VILNIUS – The presence of a German brigade in Lithuania would be very helpful for the country, former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said, adding, however, that it is necessary to provide the infrastructure necessary for the allies.
“I think it would be very helpful for Lithuania for sure to have a German brigade here,” he said in an interview to BNS during his visit to Vilnius.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year signed a joint communique stating that “Germany is ready to lead a robust and combat-ready brigade in Lithuania dedicated to deter and defend against Russian aggression”.
Vilnius wants a full German brigade to be continuously deployed in Lithuania. Berlin officials, however, have said publicly on numerous occasions that part of the brigade will be stationed in Lithuania and the rest will stay at home but will be ready to redeploy quickly if necessary.
They also say any decision on permanent deployment should be made at the NATO level.
Esper noted that Lithuania had to provide the infrastructure necessary for the allies if it wanted to have a full brigade deployed in the country.
“I think one thing that is clear to me, both from the perspective of deploying more American troops here on some type of basis or a German brigade, is that you have to provide military units with the infrastructure to do what they need to do to maintain readiness,” he said.
OTHER TOPICS OF THE INTERVIEW:
* A breakthrough in Ukraine’s war against Russia can be expected in the near future;
* Russia’s army will be broken for some many years to come after fighting in Ukraine;
* China can help Russia rehabilitate its military;
* It is necessary to tighten sanctions against Russia and prevent loopholes;
* Delays in Sweden’s accession to NATO: Turkey uses the situation for the purposes of domestic politics;
* NATO must increase defense spending, get ready to deter China in future.
– DURING THE BALTIC MILITARY CONFERENCE, YOU SPOKE ABOUT THE STRENGTHENING OF NATO'S DETERRENCE AND DEFENSE, MILITARILY AND STRATEGICALLY. YOU ALSO TOUCHED ON LESSONS THAT COULD BE LEARNED FROM RUSSIA'S WAR IN UKRAINE. SO STARTING WITH RUSSIA'S WAR IN UKRAINE, HOW HAS THIS WAR CHANGED EUROPE'S THINKING OF DEFENSE?
– Well, I think, first of all, it changed Europe's thinking of Russia. I'm not sure that everybody in Europe understood the threat the way the United States did, the way Lithuania did, the way other frontline states do. And so I think that has been a fundamental change. I'm not sure that everyone has fully embraced that. But that has been important.
I think, second, we've understood that while the nature of warfare hasn't changed, the character of warfare has changed. So on one hand, we see Russia conducting a type of warfare that is very Russian, very Soviet attrition warfare, heavy use of artillery and infantry reminiscent of World War One. And at the same time, we've seen a post-Soviet state, Ukraine, apply lessons and tactics and munitions, learnt from the West in their 30 years since gaining independence. And so while they are also using artillery on the battlefield, they are much more adaptable. They're using drones, they're using mobile defenses. They're empowering their young soldiers and non-commissioned officers to take the battle to the Russians. So I think that's the second aspect.
The third one is the importance of a strong, vibrant defense industrial base that can sustain the fight. And we're facing that now. The EU has made a decision to purchase munitions, to let contracts to do that. The United States is doing it as well. And we've realized that conflicts expend a lot of ammunition and we have to be willing and able to do that.
– YOU TOUCHED ON TWO INTERESTING POINTS REGARDING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UKRAINE'S APPROACH AND RUSSIA'S APPROACH. CERTAIN WAR EXPERTS SAY THAT 300,000 NEW TROOPS COULDN'T GET RUSSIA'S BIG OFFENSIVE TO WORK AND SENDING MORE TO THE FRONT PROBABLY WON'T HELP. SO HOW WOULD YOU SEE THE OFFENSIVE AND THE COUNTER OFFENSIVE IN THE FUTURE? HOW WILL IT LOOK?
– Well, it seems to me that the Russian offensive is underway right now. The focus has been largely on Bachmut and the Wagner group leading the offensive. But there appears to be pressure on fronts north and south of that. And it seems that this is the best that the Russians can muster. So I don't think we are going to see some type of breakout like we might have expected previously.
I think the breakout, what we were expecting, will come from the Ukrainians. And I'm hopeful that next month, April, May, that we will see a breakout, a penetration of the Russian front line ..., led by heavy Ukrainian forces, tanks and mechanized infantry. If they really break through those lines, you'll see the Russians withdraw immediately, be pushed back or retreat out of the east. Hopefully, we can push them out of the south (too). And I think it'll be very big for the Ukrainians. They have to figure out a point where they stop and consolidate their gains and then refit for the next move. But I'm hopeful that's what we'll see in April and May.
– STAYING ON THE TOPIC OF RUSSIA'S WAR IN UKRAINE. DO YOU SEE THE URGE IN THE WEST TO PUSH UKRAINE TO CONCEDE THE TERRITORIES AND SIT TO NEGOTIATE WITH RUSSIA?
– No, never. Last night, I cited [former US President] George W. Bush, who said here in 2002 „no more Yalta, no more Munich“. The Ukrainian people have to decide what the victory looks like for them. What is put on the negotiation table. And what President [Volodymyr] Zelensky has said so far is what I would share is that Russia should leave all of Ukraine, including Crimea. But that's up to him to determine. And I think we should support him and the Ukrainian people in terms of what they want and want to achieve.
– SO YOU WOULD SAY THAT THE WEST IS NOT TIRED OF SUPPORTING UKRAINE?
– No, I don't think so. I think we still see arms and ammunition, and assistance being provided. And at times there seems to be some people who get a little wobbly and we need to firm them up. But I think this is an important question. This is the issue that Vladimir Putin is banking on, that fatigue will set in for the West, that some capitals will want to make concessions. We want the war to come to an end. And I think we have to guard against that.
– LAST MONTH, LITHUANIA’S INTELLIGENCE POINTED OUT THAT IN DECEMBER RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE PRESENTED A REORGANIZATION OF THE COUNTRY'S ARMED FORCES, WHICH SHOULD STRENGTHEN RUSSIA'S CAPABILITIES TOWARD THE WEST. IN ADDITION, RUSSIA'S CAPABILITIES IN KALININGRAD HAVE ONLY BEEN PARTIALLY AND TEMPORARILY REDUCED BECAUSE OF THE INVASION IN UKRAINE. SO SHOULD THE WEST REACT TO THIS? AND IF YES, HOW?
– I haven't seen the report. I’d like to read it and understand a little bit better.
Look, we thought Russia was a near pure threat to the United States. They had the third or fourth largest army in the world. And now we find that there are a second rate, if not a third rate military with nuclear weapons. But nonetheless, in terms of ground force, not very capable. There are reports today that the Russians are pulling out of their stocks of T-54 tanks that go back to World War Two. That's how desperate it appears the Russians have become to outfit their military. They're sending conscripts into battle without weapons, without body armor, without basic equipment.
And so I think what you're seeing is really a hollowed out ground force that if we are to believe other reports, 90% of which have been committed to the fight and have sustained up to 200 000 in losses of wounded and killed. So I think the Russian army is going to be broken for some many years to come. And they still have a capable Navy, the Air Force is largely intact, but it has proven itself incapable of achieving any type of air superiority over Ukraine.
So, again, I don't think the Russian military is what we thought it was clearly, but it doesn't mean we should completely dismiss it either.
– YOU ALSO TOUCHED ON AN INTERESTING POINT, THAT RUSSIA HAS NUCLEAR WEAPONS. SO WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES WOULD YOU SAY WOULD PROMPT RUSSIA TO USE THOSE NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN THE WAR?
– Well, if you believe them, if you believe their doctrine, it would be anything that threatens the Russian state. And I don't think that anything that Ukraine has planned or is talking about is going to threaten the Russian state itself or the existence of Russia, or the Russian government.
– SO IT'S UNLIKELY?
– I think it's very unlikely. That doesn't mean we shouldn't watch it and be concerned, but I think it's unlikely.
– CHINESE PRESIDENT XI JINPING AND PUTIN JUST WRAPPED THEIR TALKS IN MOSCOW. CAN THE DEEPENING TIES BETWEEN MOSCOW AND BEIJING HAVE AN INDIRECT IMPACT ON SECURITY ON THE EASTERN FLANK?
– Well, to the degree that if China makes a decision to help Russia rehabilitate its military, yes. We do know that Russia has, as you noted, moved troops from the eastern flank to Ukraine. And so if China can help Russia rehabilitate its military with old technology, new technology, arms, munitions, you know, that kind of restores that threat that you would have on your boundaries and borders.
And then, of course, you know, China is sustaining Russia currently through other ways, buying energy, Russian energy off the market, providing dual use goods, providing technology, things like that. And so that remains a challenge, having that strategic partnership. And they're not the only country doing it. I mean, India, for example, is buying Russian goods and munitions and things like that. So I think we need to continue to work to contain that and push these countries to get on board with these sanctions.
– WOULD YOU SAY THAT THE US AND THE WEST ARE DOING ENOUGH IN TERMS OF SANCTIONING?
– I think the United States, the administration has done a good job leading in unifying the allies and I think there have been missteps along the way. And the biggest thing I've been critical of the Biden administration about is we've been too slow, too late in providing Ukraine the weapons it needs and when it needs, whether it's HIMARS or Patriots and tanks or F-16s. We've just been too late. That said, again, I think otherwise it’s been good.
Sanctions are a different issue. The problem with sanctions is while we may have 130 countries or so that object to Russia's invasion,…, only 30 countries or so have actually applied sanctions on Russia and in many cases, those sanctions, including those used in European countries, have loopholes. And then finally, what you find is that countries adapt to sanctions. So I think we need to look at all the sanctions, we need to tighten them up and make sure there are no loopholes, particularly loopholes that allow Russia to rehabilitate its military, for example, a loophole that might allow them to acquire semiconductors and things like that.
– GOING BACK TO NATO. FROM NATO'S PERSPECTIVE, JOINT ACCESSION OF BOTH FINLAND AND SWEDEN MAKES STRATEGIC SENSE. SO WHY IS TURKEY BLOCKING THIS ACCESSION AND HOW LIKELY IT IS THAT BOTH COUNTRIES WILL JOIN DURING THE NATO SUMMIT IN VILNIUS?
– So, I mean, it looks like Finland's path to accession has been greenlighted by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Erdogan is the issue why Sweden is being delayed. And I think it's domestic politics. Sweden has done a lot to try and meet Ankara's demands. They've passed a terrorism law. They've taken other actions. And so I think they've done everything reasonable. And I just think President Erdogan has been unfair to them. That said, I'm hopeful that after elections in Turkey in May, that Sweden will take exceptional action at that point in time. And I think it is extremely important that both countries join in July.
– SO YOU THINK THAT ERDOGAN WILL LOSE THE ELECTION AND IN THAT WAY IT WILL MAKE THE ACCESSION POSSIBLE?
– I don't know whether he'll win or lose, but I think after the election's over, he will be more willing to find a way to agree to Sweden's application and approving it.
– I DON'T KNOW IF YOU FOLLOWED THE NEWS REGARDING THE DEPLOYMENT OF A GERMAN BRIGADE IN LITHUANIA. HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS THIS WHOLE SITUATION?
– Well, it's not entirely clear to me what's been committed to. I know the issue is whether or not Germany committed to provide a brigade full scale, not a supplement to the EFP, but a separate brigade… I did have a chance to spend a couple of hours at the Iron Wolf Brigade yesterday… I had a chance to talk to soldiers and see the equipment. My view is if you make a commitment, you should live up to it. And the commitment that I have harped on for a few years now is a 2% commitment. And only seven countries out of 30 have met that. Lithuania is one of them and United States, of course, is another. But that means 22 NATO allies even now, during the Russian invasion in Ukraine, are still not meeting their commitment to spending.
So if a commitment was made, then I think a commitment should be met. If you can't meet it, then don't commit to it. And so, you know, I think it would be very helpful for Lithuania for sure, to have a German brigade here. Now, on the other hand, you have to be able to support that, right, you have to be able to sustain it… I think one thing that is clear to me, both from the perspective of deploying more American troops here on some type of basis or a German brigade, is you have to provide military units with the infrastructure to do what they need to do to maintain readiness. That means maintenance, base firing ranges, training areas, maneuver areas. There's a whole series of things and that takes a lot of money to invest in that. So there's that side of it too. So I'd want to kind of hear what happened and how that all is playing out before I, you know, make a judgment one way or the other.
– YOU MENTIONED A COMMITMENT TO SPEND A CERTAIN PERCENTAGE OF THE NATION'S GDP TOWARDS DEFENSE. DO YOU BELIEVE THAT A CERTAIN COMMITMENT TO SPEND CERTAIN AMOUNT OF GDP TOWARDS DEFENSE CAN BE REACHED AT NATO SUMMIT IN VILNIUS? AND WHAT WOULD BE THE SUFFICIENT AMOUNT?
– Well, in 2014, in Wales, we agreed that 2% would be what we would all spend because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine then, right. So if that's what we committed to for that reason in 2014, then it only makes sense that we should commit to spend a little bit more in 2023 in Vilnius.
And I think we should move up to 2.5%, not just because of Russia and the ongoing conflict, but again, we face aggressive China as well. At some point, we want to be able to deter Chinese bad behavior around the world. I know it's not on Europe's front yard now, but it will eventually come home in one way, shape or form. So I think it's not unreasonable to say let's spend 2.5% of GDP. Several countries are already. Probably four or five of those countries already in NATO already doing that. But I think we need to get everybody to live up to their commitments. If we can do that, we will have true collective security.
– THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME.