U.S. ambassador to NATO discusses Europe’s biggest security crisis in decades

As NATO's annual summit begins in Madrid this week amid the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the focus of member countries will be on historic shifts in European defenses. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I talked about that topic with U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julie Smith before the Finland and Sweden announcement here in Madrid earlier today,

    Ambassador Julie Smith, thank you very much.

    Julianne Smith, U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the major announcements coming out of this summit, of course, is bolstering defense on the eastern flank.

    And Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg yesterday announced that the number of troops on high alert would grow from 40,000 to 300,000. That's a big jump. What does it actually mean?

  • Julianne Smith:

    Right now, the alliance has something called the NATO Response Force. It's about 40,000 troops that are prepared to move within 15 days.

    By the end of this year, we're going to have a much larger pool of forces pre-assigned and ready to go. And that will be up to 300,000, and with the possibility of deploying those troops on just a few days' notice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How does it really make a big difference to have a number that is so much larger, but those troops are still in their home countries at base?

  • Julianne Smith:

    Well, you're right. NATO allies do have forces at their disposal.

    Those forces train together. NATO allies regularly exercise together. But what's new and different here is that we are, in fact, pre-assigning or picking out sets of forces that will be at the ready. So, then, when a crisis does bubble to the surface, NATO allies won't have to go around and have what we would call some sort of forced generation exercise, where you're asking countries what's available.

    In this case, we will know exactly what allies have on hand and those forces will be ready to deploy within days.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The other step is the number of troops actually deployed to Eastern Europe.

    Up until now, there's been about 1,000 troops, battalion level, in the three Baltic states, as well as Poland, effectively as a trip wire, not enough troops to defend those countries themselves. Those will go up to a brigade level, 3,000 to 5,000.

    Is that a high enough number, though, to actually defend that territory?

  • Julianne Smith:

    Well, what the alliance did a couple of months ago, after Russia went into Ukraine, is, it actually tasked the commander at NATO, the SACEUR, as we call him, General Wolters, to…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    An American.

  • Julianne Smith:

    An American — to conduct a review and try and determine what the alliance would need in its eastern flank to deter and defend against some sort of Russian attack or any attack in the future.

    He came back with the advice that those allies that currently have multinational battalions, that we should be able to scale those battalions to a brigade.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Then there's the question of the NATO strategic concept, basically a kind of national security strategy for NATO.

    The last time NATO had it was 2010. And it included this sentence: "NATO-Russia cooperation is of strategic importance, as it contributes to creating a common space of peace, stability, and security."

    At the time, you were at the Pentagon. You were the head of the director of NATO policy. Looking back, was the Obama administration, was all of NATO, frankly, naive?

  • Julianne Smith:

    Well, look, we rewrite this strategic concept, this kind of national security strategy, once a decade.

    And so, when we sit down and do that, we do the best job that we can at the time. When we wrote this strategic concept in 2010, we were hopeful for a very different trajectory of NATO's relationship with Russia. Now, if you look back at what Russia did in 2014 in Crimea, if you look at what it's recently done in Ukraine again since late February, we're obviously in a completely different era and a different set of circumstances.

    So this strategic concept is going to say and look a lot different than the one from 2010. The language on Russia is going to reflect the current environment. It's going to reflect Russia's war in Ukraine, the war crimes that we have talked about there, the indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The new strategic document identifies Russia as NATO's most immediate threat.

    But there's been differences, as you know, among NATO allies about how far to go. President Macron, for example, has said the West must resist the temptation to humiliate Russia.

    Do you agree with that?

  • Julianne Smith:

    I think we all come to the table with different perspectives. Every single member of the alliance has a different history with Russia, different proximity to Russia, different geography.

    We appreciate that the countries that actually border Ukraine or Belarus, where Russia has stationed tens of thousands of troops…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And just recently, President Putin warned that Belarus could have more nuclear — more Russian nuclear weapons.

  • Julianne Smith:

    Exactly, that we understand that those countries obviously look at the situation differently than the rest of us that have some distance from the war.

    But, again, the fact that we have all come together and agreed on text that describes the threat and charts a path for NATO going forward is a remarkable moment in NATO's history.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Julie Smith, thank you very much.

  • Julianne Smith:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick will be covering those NATO meetings in Madrid in days to come.

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