Ambassador Vershbow’s Keynote at the European Parliament

By Ambassador Alexander Vershbow


Opening Remarks by

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow

Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council of the United States

Former NATO Deputy Secretary General (2012-2016)

Former US Ambassador to NATO, Russia, and the Republic of Korea

at the Launch of
The Alphen Group (TAG)
Comprehensive Strategy to Secure Ukraine’s Future

European Parliament, Brussels

6 June 2023

Let me begin by thanking Anna Fotyga for inviting me to the European Parliament to address this important and timely conference.

It has now been fifteen months since Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, which unleashed the biggest crisis in European and global security since World War II.  The stakes go beyond Ukraine and its survival as an independent state.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has dealt a serious blow to the European security order that the transatlantic community has sought to build – working with Russia — since the end of the Cold War.  Defeating Putin in Ukraine is essential if that security order is ever to recover.

Defeating Putin doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it did when the war began in February of last year. Ukraine’s armed forces defied all expectations in winning the battle for Kyiv last spring and in two successful counter-offensives in the fall. They are about to launch a new counter-offensive in which they hope to recover additional occupied territories. If they are successful, it could represent a real turning point in the war.

But as the battle for Bakhmut reminds us, the war is far from over. Russia has been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands additional troops and has built substantial fortifications to slow the Ukrainians’ advance in the hopes of forcing a stalemate.  Western policymakers need to gird themselves for a long struggle likely to extend well into next year and convince their publics why it is essential to support Ukraine for the long haul.

Containment must once again be the focus of our overall strategy toward Russia.  But containment will be even more difficult than it was during the Cold War, since we have few of the guardrails that helped manage tensions and control the arms race in the past. Even the modest ambition of “peaceful coexistence” may be out of reach, given Putin’s obsession with subjugating his neighbors and reconstituting the Russian empire.

Moreover, even if developments on the battlefield force Russia to end the war on terms relatively favorable to Kyiv, as we all hope, Putin will not readily abandon his broader revisionist aims. For Putin’s Russia, Ukraine is Ground Zero in its existential war against the West. A winding down of the military conflict is unlikely to reduce Russia’s efforts to control Ukraine by other means or to dominate its other neighbors, including the Baltic States and other NATO and EU members.  Information warfare, covert action, sabotage, energy blackmail, counter-sanctions, support for pro-Russian separatists and other hybrid attacks will all remain active parts of the Russian toolkit against its neighbors and the West. 

Although Putin grossly underestimated Western unity and resolve in launching his war of choice, he may still hope that allied publics and parliaments will grow tired of supporting Ukraine, just as he hopes to break the will of the Ukrainian people by bombing the country’s cities and civilian infrastructure.  As the war grinds on into 2024 and potentially devolves into a stalemate, Russia may count on pressures increasing on the United States and its allies to accept a ceasefire that would freeze the conflict, leaving Russian occupation forces in place.

Allied leaders will need to explain to their citizens what is at stake, and why a ceasefire in current conditions would only help Putin seize victory from the jaws of defeat. The time for negotiations may come, but right now it is vital to maintain sanctions and continue to supply advanced weapons to the Ukrainians for as long as it takes to defeat Russia, expel Russian forces from Ukrainian lands, and help Ukraine secure a lasting and just peace.

The TAG Ukraine Strategy 2023 offers a comprehensive blueprint to that end, and I am honored to present the strategy to you today on behalf of the TAG’s Chairman, the indefatigable Julian Lindley-French, and the 70-plus members of the TAG on five continents, many of whom contributed to the report. 

The overarching aim of the TAG strategy 2023 is to secure a legitimate peace for Ukraine as quickly as possible and secure that peace going forward.  The strategy describes the scope and extent of western support that will be required to achieve these goals across the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic domains. 

The specific aims of the strategy are threefold:

  • to bring the war to an end on terms acceptable to Kyiv that deny the Russians the fruits of aggression and ensure that Russia does not invade Ukraine again;
  • to restore Ukraine as an independent state in full control of its internationally-recognized borders, with the capabilities to deter and defeat any further Russian aggression; and
  • by securing Ukraine’s future, to demonstrate to any potential aggressors that the democratic nations will defend the rules-based international order.

The strategy acknowledges that a new European security system will be needed to restore respect for the principles of international law that Russia has violated and, over time, to lay the basis for a new relationship with Russia.  But in the near term, the focus must be on isolating and defeating Russia, and restoring Ukraine to the ranks of free, independent nations after Russia’s brazen attempt to erase it from the map. 

The TAG strategy is based on several basic principles:

  • Russian aggression and attempts to change borders by force must not be rewarded or legitimized in any way.
  • Russia must pay reparations for the destruction it has inflicted on Ukraine and be held accountable for war crimes and acts of genocide.
  • There can be no de facto Russian veto over NATO’s support for Ukraine and no secret deals with Moscow that undercut Ukraine’s position.
  • The lifting of sanctions on Russia will only come as a consequence of Russian action to reverse its aggression and respect Ukrainian sovereignty, and only over time.
  • The West must be able to determine the European security order on its own terms, including Ukraine’s place in it; and,
  • In defending these principles, a direct NATO-Russia war should be avoided.

The TAG strategy 2023 recommends a range of policies and initiatives along multiple tracks, of which I will highlight just a few.

The most immediate recommendations relate to getting Ukraine the additional weapons it needs to take back significant territory in the upcoming counter-offensive and beyond, and thereby avoid a prolonged stalemate.

  • After months of hesitation, the US and other allies have recently expanded the types of Western systems available to Ukraine, including western-model tanks, long-range drones and (soon) 4th generation fighter jets.  But concerns about provoking Russian escalation continue to impede the provision of critical long-range strike systems (such as the ATACMS) that could deny Russia the use of occupied Crimea as a sanctuary for offensive missile attacks. 
  • In my view, Allies need to pull out all the stops in equipping Ukraine with the means to retake more occupied territory, while urging Kyiv to refrain from attacks on Russian territory with western-supplied arms that could trigger Russian escalation.

The TAG strategy contains several proposals on the diplomatic track. It envisages that the members of NATO and the EU, together with other like-minded democracies (Japan, Australia, and South Korea) will continue to lead diplomatic efforts to press Russia to end its invasion and refrain from further aggression. We suggest that this be implemented through a “G7 Plus” group of nations and a Ukraine Joint Plan of Action.

  • To demonstrate the democratic nations’ unity and resolve, the strategy proposes a new “Declaration for Ukraine” laying out the principles for war termination, including restoration of full Ukrainian sovereignty within its pre-2014 borders, backed by mutual security commitments to deter Russian aggression and ensure Ukraine’s long-term future.

The security commitments are especially important to securing the peace and preventing Russia from invading a third time. 

The strategy recommends two complementary initiatives: an accelerated NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) to promote Ukraine’s fast-track accession to the Alliance as the ultimate goal; and a NATO-Ukraine Deterrence and Defense Partnership (DDP) as a transitional step. 

  • Under the DDP, Allies would commit to bolster Ukraine’s capabilities to a level sufficient to deter and defeat any outside aggression, similar to the US defense commitment to Israel. 
  • The DDP would serve as an interim security guarantee until NATO members are ready to extend the protection of Article 5 to Ukraine (which is likely to take a few years even in the best case).

The Declaration would also be a vehicle for clarifying further for Russia the “catastrophic consequences” of any nuclear weapons use or another massive invasion of Ukraine.  This could include spelling out the additional military capabilities that allies would provide to Kyiv if Russia escalated further or failed to engage seriously in negotiations.

The Declaration would call for convening a Conference of European Democracies (a modern-day Congress of Vienna) to begin planning the post war order and lay out terms for dialogue with Russia and conditions-based sanctions relief.

The draft of the Declaration annexed to our report includes encouragement to China to use its leverage in support of diplomatic efforts to end the war on terms Kyiv could accept and press Russia to refrain from nuclear threats. (We have no illusion Beijing would be an honest broker, but the Chinese may see value in saving their strategic partner from further defeats.)

We also acknowledge the need for enhanced diplomatic efforts with India and other important democracies, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and South Africa, to urge them to get off the fence and support a just settlement.

The strategy recommends information efforts to counter Kremlin narratives, both inside Russia and in our own countries, and to convince Western publics of the need to maintain assistance to Ukraine for the long haul.

On the economic side, the strategy calls for tightening sanctions and preparing for a massive Marshall-style plan for Ukrainian reconstruction to be launched as soon as the conflict ends.  In this context, Western nations need to pass legislation to allow sequestered Russian financial reserves to be used for Ukrainian reconstruction to the maximum extent possible.

The strategy concludes with a brief assessment of lessons learned for NATO from the conflict to date and some thoughts on the way ahead, which my colleagues can address during the discussion. 

Russia’s military may be much weaker than when Putin launched this unnecessary war 15 months ago, but Russia is “down but not out.”  Sooner or later, the Russian military will rebuild and regroup, and NATO allies must continue to strengthen their defense and deterrence capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, across Central and Eastern Europe and meet their NATO defense spending goals. This is not the time for peace dividends.

Thank you for your attention.  I have only been able to highlight a few of the main recommendations in the TAG Ukraine Strategy 2023, but I hope I have piqued your interest in studying the full report and sharing it with colleagues both here and in capitals. 

Let me once again thank the TAG’s Chairman, Julian Lindley-French, for his leadership in this project and Anna Fotyga for her help in organizing today’s conference.