.S. support as they’ve come to expect over the years. 

But, you know, the European Union has been talking a good game about becoming a mechanism for peacekeeping, for crisis management, and they’ve done some small operations which have been successful. But I’m suggesting it’s time for them to sort of think big, think about a real equal partnership with the United States. This is something the U.S. used to consider anathema, but I think the U.S. would consider this a welcome shift towards a more sustainable posture for the longer term. 

So they need to pull out more capabilities. There may need to be some consultation arrangements, sharing arrangements for those capabilities that we’ll continue to rely on from NATO, whether it’s enablers, or whether it’s intelligence support. But even there I think where there’s a will there’s a way. Europe certainly has the know-how, the wealth to have a much more robust military posture, and this could end up being a boon for European defense industries, which are still, you know, complaining that they are being overshadowed by the U.S. industry.  

I think that, you know, Europe should press President Biden to be more forthcoming on this; otherwise, you know, the Pentagon and U.S. companies will do their thing. But first they need to make a political decision that they want to be in the big leagues when it comes to crisis management. 

SAROTTE: All right. We’ve got three minutes, unless—did you want to jump in on that question? 

Q: I just wanted the European point of view—(off mic). 

MATTHIJS: I think Sandy’s right; I don’t think they have made that switch yet. I mean, Mary’s point on the collective sigh of relief when the Ukrainians put up quite the fight initially was significant, right? And also, while there is a sense of urgency the closest you get to Russia, you don’t get that sense of urgency in Italy and Portugal. And let’s not forget these are still schefzaka (ph), right? These are still national—we’re a lot of countries. I mean, look at how hard it was for the EU to agree on a joint stance on Israel-Gaza, right? I mean, it’s still very hard, especially while at the same time still being focused on enlarging the European Union to, you know, new member states that are much more problematic from, you know, all kinds of political, economic, democratic point of view that’s, I think, going to be all consuming. 

So I—yeah, in many ways an external shock should give this more urgency, but I’m skeptical that even a Trump presidency, who does a soft withdrawal—as Rose put it very nicely—by basically not having anybody show up; an American empty chair crisis, if you want, in NATO—would lead to an urgency for more European joint capabilities, it seems to me they will all make their bilateral deals with Trump directly, and they are already talking this way. 

SAROTTE: Yeah, just one comment from a meeting in Warsaw about a year ago on external shocks. This is with uniformed military officers and politicians from NATO countries, and a military officer said, you know, before the full-scale invasion, there were three zones in NATO. There was the zone of existential threat that was the Baltics; there was the zone of acute threat that was southern European countries who felt that migration was an acute threat; and then everyone else who was in the zone of eternal peace. (Laughter.) 

MATTHIJS: Belgium. 

SAROTTE: Among others. (Laughter.) 

GOTTEMOELLER: Among others, yes. 

SAROTTE: And none of these zones were talking—talked to each other, and they were not taking each other seriously, and now, because of the external shock, they have been taking each other seriously. Unfortunately, that hasn’t led—what we’ve been discussing here hasn’t yet led to, you know, a real transformational shift in Europe; perhaps we are en route. 

Well, we have literally one minute, so do we want to—no more questions? I’m getting a high sign here. All right, final thoughts in our final minute from the panel? 

GOTTEMOELLER: Well, one thing I did want to add—Sandy mentioned defense industries and, you know, they are really in a dire state in Germany, and part of that is demand-pull. The defense industries are saying, why should we upgrade our machine tools, why should we modernize our production lines; we’re not getting the orders in, and the orders then are hung up in a stultifying acquisition system. So there are lots of factors related to defense industry that Berlin is also going to have to address if it really wants to be in this game. 

SAROTTE: So it sounds like NATO at seventy-five, still a lot to do. 

GOTTEMOELLER: Still a lot to do, but I would say a lot more momentum than they had, at least when I was there seven years ago. 

SAROTTE: All right, that’s a positive note to end on. Thank you, people in the ether for joining us. Thank you, people in the room. Thank the—let’s thank the speakers. (Applause.) 


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