February 26, 2016
NATO’s current presence in Europe’s east is insufficient to provide credible deterrence, must be ramped up, and include a nuclear component, said Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevičs.

“A nuclear component should be part of the overall NATO Article 5 deterrence policy,” Rinkevičs said, noting that Russian officials have openly stated that they cannot rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. (NATO’s Article 5 states that an armed attack against one member is an attack against all and sets in motion the possibility of collective self-defense.)

Last year, Russia’s Ambassador in Copenhagen warned Danish warships could become “targets for Russian nuclear missiles” if Denmark joins NATO’s missile-defense shield.

“We have seen that rhetoric increasing,” Rinkevičs said in an interview at the Atlantic Council’s headquarters in Washington on February 26.

“We all understand that the nuclear component of the United States and other NATO member states has been a vital part of deterrence policies during the Cold War, and I think it should be that way,” he added.

At its Warsaw Summit in July, NATO must respond to a “revisionist” Russia by deciding on a long-lasting troop presence in the Baltic States, Poland, and on the Alliance’s eastern flank, Rinkevičs said. It must also commit to strengthening air defenses and a naval component of deterrence, and creating the necessary infrastructure to preposition military equipment, he added.

The Obama administration announced earlier in February that it wants to quadruple US military spending in Europe in its bid to counter Russia; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the Alliance would boost its “forward presence” in Eastern Europe to send a “clear signal” to any potential aggressor.

Russia exploits migrant crisis

Russia is engaged in an “active diplomatic effort” to split the European Union, which is already facing multiple crises, including a debate over the United Kingdom’s future in the bloc and a historic migrant crisis—the largest movement of people across the continent since World War II, said Rinkevičs.

“We have seen that Russian propaganda is exploring migration as the issue to actually influence societies and public opinion in many European countries by sending the message that the EU has failed,” the Latvian Minister said.

“At the same time, I do believe that we all understand that if the crisis of migration in Europe or the UK’s decision to leave the EU may actually end the European project as we know it, then we will be in a situation where nobody—across the spectrum of opinion—will be happy that we are going to see turmoil for years to come that will affect everyone,” he added.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevičs spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen at the Atlantic Council’s headquarters in Washington. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: You have described NATO’s presence in the Balkans as inadequate to provide a credible deterrence. What must be done to fix this situation?

Rinkevičs: In the spring of 2014, when the annexation of Crimea happened and events in eastern Ukraine unfolded, NATO made the right decisions at that time. The reassurance measures introduced in April 2014, the Wales Summit decisions in September 2014 have been an adequate response. But I think what we are seeing is that we need a decision at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July on a couple of very important measures.

First, NATO must declare that because of the current situation in Europe’s east—where a revisionist country, Russia, is trying to be more assertive, especially in its neighborhood—we need a very clear decision about a long-lasting presence of allied troops in the Baltic States, in Poland, or in the region that is now sometimes referred to as the eastern flank of NATO.

Second, we do believe that those troops that are right now stationed on a rotational basis for exercises are doing a great job, but we also think that for a real and credible deterrence we need an increase of allied soldiers in the region. We need to speak about strengthening air defenses, strengthening a naval component of deterrence, and creating the necessary infrastructure where prepositioning of military equipment could be conducted so that in case of any contingency both armed forces of the Baltic States as well as NATO allies could respond effectively.

Q: Do you have specific numbers in mind when it comes to troop levels?

Rinkevičs: This is an issue that is still being discussed by military planners. One thing that I can definitely say is that we do not think that the current numbers—company-plus size for every Baltic State—is a sufficient deterrent. We do believe that some studies, like the RAND study and the Atlantic Council report, show that there are some areas that we have to address seriously. There is also ongoing work in NATO and world capitals analyzing how to strengthen Article 5 capabilities in defense of the Baltic States, Poland, and the eastern flank.

Issues related to the so-called area-denial problem, where if there is a challenge of NATO Article 5 and there is a need to get more troops on the ground then there is also the necessary logistical capability—ports, airports—and they can function and are not being destroyed.

Q: Is there a nuclear component in what you are seeking?

Rinkevičs: This is something that has to be discussed. A nuclear component should be part of the overall NATO Article 5 deterrence policy. We have recently seen many Russian officials openly stating that they can’t exclude the use of nuclear weapons. For instance, some time ago the Russian Ambassador in Denmark was making statements that if Denmark will participate in a missile-defense program then Russian tactical nuclear weapons would be targeted against Danish warships. We have seen that rhetoric increasing.

We all understand that the nuclear component of the United States and other NATO member states has been a vital part of deterrence policies during the Cold War and I think it should be that way.

Q: Are you concerned that the focus on Syria—where the United States is working with Russia to build a durable ceasefire—and Europe’s preoccupation with the migrant crisis has resulted in security challenges on Europe’s eastern flank taking a back seat? Specifically, has the implementation of the Minsk Agreements been put on the backburner turning Ukraine into a frozen conflict?

Rinkevičs: I met officials in the State Department and Congress and we were discussing not only Ukraine, the Warsaw Summit, and defense of NATO’s eastern flank, but also the migration crisis, Syria, Europe. I think we can really say that, at least here in Washington, I heard loud and clear that the focus on NATO’s eastern flank, events in Ukraine, implementation of the Minsk Agreement, and the situation in Europe’s east has not shifted.

At the same time, we are faced with multiple challenges both here in the United States as well as in the European Union—migration, the Brexit referendum, the situation in Syria and the tension in the region as such is demanding a lot of attention and resources. I think it is very important to understand that if we lose focus for even a short period we can get back into a much more serious situation, be it Ukraine, be it Moldova, or any other issue on the table. I hope that we will, on both sides of the Atlantic, find a way and enough resources to deal with all those issues at once because all of them demand immediate attention and a lot of resources when it comes to diplomacy, building coalitions, and addressing all those challenges. So I don’t think that here in Washington people are losing focus, but I do believe that the complex multiple challenges we are facing increases the risk of losing attention.

Q: Europe is grappling with a historic migrant crisis. What impact has this had on EU unity and do you see Russia exploiting this crisis to divide Europe?

Rinkevičs: We have a serious challenge of decision making, leadership, and unity in the European Union when it comes to the overall migration issue. There are different views about what should be done, but not all decisions that have been made are sufficiently implemented.

We also have seen that there is very active diplomatic effort by Russia to split the EU when it comes to foreign policy be it sanctions that have been imposed over [Russia’s actions in] eastern Ukraine.

We have seen that Russian propaganda is exploring migration as the issue to actually influence societies and public opinion in many European countries by sending the message that the EU has failed. At the same time, I do believe that we all understand that if the crisis of migration in Europe or the UK’s decision to leave the EU may actually end the European project as we know it, then we will be in a situation where nobody—across the spectrum of opinion—will be happy that we are going to see turmoil for years to come that will affect everyone.

Q: On that point, is the Schengen in peril as national border controls are extended?

Rinkevičs: Yes, indeed. One of the reasons for the Schengen zone to be in peril is that we haven’t managed—and that has been the primary responsibility of EU member states—the protection of the EU’s external borders. I do support, for instance, the creation of a European border guard and coast guard service as a means to impose more uniform protection of the border. If one or another member state can’t protect its external border sufficiently then all other EU member states should help because it is in our general interests to do that. But if we don’t address those issues then I believe that we are going to see the end of the Schengen zone as we know it. There may be some little Schengen zones, but not this common space for free movement and free economic activity.

We always speak about the Schengen zone as the great achievement of freedom of movement, but it is also a great achievement in terms of economic development because you can move trucks and cargoes across the European continent without customs and border controls and that is very helpful for economic activity.

Q: The Czech Prime Minister has hinted at a Czexit debate and the Serbian Prime Minister has said the EU has “lost its magic power.” Are you worried about a contagion effect of the Brexit? Regardless of how it turns out, do you expect this Brexit debate to weaken the EU?

Rinkevičs: If the British people vote to leave the European Union, I do believe we are going to enter into uncharted waters first negotiating how that exit could happen. Second, there can be an increased level of debate in some other EU member states whether to follow suit. Third, I do believe that would weaken the European Union, but it would also weaken the United Kingdom. I don’t believe that there are going to be winners in this situation. At the end of the day we are all going to be losers.

At the same time, I believe we have come to the point with this deal that has been concluded in Brussels last week where we have to acknowledge that in effect we are going to see that there is going to be more than one level of European integration. Even if the British people vote to stay in the EU we will have multiple integration patterns. But it is still going to be called the European Union and we are going to have some basic principles. If that happens, I do believe that European integration will take a new form, we will probably have a different structure of the EU, but it will provide a good basis for Europe holding together and addressing challenges together.

The British referendum may have an effect on the public of other EU member states, but I really don’t see any good argument for countries in Europe to leave the European Union.

Q: Is there a danger that the debate triggered by the Brexit could lead to some countries falling back into Russia’s sphere of influence?

Rinkevičs: I don’t think that the Brexit would influence any other countries in Eastern Europe to fall back into Russia’s sphere of influence. What I see is that if Britain leaves we are going to lose one of our very good partners when it comes to foreign policy, economic policy, and defense policy of the European Union. On many issues we have been, and are still, like-minded nations. [The United Kingdom’s exit from the EU] would definitely have some impact on how European security and foreign and defense policy is conducted where many of us see challenges and ways to overcome them in the same way. That would leave some impact on issues that we have to address. But it is not going to create a notion that if Britain leaves country X, Y, Z will immediately fall somehow into the Russian sphere of influence.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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