US NATO Envoy: The tank discussion demonstrates that agreement is not a liability

An uncomfortable spotlight on the German government in recent days – under pressure at home and abroad to send its tanks to Ukraine – and taking its time to decide. In the end, Berlin will supply the Leopards in a deal with other countries matching the offer.

But how damaging have the weeks of wrangling been to NATO’s image and how many lives will the delays cost? My guest this week is Julianne Smith, US ambassador to the alliance. As the war goes on will Nato push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia? That is a decision for Ukraine. We do not want to dictate the terms under which the Ukrainians will come to the negotiating table. They get to decide. So what does this episode tell us about NATO? Why does President Biden think the issue of weapons supplies could break up the alliance? And despite Ukraine doing all the fighting, isn’t the West – like it or not – in a state of war with Russia? Julianne Smith, welcome to Conflict Zone. Thank you.

For all the talk about NATO unity, recent days have shown considerable disunity and some bad blood among member states over the issue of sending Leopard tanks to Kyiv. How damaging do you think this has been to NATO’s image? These public spats in the middle of a major European land war. Well, I have the good fortune of sitting inside NATO headquarters each and every day. And I can assure you that from where I sit, what I see on a daily basis is nothing but continued unity. Do we occasionally disagree on issues that bubble to the surface as it relates either to the war in Ukraine or other NATO issues? Absolutely.

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We all come to the table with our own histories. We sit in different places. We have different geography, different perspectives, and different domestic pressures. But the reality is that throughout this war, over the last year, and even in recent days, we have been able to stand united. We have been able to showcase our resolve to ensure that the Ukrainian forces have what they need to defend their territory and that we’re determined to stay the course. So I am not at all worried about anything that’s transpired in recent days, weeks or months. I think the strength of this alliance is its ability to work through our differences and maintain unity despite those differences.

So, frankly, I just don’t see the damage. I see a commitment on the part of several allies to come forward and give additional and critical assistance to the Ukrainians right now in real-time. But what we’ve seen is weeks of wrangling over the issue of the tanks at a pivotal moment in this war. Those weeks will almost certainly cost lives, won’t they? Isn’t that regrettable? Well, what we see is the allies in near-daily contact with Ukrainian military commanders to first and foremost understand what their real-time requirements are. We’ve been doing this since February 24th of last year.

You know that the United States is also leading what is called the UDCG or the contact group. This is where 50 different countries come together monthly and hear directly from the Ukrainians about their military requirements. We then cross-reference those requirements with what allies are willing and able to give. And it’s been an evolution. We didn’t start talking about armored vehicles. We started talking about Stingers and Javelins when Russian forces were racing toward Kyiv. In the summer, we talked a lot about munitions. You’ll remember how urgent that requirement was.

We’ve had periods during this war where we’ve actually talked about coastal defense as well. And right now, yes, we are focused very much on armored vehicles and tanks because we have reached the conclusion in our conversations with the Ukrainians that we have to ensure that they can maneuver.

And that they can not only defend their territory but position themselves for success, assuming that another counteroffensive is coming both on their part and possibly on the Russians’ part. And so, you’re right, this has been a series of conversations. You heard our president talk about the heavy engagement we’ve had not only with the German government but with other allies as well, to see what more we can get into the hands of the Ukrainians as soon as is humanly possible.

So we have a pivotal moment right now for the alliance. I think the decision that was made yesterday was the right one. And you heard the urgency with which both governments are handling the situation. Both Chancellor Scholz and President Biden talked about the need to move this equipment into the hands of the Ukrainians as soon as humanly possible. You talk about it as a conversation, but the calls for these weapons have, with the weeks going by, become increasingly urgent from the Ukrainian side. And there’s been some pretty trenchant criticism of the German position.

Poland, for instance, said “arming Ukraine in order to repel Russian aggression is not some kind of decision-making exercise. Ukrainian blood is shed for real. This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries.” Do NATO members really need reminding of how serious the stakes are in this war? Well, again, since I sit here inside the NATO alliance each and every day, I can assure you that everyone understands the seriousness of the situation. Folks understand the urgency.

We understand how remarkable the Ukrainian military forces have been, and how effective they’ve been in pushing back against Russian aggression. We understand the urgency of the situation because we have been here week after week for nearly a year now, ensuring that we can maintain that support for Ukraine and give them not only the security assistance that we’re talking about here today but to urgently move other forms of assistance. We understand the urgent need to get them humanitarian assistance, economic assistance, and certainly assistance to cope with these attacks on critical infrastructure inside Ukraine.

We’re moving rapidly to get them things like fuel and generators and winter gear. So we take the situation very seriously here. We meet literally every week about the war in Ukraine. Every ministerial, every NATO summit we’ve had over the last year has included our friends in Ukraine and they are top of mind.

So I can assure you that no one takes their requirements lightly, certainly not the United States, which has provided close to $27 billion worth of support in security assistance over the last year. Germany, in the end, gave in under enormous pressure and said it would send tanks. But what does this episode tell us about collective decision-making inside the alliance? Is there going to be a row every time Ukraine needs more sophisticated weapons? Well, what it tells me is what I’ve seen since the first day I arrived here at the NATO alliance — that consensus takes work.

And we have discussions on Ukraine each and every week because there is a whole range of ongoing and real-time challenges and questions that we have to debate. And as I noted at the top, allies bring different perspectives and those perspectives need to be heard. But also one of the strengths of this alliance is our ability to put our collective weight behind a single decision, a single initiative, and a single policy. In this case, it’s about supporting Ukraine. There is full consensus on that.

But we do debate each and every week different aspects of what’s going on inside Ukraine and how we can best help them, again, as fast as humanly possible. So the consensus is something that is a reality here inside the NATO alliance. But personally, I look at a consensus as one of the strongest attributes of this alliance, because when we take the decision, as we did yesterday, we come together, and we saw allies moving out on a decision. It’s not just about Germany and the United States, about other allies.

The United Kingdom has come forward. They’re going to be donating the Challenger-2s. We’ve heard some rumblings among some of the other countries that have Leopard-2s about their interest in sending this-, those types of capabilities. So this is a collective decision to continue to move forward in our support. And that consensus, again, I see as not a liability at all, but really as an asset.

And it speaks to NATO’s strength. President Biden himself has alluded quite strongly to some of the considerable difficulties he’s faced in keeping NATO from breaking up and how divisive the issue of weapons, which weapons to send, still is. He said on December 21st at the White House “the idea that we would give Ukraine matériel that is fundamentally different than is already going there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world.” That’s pretty apocalyptic, isn’t it? So these arguments about what to give and what not to give Kyiv are going to go on, aren’t they? With the potential to cost more lives and actually destroy the alliance? Well, tragically, this war changes each and every day. We’ve seen the Russians pursue all sorts of forms of aggression, whether it’s the conventional attacks that their forces are pursuing, an undertaking against Ukrainian military forces, whether it’s the war crimes and human rights abuses that we’ve witnessed inside Ukraine, or whether we’re talking about the attacks on critical infrastructure. So this is not a stagnant picture inside Ukraine.

It has changed almost each and every week of this conflict. And as a result, the allies frequently sit around a table and talk about how best to assist the people of Ukraine and most importantly, the military inside Ukraine as they defend their territory against Russian aggression. Again, I do not consider consensus to be a liability. It’s a strength. It takes work. Maintaining unity means that we have to stay in constant conversation. But that’s what we do here inside the NATO alliance. And I think we do it well. And we draw from NATO’s history — almost 75 years of history — of working through differences when they bubble to the surface. So I am fully confident that NATO will stand united.

I see no cracks in this alliance whatsoever, in part because I think allies fundamentally understand what’s at stake here. We know that the Ukrainians are fighting to defend their territory, but every single ally here also appreciates that they’re defending the values that we all hold dear. And for that reason, there’s simply no alternative. We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. And I don’t see that position changing one way or another. And yet your president thought it necessary to flag up the prospect that both NATO and the EU could break apart over this issue of which weapons to send. I think the story between NATO and the EU, again, is a very positive one.

If you had told me… Well, he didn’t seem to think so. …just a couple of years ago that the European Union would be providing lethal support to the Ukrainian people or assistance, security assistance, I don’t think I would have believed you. This has been a major turning point for the European Union and an important one.

And the other half of that is that in addition to changing its stance on providing security assistance, we also have the case where these two bodies that exist in the same city here in Brussels don’t always come together. But in the case of Ukraine, we have a situation where both the EU and NATO have joined forces to focus on their support for Ukraine. What does that mean in practice? What that means in practice is that each time NATO foreign ministers or NATO defense ministers or even NATO heads of state meet here in Brussels or in another location, we have the European Union present. They are with us at the table. They’re with us at the table because we see added value in messaging, not only the Ukrainian people, and obviously Moscow as well, but in messaging the global community about the level of unity that we are seeing. It’s been quite remarkable between these two organizations and how they’ve been able to enhance their cooperation as it relates to the ongoing war in Ukraine. So the EU-NATO piece actually is a remarkable story of enhanced cooperation and one that I think we can build on in the future.

Ambassador, why the lack of detail from the Alliance about its strategic objectives? The aims seemed pretty vague so far. You said it yourself — “we’ll do what it takes. We’ll stay the course. Russia mustn’t win, Ukraine mustn’t lose, Ukraine must be able to defend itself.” Do you have in your mind a vision of what this war should aim to accomplish for Ukraine? Beyond those — beyond those generalized and vague comments? Well, first of all, to step back, I think the strategic objectives inside the NATO alliance are crystal clear. We have made it very clear in public statements, declarations, summit communique, press releases, and all the right-, all the rest that we’re focused, number one, on reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank and making sure that our NATO allies have their security needs to be addressed.

Number two, we will maintain our individual support for the people of Ukraine and the Ukrainian military forces. Number three, collectively… For how long? For how long? We will continue to apply pressure on Moscow. In terms of your question about the outcome or where this war is headed or what strategic direction we’re aiming for: Let’s not forget that this is a war that Ukrainians are fighting against Russian aggression. The Ukrainian government, President Zelenskyy, and the people around him need to determine for themselves where they’re going, what their plans are, and what their strategy is. We’re here to support you.

NATO’s not directly engaged. This is not a conflict between NATO and Russia. This is a war stemming from Moscow, from President Putin against Ukraine. And Ukraine will ultimately have to make its own sovereign decisions about how it wants to defend its territory and push Russia out and end this war. But the most important player in all of this is obviously President Putin. He’s the one that started the war on February 24th last year. He’s the guy who can end the war, and we will do everything we can to alter his strategic calculus to try and encourage him to move in a different direction and take Russian forces out of Ukraine. But the question you’re asking… You say you’re not… …in the hands of the Ukrainians… You’re not participants in the war, but you’re not just bystanders either. You train, you supply, and you pour in vast sums of money to keep the country afloat. You give intelligence, and you advise on war plans. You do everything except pull the trigger yourselves. Isn’t the distinction between fighter and supplier getting pretty academic? Certainly seems to be as far as Moscow is concerned. The NATO alliance has been very clear.

NATO allies, this alliance, is not providing direct lethal support. NATO does not have any presence on the ground. NATO troops are not on the ground inside Ukraine. But individual allies have come to Ukraine’s aid as it defends its territory against Russian aggression. I do think it’s an important distinction. Russia tries very hard to put out a different counternarrative that is false. It tries often to state that NATO is directly engaged and the Alliance is not. We are assisting the Ukrainian military to defend its territory.

Full stop. Is NATO running scared of Russia? I ask because by acknowledging continually Moscow’s nuclear threats and in effect tiptoeing around Putin, hasn’t NATO already given in to nuclear blackmail? I think what NATO has made clear is that we find this Russian nuclear saber-rattling to be very worrisome. We’ve called them out. Individual countries like my own, the United States, you’ve heard from the Biden administration on this question, we’ve messaged to the Russians very clearly that there would be catastrophic consequences should they turn to use their nuclear arsenal. There’s a lot of blusters out there right now. We don’t see evidence that Russia is preparing to use its nuclear arsenal in any way, shape, or form. But again, NATO allies have been very clear that Russia would face severe consequences should they choose to do so. Ambassador Smith, former NATO Commander Richard Shirreff said yesterday “the people need to recognize that in a very real sense, a state of war now exists between the West and Russia.” Do you accept that? I accept that Russia has aggressively started a war inside Ukraine.

That’s the reality. That’s what we’re talking about. I don’t think we are here to talk about the Russian narrative, as I noted earlier, that Russia is somehow engaged in a direct conflict with the NATO alliance. That’s preposterous and obviously not true. This is between two nations. This is between Russia and Ukraine. It’s about one country violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another. It’s about the principles of the UN charter, and it’s about the global community, not just the West. This isn’t just about NATO allies.

This isn’t just about North American and European allies supporting Ukraine. What’s interesting when we convene the contact group is that we have many other countries around the table from faraway corners around the globe supporting Ukraine in its right to self-defense. And they’re doing that because they fundamentally understand that Russia is violating the core tenets of the UN charter.

And we’ve also seen in votes at the United Nations, we’ve had over 140 countries come forward and condemn Russia’s attempted and illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. That type of global support says to me that the global community is united in supporting Ukraine in this moment and shares a deep appreciation for not only what’s at stake, but what type of principles Russia is violating with this ongoing war in Ukraine. So, so you don’t accept Shirreff’s view that there is, in a real sense, a state of war existing between the West? This is a man who was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2011 to 2014. And his view is that to prevent this from escalating, you have to prepare for the worst-case scenario and prepare to inflict real pain on Russia if it should attack a Western country. But he says there’s no sign those preparations are being made by NATO.

Do you agree with that? It’s an interesting question about planning because that’s a lot of what goes on here inside the NATO alliance. I would note that in the months and weeks leading up to February 24th last year, the NATO allies were preparing for all contingencies. NATO allies were obviously willing to sit down in the NATO-Russia Council. We met with the Russians here at NATO headquarters for four long hours on January 12th. The idea there was to try and encourage the Russians to pick a different path, to urge them to take the diplomatic off-ramp.

They did not. But while we were doing that, while NATO allies were meeting with the Russians here at NATO headquarters, simultaneously, we were planning for all contingencies. What does that mean? That means that NATO allies were preparing for the worst-case scenario. We knew that one option was that a war could break out. Because of that, allies were preparing plans. They were looking at the basic tenets of deterrence and defense. They were preparing to move thousands of troops into Eastern Europe, and they were beginning to think about ways that they could support the Ukrainian military.

All of that fell into place seamlessly on the morning of February 24th, so that when I got the call at three in the morning that day, we knew what we needed to do. On February 24th, NATO was ready for that moment. Similarly… Ambassador, you say that… can I, can I just… We’ve prepared for all, I’m sorry. Let me finish. We’ve prepared for all contingencies. We are looking at all possibilities. NATO allies are ensuring that they can defend every inch of NATO territory and we take that job very seriously. And we rolled out a series of decisions last summer that made radical changes to NATO Force Posture. All right. Similarly, our support for Ukraine, as I said at the top, continues.

So what I see here is an alliance that is always assessing the security environment and preparing for many different contingencies. You say that, but last week the British Defense secretary, Ben Wallace, let slip that Britain, the second overall largest spender in NATO, is now unable to field a single war-fighting division of just 10,000 troops. This is almost a year into the Ukraine war. Don’t you find that a pretty shattering revelation in view of the assurances you’ve just given me? Well, we want to ensure that all of the allies have forces in place at the ready. And we’ve taken a series of decisions both last year and will be rolling out additional decisions at the Vilnius summit this summer to ensure that NATO has forces at increased readiness, at a heightened state of readiness, and that we have a bigger pool of forces from which we can draw.

The key to that, as you well know, is resourcing. And so one of the things that we’ll be talking about this summit-, at the summit this summer, is what to do with the NATO’s-, well, it’s called the Defense Investment Pledge, DIP sometimes for short. And that’s the pledge where NATO allies came together and said that they would each spend 2% of GDP on their national defense. Many allies have made progress. Some have some further distance to go. And so we’ll be talking about what comes after the Defense Investment Pledge, which in theory expires next year.

How do you think this war is going to end? Do you accept that the prospect of a grand military victory is pretty unlikely? I think what we’re focused on right now is ensuring that we put the Ukrainians in the best position possible for the situation when potential negotiations could occur. We don’t know when that will happen. I think many of us anticipate at some point Ukrainians and Russians will find the need to return to the negotiating table. And when that happens, we want to be sure that Ukraine is standing in the strongest possible position. So that’s our focus.

I can’t make any predictions about the outcome of this war. None of us can. None of us know what Putin is thinking and when and whether he’s going to pull his troops out. I will say we expect Ukraine to prevail and we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure that that is the case. Will NATO push Ukraine into negotiations even if it isn’t ready? That is a decision for Ukraine.

We do not want to dictate the terms under which the Ukrainians will come to the negotiating table. They get to decide. They get to determine the conditions under which they’re ready and willing to take on negotiations, and we’ll leave that in their hands. That is for them to decide. It’s their own sovereign decision. Ambassador Julianne Smith, thanks very much for being on Conflict Zone. Thank you.

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