Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven: the exercises ‘Vostok-2018’ are biggest since the end of the Cold War, but figures were most probably exaggerated

Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven

“Russia probably wanted to send multiple messages: that they can fight a large scale conventional war, that they can fight several conflicts at the same time, and that China and Russia are ready to defend common interests by military means,” – says Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven. In his comment for DELFI he stressed that Russia tested a full spectrum of military capabilities, including logistics, command and control, combat readiness etc. “It focused on combined operations and long distance transportation. Official figures (300 000 participants) were most probably exaggerated. Accompanying Vostok-2018, activities also took place in the West and the South, including in the Mediterranean, where we saw the biggest Russian naval deployment since the end of the Cold War,” he told DELFI.

Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven was appointed Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security in December 2016. In his exclusive interview for DELFI he answers if he is satisfied with intelligence work, why NATO is not afraid of disagreements and why Russia remains one of the main source of threat to Western Democracies.

Starting from December 2016 were there any surprises in your job? Something you didn’t expect before taking it up?

I would highlight two things. I was deeply impressed by the culture of solidarity within NATO. People call it ‘family’ and it’s not a cliché. And secondly, I was surprised to see that intelligence assessments across the 29 NATO countries are generally much closer together than most people would expect.

What are the priorities of your work today?

I focus on the major challenges from all directions: a more assertive Russia, willing to use military force; as well as cyber, hybrid war, terrorism, and the unstable situation in the Middle East.

‘We don’t consider any country as a threat’

A year ago opening the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats

in Helsinki, you said that Russia is one of the main sources of threat, but not the only one. How would you characterise the Russian threat? What are its main features?

We observe a pattern of aggressive behaviour: the illegal annexation of Crimea, continued destabilisation of Donbass, directing cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure in Ukraine and NATO Allies, trying to meddle in the US presidential elections in 2016, the attempt to murder Mr. Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the failed coup attempt in Montenegro – the list is long. Taken together, Russia appears to have a strategy to undermine Western democracies and the coherence of the Alliance and the European Union.

We do not see any imminent military threat against any NATO ally, but we see a more assertive Russia, which has significantly increased its defence budget and its military presence. Moreover, Russia has shown it is willing to use military force against its neighbours, for instance Ukraine and Georgia.

China, Iran, uncontrolled migration, Islamist terror – all of these are also threats? How would you rate them?

We don’t consider any country as a threat – but we face many challenges from many different directions. And NATO does not have the luxury of choosing. In general, we are facing the biggest security threats in a generation. They are very complex, multiple, interrelated in many ways. There is terrorism; there is breach of international rules, cyber attacks. China is investing massively in military capabilities and artificial intelligence. Iran is advancing its missile program and exerts malign influence in its region by supporting terrorist organisations and fuelling the war in Yemen. This is different from any situation NATO has faced before, and the Alliance is responding to it in multiple ways. We are increasing the readiness of our forces, we are boosting our cyber capabilities and we are supporting many other countries to improve their capabilities to face threats.

‘Undeniably there are differences’

When it comes to Russia it’s evident that Madrid and Rome assess the level of danger in a different way comparing to, say, Warsaw and Vilnius. Does it create problems for the Alliance?

NATO is an Alliance of 29 different countries, of different histories and geographies, so it is natural that sometimes there are different views and priorities. But the transatlantic relationship is strong and it is proven resilient. All our decisions are taken by consensus – and when we agree, our decisions are very powerful. That’s the basis on which we are undertaking the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the Cold War, including with the four battle groups in the Baltic countries and Poland. All Allies are contributing to the defence of our Baltic Allies, regardless of their history or geography. And the multinational nature of these deployments sends a clear signal that an attack against one Ally would trigger a response from all. And all Allies have agreed that defence and dialogue is the basis for our relationship with Russia, which was formulated at the Warsaw NATO summit (in 2016 – DELFI). On this basis we have been able to progressively reinforce our collective defence, significantly increase defence spending and at the same time maintain dialogue with Moscow in the NATO-Russia Council and between military leaders. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also regularly meets with Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov, including this week at UNGA in New York. So, yes, there are to some extent different views, because this is an Alliance of 29 democracies. But once we decide, we move together.

However transatlantic differences today seem to be on the rise. Judging by the contentious atmosphere of the Brussels summit in July there is nervousness because of the policies of the Trump administration. How does it affect the field of intelligence and security?

Undeniably there are differences across the Atlantic, take climate change, international trade or the Iran Nuclear Deal. But this is not new. There have been significant differences between Allies before, for example during the Suez crisis (in 1956 – DELFI) or the Iraq war (2003-2011 – DELFI). But despite these differences if you look at the decisions taken at the NATO summit in Brussels, the substance of the declaration was actually very rich. We agreed on a new NATO command structure, boosting cyber and hybrid capabilities, a new training mission in Iraq. Looking back, there are now three summits in a row – Wales, Warsaw and Brussels – where far-reaching decisions were taken that address the changed situation since 2014.

When it comes to cooperation with US intelligence services I can only say they are excellent. The USA are by far the greatest contributor of intelligence to the Alliance and they enthusiastically support intelligence reform.

Baltics are leaders in cyber defence

In one of the interviews you called on the intelligence services of NATO countries to work faster and coordinate better their work with NATO HQ. How are the allies performing now? Are there weak spots still?

Since I joined I have seen a definite improvement. There is a greater sharing and greater cooperation between military and civilian services. This is particularly important as we are facing not only military, but hybrid and cyber threats today. We have established new units looking at international terrorism and hybrid threats. Many nations are supporting this endeavour, but of course there is room for improvement. Services are traditionally used to cooperate bilaterally or in small groups. Faced with a deteriorating, highly complex security environment we need to cooperate more closely also in the Alliance. I am convinced that Allies are ready to go down this road.

You’ve mentioned cyber security several times. We know that Tallinn is now hosting NATO Cooperative Cyber ​​Defence Centre of Excellence. In Lithuania there is also a National Centre of Cyber security. How do you see the specific role of Baltic countries in cyber sphere?

The Baltic countries are leaders in cyber defence. All three of them take it very seriously, others can learn from them. An outstanding role is played by the Cyber Centre of Excellence in Tallinn with its highly valuable work on training, exercises and publications, such as the Tallinn manuals.

For NATO cyber is becoming increasingly important. Cyber attacks are real, they are very present threats. In recent years, NATO has taken important decisions to counter these threats: we have created Rapid Reaction Cyber Defence teams and stated that an attack in cyber space could trigger article 5 of NATO, our collective defence clause. We protect our networks 24 hours a day. At the Defence Ministers meeting in June, the Alliance decided to set up a new NATO Cyber Operation Centre, based at its military Headquarters SHAPE in Belgium. Practically all crises today have a cyber dimension. We must be as effective in cyberspace as we are and have been in the other domains land, sea and air.

In 2017 the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence batallions reinforced the defences of the Baltic states. Did it lead to an increase in Russian intelligence operations in the Baltics?

We have seen increased propaganda efforts from Russia. Perhaps the best known example is the claim that a young Lithuanian girl had been raped by a German officer (spring 2017 –DELFI). This was a primitive fake, which followed a familiar fake news pattern. And the Lithuanian authorities were alert and reacted very quickly to expose it.

NATO soldiers participating in the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) mission are well prepared for Russian propaganda and counter intelligence threats.

‘I’m not aware of any concrete promises’

Russia enhances its military presence in Kaliningrad region. This is causing a lot of concerns in the Baltic States. At the beginning of the year Russia made it clear that Iskander missile complexes were deployed there. Does NATO know what really happens in this region?

The Baltic sea is bordered by six NATO countries and has a vital strategic importance for Alliance. Since 2014 the security environment in the region has largely deteriorated because of Russia’s military build-up in the Region. Russia has made Kaliningrad one of the most militarised regions. It has deployed advanced sea and air missiles there. As NATO leaders made clear in the Brussels declaration, we are concerned by the deployment of nuclear capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad.

NATO has responded to Russia’s military build-up by deploying the four multinational battalions to the region, including one to Lithuania, and by increased air and sea patrols.

The Ministry of Defence of Lithuania regularly states that the Lithuanian air forces are regularly scrambled to escort Russian fighters and transport planes which fly with the transponders switched, often without an agreed flight plan between the Kaliningrad region and Russian mainland. Does NATO talk to Russia about this? Is it possible to resolve this problem which potentially could cause a very dangerous situation?

We definitely observe increasing Russian military activity along our borders, in the Baltic region, but also for instance in the Black Sea. As a response NATO has increased its air patrols. NATO aircraft take to the sky hundreds of times in each year in order to escort Russian military aircraft, often in the international airspace over the Baltic Sea. We discuss aviation issues in various fora, in the NATO-Russia Council and also in the expert group on Baltic Sea Air Safety which is hosted by Finland and where NATO and Russia have participated. This group has made an important contribution to improving security in the Baltic Region.

Could NATO expect from Russia some concrete promises to be, let’s say, more careful in the air?

I hope so, but I’m not aware of any concrete promises in this respect.

Lithuania expects from NATO that the air patrol mission can be turned into an air defence mission and that the presence of Allied warships in the Baltic Sea would be increased. Will these Lithuanian hopes come true?

Baltic air defence is a 24/7 peacetime mission focusing on self-defense. Any changes to the mandate of the mission would require the decision by all Allies. Of course, the activity is regularly reviewed, but I’m not in a position to say whether Allies will be prepared to make such a decision. At the same time, we welcome that Baltic countries are investing in their air defences.

Reforms first, then a political decision

What is the state of coordination in the security and intelligence fields with Ukraine and Georgia? Experts in the security field say that the special services of these countries are still heavily infiltrated with Russian spies. Would you agree with this opinion?

We cooperate with Ukrainian and Georgian services in the field of intelligence and security. In general we cannot share our own intelligence with Ukraine, Georgia or any other partner. But we can have a dialogue about, for instance, the security environment or about intelligence reform. The latter is critical when it comes to their aspirations to join NATO.

Are these countries basically ready for MAP and all that is missing is the political decision by the Allies?

The decision to grant MAP is a political decision taken by Allies by consensus. At the Summit in July, NATO reiterated that both Georgia and Ukraine will become members of the Alliance. We encourage Georgia to continue making use of all the opportunities to come closer to the Alliance. And there are many opportunities to do so, for instance the NATO-Georgia Commission, the Annual National Programme, its role as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner and the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP). Equally, we expect from Ukraine to focus on domestic reforms, consolidate democratic constitutions, strengthen the rule of law and develop defence capabilities in accordance with NATO standards.

So it’s not only the question of the political decision?

In the end it is always a political decision, but the focus now is on making progress with reforms.

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