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Facing Russia, NATO Seeks Balance Of Deterrence, Dialogue

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also said NATO must be firm with Russia, warning that "our hesitation and ambiguity may encourage Russia to further adventures" of an unpredictable nature. (file photo)

MUNICH -- NATO must mix robust deterrence and "hard-headed engagement" with Russia to address the potential threats posed by Moscow's aggressive activity, senior officials of the alliance and member states say.

The remarks in a panel discussion at the annual Munich Security Conference on February 13 reflected the search for a way to guarantee the security of NATO member states, particularly in Eastern Europe, in the wake of Russia's interference in Ukraine.

They came on a tense day during which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused NATO of fomenting a new Cold War with Moscow, and the alliance's chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said that Russia was "destabilizing Europe."

NATO has moved in the past year to strengthen its capabilities near Russia's borders, and Stoltenberg said he expects further measures to be decided at a summit in Warsaw in July. He called for "more defense" as well as "more dialogue" with Russia.

Panelists and senior officials in the audience elaborated on that theme.

Petr Pavel, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said that he had heard calls for the "containment" of Russia but believes that approach would only increase the risk a military confrontation.

Pavel said containment suggests "sealing off the problem," which he said "should not be our aim" because it would leave NATO in the dark about Russia's intentions. Instead, he called for a combination of deterrence and engagement.

"To understand their intentions, we need dialogue," Pavel said.

British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said that NATO "must become fitter -- able to react not just in weeks or days but in hours" as it faces "a new urgency" due to what he called Russia’s refusal to accept the territorial integrity of other nations.

He also called for "hard-headed engagement with Russia," which means "being clear."

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also said NATO must be firm with Russia, warning that "our hesitation and ambiguity may encourage Russia to further adventures" of an unpredictable nature.

NATO's new measures include rotating forces into states on its eastern flank and conducting exercises in the area. It has stopped short of permanent deployments in the area, which Russia claims would violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.

In that document, NATO declared that "in the current and foreseeable security environment," it would refrain from the "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" as it accepted new members in the east.

Waszczykowski, whose country has called for permanent NATO troop deployments on its territory, argued that the alliance has no obligation to adhere to the 1997 promise because it faces "a completely different situation" and "a completely different Russia."

"We cannot accept the idea that the deployment of troops on the territory of the eastern flank, and the creation of defense facilities, would be some kind of confrontational push with Russia," Waszczykowski said.

"Just the opposite, I think that lack of deployment, lack of troops, lack of defense installations means weakness -- and weakness leads to confrontation, and to incidents and provocations," he said.

The animus that was palpable in remarks earlier in the day returned when Aleksandr Grushko, Russia's ambassador to NATO, emerged from the audience and said that deterrence and engagement are mutually exclusive.

Grushko, who appeared agitated, said that "any attempts to create isolated islands of security are doomed" and that the current challenges faced by Europe, such as terrorism and migration, "demand" that NATO cooperate with Russia.

"When will NATO stop fueling this perception that...Russia will attack the Baltic states, Poland.... You understand there are no real threats; this is not a real security agenda," he said. "Russia is not interested in any confrontation with NATO" but will "take all necessary steps to ensure our security."

Waszczykowski said that NATO must be ready.

"After 2008, your war with Georgia, after 2014, your war against Ukraine, and after 2015, the engagement of Russia in Syria, we have to be wise before the event," he said. "This time, we cannot be wise after the event."

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said he was pleased to hear Grushko say Russia will not attack the Baltic states.

But Vershbow said that "we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario" and ensure that any incursion is met by "real combat resistance."

Grushko repeated a Russian mantra that no state should seek to enhance its own security at the expense of another state's security. Vershbow said Russia had clearly violated that principle by forcefully annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.