Russia and the defence efforts of the Netherlands

June 7, 2017 - nr.31

Conclusions and recommendations

The international security situation in Europe and beyond has changed fundamentally over the past three years. The nature, scale and speed of these changes are cause for concern. International institutions such as the EU and NATO are under pressure, which in the case of the Alliance also appears to be affecting the transatlantic relationship. It is hard to predict where this rise in international uncertainty and tension will lead. Managing these tensions requires a comprehensive security policy, especially with regard to diplomatic, economic and defence-related issues. Russia is seeking to sow discord in Europe by means of cyberattacks, disinformation and support for populist movements. Since 2008, it has invested heavily in modernising its armed forces, including the development of a rapidly deployable military capability that is superior to NATO’s in certain areas. Following the annexation of Crimea, NATO took a series of measures to reassure the eastern Allies and strengthen its deterrence. Despite these measures the Baltic states, in particular, remain vulnerable to a potential Russian intervention, which could be triggered by real or perceived problems involving Russian-speaking minorities. There is a risk that Russia could be able to create a fait accompli before NATO has decided how to respond.

Russia’s actions must be met with a united and resolute response. It is clear that the new security environment places different demands on NATO and the contributions of its member states. The renewed need to be able to conduct large-scale operations at the high end of the spectrum of force sets different requirements for the size, availability and composition of the required capabilities. For example, there is a greater need for robust, rapidly deployable units for the purpose of maintaining a credible deterrence. The United States’ leading role within NATO is under pressure. For this and other reasons, countries such as the Netherlands must show that they take the Alliance seriously, demonstrate solidarity with other Allies and increase their defence efforts.

At the same time, it is essential to conduct a dialogue with Russia on developments in Eastern Europe, Syria, Northern Africa and other regions. Depending on Russia’s stance, this dialogue should focus on preventing and controlling the use of armed force and resolving urgent political problems. Attempts should be made in multilateral consultations to encourage Russia to adopt a constructive approach. In this context, the Netherlands needs to strengthen its diplomatic missions in the countries most affected by the growing threat emanating from Russia. In addition, attempts should be made to resume and renew existing arms control agreements that are no longer being observed, especially those concerning the timely announcement of military exercises and the movement of troops or weapon systems.

According to the Ministry of Defence, in 2015 the Dutch defence budget stood at 1.09% of GDP, which is well below the European NATO average (1.43% of GDP in 2015). After excluding those parts of the budget that do not contribute to sustaining the armed forces (e.g. pensions, redundancy pay and VAT payments), less than 0.7% of GDP is actually available for this purpose rather than the official figure of 1.09%. Under the present government, the deployability of the armed forces has continued to deteriorate. The AIV considers it very serious and irresponsible that as a result of current policies the armed forces will not return to a basic level of readiness until 2021. Both the Netherlands Court of Audit and NATO have severely criticised their deployability. NATO’s criticism focuses mainly on the army. The Dutch armed forces thus have a long way to go before they recover the ability to carry out their constitutionally mandated tasks and comply with the Netherlands’ obligations under international agreements in a responsible manner.

In its forthcoming advisory report on NATO’s adaptation requirements, the AIV will examine more closely what measures need to be taken and what role the Netherlands can play in this regard. Regarding the Netherlands’ defence efforts, the AIV would make the following recommendations:

  1. In view of the deterioration of the security situation as a result of the threat emanating from Russia, it is crucial that NATO’s mutual defence clause and the transatlantic relationship retain their effectiveness. With this in mind, the agreements reached at the NATO summit meeting in Wales, specifically the commitment to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2024, should be honoured.
  2. As a result of developments in the national and international security situation, the three core tasks of the armed forces – especially the first (protecting Dutch and allied territory) – have become more important. The armed forces will have to ensure the simultaneous availability of capabilities for all three core tasks.
  3. The government should adopt a ‘Delta plan for the armed forces’ to create a multi-year financial framework for the stable development of the armed forces. Given the discrepancy between current levels of defence spending and NATO’s 2% target, and taking into account the armed forces’ limited ability to absorb more funding and personnel, a phased increase in the Dutch defence budget is necessary. Over the next four years, under a new government, it should rise to the European NATO average. Over the subsequent four years, it should reach the 2% target.
  4. The AIV believes that, as it gradually increases the defence budget, the government should focus first and foremost on ‘repairing’ operational deficiencies in the armed forces’ basic capabilities, which should always be available at national level. The NATO Defence Planning Capability Review 2015/16 has identified these deficiencies. If the armed forces are to remain relevant, operational reform and innovation, for example in the domain of information and cyber warfare, should feature prominently in every step that is taken over the coming years, from ‘repairing’ operational deficiencies and restoring the balance between combat and support capabilities to expanding the military’s striking power.
  5. Priority should be given to restoring the military’s striking power, in particular by endowing land-based operations with sufficient escalation dominance and improving the balance between the armed forces’ combat and support capabilities. Only then would it be appropriate, in the view of the AIV, to raise the armed forces’ level of ambition and increase their sustainability, bearing in mind the shortcomings that exist within NATO.
Advice request

Professor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Chairman of the Advisory Council on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague    

Date  October 2016

Re      Request for advice on NATO’s long-term adaptation

Dear Professor De Hoop Scheffer,

At the NATO summit meetings in Wales and Warsaw, the NATO countries’ heads of state and government took several key steps to adapt the Alliance to the changing security environment. The Readiness Action Plan (RAP) addresses the concerns of those Allies that feel most threatened by Russia and demonstrates the Alliance’s determination to defend the treaty area. In today’s turbulent security environment, it is vital that NATO continue to reflect on the scope and effectiveness of the RAP’s adaptation measures and the Alliance’s enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland, which was approved in Warsaw.

Following a period in which the main emphasis was on crisis management operations outside NATO’s territory, the Alliance’s original purpose – collective defence and deterrence – has clearly gained in importance, especially as a result of the change in Russia’s stance. In addition to reinforcing its deterrence and defence posture, NATO is focusing specifically on dialogue with Russia, cooperation with partners, and arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Finally, in addition to collective defence, NATO’s two other core tasks – crisis management and cooperative security – remain as important as ever.

Russia’s actions require a firm response, as the AIV rightly noted in its April 2015 advisory report ‘Instability around Europe’ (no. 94). The issue is not just Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its destabilising actions in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Other concerns include the increase in military activities along the eastern and northern flanks of the Alliance, the far-reaching modernisation of the Russian armed forces, the expansion of Russia’s Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities, which pose a direct threat to the Baltic states and the region around the Black Sea, Russia’s doctrine on the deployment of nuclear weapons, and the use of hybrid or ‘new generation’ warfare, in which the information domain plays a prominent role.

In addition, the Alliance is under threat from terrorism emanating from the Middle East and North Africa, due in part to the presence of ISIS, and European NATO countries are facing an acute migration crisis and cross-border problems resulting from the collapse of state authority elsewhere. In general, the Alliance’s interests and values are increasingly under pressure as a result of global power shifts and geopolitical changes.

The Alliance is expected to act as a collective defence organisation in an environment that in many respects differs substantially from the one that prevailed during the Cold War. The organisation no longer faces a single (and to some extent predictable) potential adversary and has undergone far-reaching changes, due in part to the accession of a large number of new members. Further examination is required to determine how NATO can best defend itself against conventional military threats as well as mixed, hybrid tactics and advanced cyber warfare. Due to the complexity and multiplicity of these threats, both individually and collectively, modern crisis management requires closer cooperation with security partners, such as the EU, in order to guarantee joint access to a wider range of capabilities and instruments. The recent NATO-EU joint declaration, issued at the summit meeting in Warsaw, reflects this view.

As a result of the worsening security situation, NATO’s collective defence tasks are placing increasing demands on military units. In light of the new security context, NATO has set higher standards for the readiness, rapid deployability and availability of military capabilities. The Netherlands is a member of NATO with good reason, and it is expected to make a meaningful contribution to the Alliance. The roles and tasks that the armed forces must be able to perform in response to assorted threats, as well as in a wide range of locations and during various stages of a conflict, have important implications for their composition, equipment and readiness.

Within these parameters, the government requires a detailed analysis of the adaptation measures the Alliance will have to take in the long term and their implications for the Netherlands. For this purpose, the AIV can build on the analysis presented in its aforementioned advisory report, though it should also take more recent developments into account, such as the outcome of the NATO summit meeting in Warsaw – which highlighted the importance of arms control and non-proliferation – UN peace operations, the adoption and further elaboration of the EU Global Strategy, the ongoing military conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, the attempted military coup in Turkey and the response to it, and the Dutch public debate concerning all these developments. Finally, the analysis could also cover potential changes in the direction of US foreign and security policy as a result of the entry into office of a new president and administration.

Against this general background, the government would ask the AIV to address the following specific questions:

Principal question

Given the diffuse and variable nature of the threat situation, how can NATO continue to perform its three core tasks in a sustainable manner in the long term, what is the best way to build on the results of the summit meetings in Wales and Warsaw, and what are the implications of NATO’s adaptation requirements for Dutch security policy and defence efforts?

Subsidiary questions

  1. What is the AIV’s assessment of the measures taken by NATO thus far in response to the threats on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, both in terms of strengthening its deterrence and defence posture and regarding its use of diplomacy and other instruments of security policy?
  2. What follow-up steps does the AIV consider necessary? In its response to this question, the AIV should at any rate devote attention to the following issues:
    • The change in Russia’s stance and new methods of warfare. What demands do these developments place on NATO? How should it respond to provocations and conflict situations that remain below the threshold of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty? How can NATO conduct a meaningful and constructive political dialogue with Russia without returning to ‘business as usual’? What topics might such a dialogue cover and what objectives might it reasonably pursue?
    • Projecting stability. What role should NATO play with regard to responding to the challenges on its southern flank and the threat of terrorism? How does its contribution to stabilisation efforts and crisis management in this region relate to similar efforts in other, more distant deployment areas, such as Afghanistan?
    • Cooperative security. What are the AIV’s recommendations regarding cooperation with other international organisations, in particular the UN and the EU? The translation of the NATO-EU joint declaration into actual opportunities for cooperation is an important starting point. In this context, the government would also ask the AIV to examine NATO’s cooperative relations with partner countries, countries that wish to join NATO and countries in unstable regions. What existing and additional options does the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building (DCB) initiative offer? How can NATO realistically revive the debate on and implementation of conventional arms control in Europe? How likely and relevant is the establishment of a new regime along the lines of the CFE Treaty? From a Dutch perspective, should the first priority be to modernise the Vienna Document? German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s recent attempt to relaunch conventional arms control and the United States’ cautious response to this initiative are also relevant here. In this respect it is crucial to determine what form and degree of military transparency is needed to address the concerns of NATO’s eastern Allies, particularly with regard to Russia.
  3. How can NATO ensure that it remains able to perform all three of its core tasks in an effective manner? How can NATO’s member countries – and the Netherlands in particular – contribute to this goal?

This request for advice has been included in the AIV’s 2016 work programme. We look forward to receiving your advisory report, preferably in the first quarter of 2017 so that its recommendations can be included in the preparations for the next NATO summit meeting.

Yours sincerely,

Bert Koenders
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert
Minister of Defence

Government reactions

Letter of 26 April 2018 to the President of the House of Representatives of the States General from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, and the Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld, presenting the government’s response to the AIV’s advisory report The Future of NATO and European Security and its advisory letter Russia and the Defence Efforts of the Netherlands

This letter presents the government’s response to advisory report no. 106, The Future of NATO and European Security, and to advisory letter no. 31, Russia and the Defence Efforts of the Netherlands, by the Advisory Council on International Affairs.

The government is grateful for the in-depth analysis and recommendations contained in both reports. They examine one of the most important and timely security issues facing the Netherlands. A comprehensive overview of Dutch strategic efforts in this regard and the government’s broader security and defence policy is given in the Integrated International Security Strategy (IISS) and the Defence White Paper.

With this in mind, the present response will relatively briefly discuss a number of topics covered in the advisory report and letter: defence expenditure, collective defence efforts on NATO’s eastern flank, relations with Russia, transatlantic relations, the role of NATO in the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey’s position within the Alliance, cyberspace, NATO enlargement and NATO’s nuclear strategy.


In the government’s view, NATO remains the cornerstone of Dutch security policy. The threats to the east and south of the Alliance are not expected to disappear in the foreseeable future. Those threats include not only Russia’s aggressive and destabilising actions, particularly in Ukraine, Georgia and on the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty area, but also the migration crisis, transnational terrorism and the unstable situation in parts of the Western Balkans. Given their geographical proximity, these threats have direct repercussions for the security of the Netherlands and its Allies. NATO has a primary role to play in combating and preventing these threats. The government feels bolstered in its view by the AIV’s advice.

With regard to NATO’s three essential core tasks (collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security), the Alliance’s efforts in the area of collective defence have been stepped up in recent years owing to the threats on its eastern flank. The government supports that decision, but believes that NATO must also be capable of continuing to fulfil its other two tasks. After all, the threats to the Alliance are diverse in nature and enhancing our collective defence capabilities is not the only solution. What is more, crisis management and cooperative security can themselves be considered a form of forward defence. The Netherlands will therefore press within NATO for the safeguarding of all three core tasks during the various reform processes (such as the adaptation of the NATO Command Structure).

Transatlantic relations

Continued engagement by the United States is crucial for NATO. Despite President Trump’s past criticism of the Alliance (e.g. his branding of NATO as ‘obsolete’ and his argument that NATO’s security guarantee should be extended only to Allies that meet the defence spending levels agreed at the Wales Summit), over the past year the US administration has endorsed the importance of NATO on several occasions, and in particular the significance of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The US Senate, too, has reaffirmed the importance of article 5. The US, moreover, is continuing and strengthening its contribution to NATO’s missions, operations and other activities, both on the eastern flank (in the form of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI)1 and the Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland, where the US is Framework Nation) and in Afghanistan. These contributions are concrete expressions of the ongoing US commitment to NATO. The government will of course continue investing in political and military relations with the US, at various levels.

Defence expenditure

The government recognises that effective security policy cannot be viewed separately from adequate defence funding. The Integrated International Security Strategy and the Defence White Paper set out the steps the government plans to take during its term in office.

NATO has observed that, despite the investments we have made, there are many capability goals which we are not yet able (or not sufficiently able) to realise. In a world that is undergoing change and growing less secure, it is important to enhance the Alliance’s striking power and sustainability. NATO has expressed its concerns about this and the government takes these seriously. The government therefore aims, during its term in office, to shape the longer-term policy lines required to ensure the stable funding and strengthening of the armed forces. This should be seen against the background of the pledge made at the Wales Summit in 2014 to increase defence expenditure towards the NATO guideline of 2% of GDP within 10 years. A steady increase within the framework of these long-term policy lines – with a view to achieving NATO’s capability goals – will be included in the revision of the Defence White Paper, scheduled for 2020.

Any extra follow-up steps during the government’s term in office will, at the appropriate time, be considered in the light of the overall security situation and the Netherlands’ central government-wide priorities, and within the agreed budgetary parameters. As stated in the Defence White Paper, it is important to align defence spending with the broad security policy priorities detailed in the Integrated International Security Strategy. That strategy shows clearly that the integrated deployment of the armed forces in combination with diplomacy and development cooperation will enhance the Netherlands’ security, in part by removing the root causes of instability, terrorism and migration – as noted in the coalition agreement. With that in mind, the planned investments in the Netherlands’ network of diplomatic missions and development cooperation are of great importance for Dutch security.

At NATO level, the Netherlands also highlights the Dutch contributions to the Alliance’s missions and operations around the world, including those in Afghanistan, Mali, the Middle East and Lithuania, and to NATO’s maritime missions.

Collective defence on the eastern flank

The government shares the AIV’s view that the collective defence of the eastern flank is one of NATO’s main challenges. As is recognised, the Netherlands contributes actively to this task through its deployment of around 270 military personnel in Lithuania, as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence. However, this does not lead the government to conclude that units in the Baltic States and Poland need to be reinforced to brigade strength in the present circumstances. The current presence already has a deterrent effect, especially given the large number of Allies that have proved willing to contribute to that presence. The multinational composition of NATO’s forward presence sends a strong message: any military attack on the eastern flank will be considered an attack on the Alliance as a whole. Moreover, NATO’s military planning is geared towards the rapid deployment of other units to the eastern flank in the event of a crisis.

This issue should also be seen in the context of efforts to simplify cross-border military transport in Europe, the importance of which the AIV rightly underlines. This entails the removal of physical, legal and administrative barriers to transporting troops and military capabilities, and NATO and the EU need to work in concert to achieve it. To this end the EU and NATO formally agreed at the NATO Ministerial Meeting of 5 December 2017 to work together. NATO will also work with the European Defence Agency to identify obstacles to the rapid movement of military personnel and materiel. In addition, the European Commission and the High Representative have presented an action plan containing proposals aimed at improving military mobility in Europe, and EU member states are working to simplify military mobility through their Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The Netherlands is playing a leading role in this regard.

In the government’s view, NATO’s military presence must be seen as only one of a number of instruments governing relations with Russia. These include the EU’s sanctions instruments, strategic communications and the deterrent effect associated with the development of cyber capabilities. What is more, the significance of coherent and united Allied input at the meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) must not be underestimated. This also sends a powerful political message.

Relations with Russia

The government endorses the AIV’s conclusion that improving relations with Russia is vital. Such efforts should be couched in a policy of deterrence on the one hand and meaningful dialogue on the other. The government also shares the conclusion that significant efforts should be made to prevent military incidents from occurring. Transparency will be a major element in these efforts, as laid down, for example, in the Vienna Document (the OSCE’s package of politically binding confidence- and security-building measures). At the same time, the government believes there should be scope within the NRC to address other issues too. As stated in the Communiqué from NATO’s Warsaw Summit in 2016, the primary issue is the situation in Ukraine. In the government’s view, the main thing to consider is that, despite the present difficult circumstances, Russia remains a major player on the world stage. Given its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its extensive nuclear arsenal, its role in matters concerning non-proliferation (e.g. with regard to Iran) and disarmament, and the ongoing situations in Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, it is essential to ensure an ongoing political dialogue with Russia.

NATO in the Middle East and North Africa

The government welcomes the AIV’s conclusion that NATO has a role to play in countering security risks, such as terrorism, in the Middle East and North Africa. In this respect NATO’s emphasis should be on providing training, advisory services and capacity-building to the partner countries concerned, such as Iraq and Jordan, so as to enhance their resilience in countering threats. Eventually, such support can be expanded to other countries in the region if they request it. The Netherlands is currently contributing to NATO’s work in Iraq and Jordan, providing funding and trainers. NATO activity in the region is closely coordinated with the EU and other international actors such as the UN and the anti-ISIS coalition. In this connection the Netherlands is pressing for NATO to further enhance its cooperation with these partners.  

Turkey’s position

Like the AIV, the government believes it would be unwise to alienate Turkey from NATO. Owing in part to its size and location, Turkey is a strategic partner. What is more, the country is making a considerable contribution to NATO’s various missions and operations, for example in the fight against ISIS and in Afghanistan. It is also evident, however, that Turkey must be called to account for shortcomings in the area of democracy, individual freedoms and human rights, including freedom of expression and the rule of law. After all, the Alliance is a community of values, as the NATO Secretary-General has noted on several occasions. The government endorses that view. In the government’s opinion, the dialogue with Turkey can best be managed at the level of bilateral contacts and in international forums such as the EU and the Council of Europe. However, when it comes to the proportionality of the Turkish government’s actions against the PKK and in Syria, the Netherlands has opted explicitly to use NATO as well as a channel for communicating its severe criticism (see also the letter to the House of Representatives of 14 March 2018)2.


The government supports the AIV’s recommendation that NATO and its member countries should examine the scope for offensive deployment of cyber capabilities in the service of the Alliance’s tasks. NATO’s Warsaw Summit of July 2016 openly recognised cyberspace as a domain of operations. Acknowledging that NATO needs to be able to defend itself as effectively in this domain as on land, at sea and in the air implies that the Alliance’s cyber activities must also have a potential offensive impact. Lastly, the EU and NATO are collaborating more and more effectively on cybersecurity. The Netherlands welcomes this development.


The government seeks to uphold the basic principles of NATO’s ‘open door policy’. Countries in Europe that meet the criteria for NATO membership, and in addition are willing and able to contribute to the security of the Alliance as a whole, should be given the opportunity to accede to the organisation. The latest example of such a state is Montenegro. Countries that aspire to membership must be able to make the decision independently, with full sovereignty and without the involvement of third countries. This is in keeping with the AIV’s observation that Russia should not have a say in any future enlargement of the EU or NATO.

The government would note in this connection that the requirements that candidate countries have to meet are not trivial. Far-reaching reforms have to be implemented in areas such as democracy, the rule of law, media freedom, the position of minorities and democratic oversight of the intelligence services and armed forces. In addition, candidate countries must contribute to the security of the North Atlantic Treaty area. The Netherlands will hold candidate member countries strictly to these conditions. For this reason, accession by Ukraine and Georgia is currently not on the agenda. Where Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are concerned, the government will press for strict compliance with the criteria prior to any invitation to join the Alliance or any offer of Membership Action Plan (MAP) status.

Nuclear strategy

The government endorses the AIV’s view that an effective nuclear strategy is essential to maintaining a credible deterrent. At the same time, the government is of the opinion that NATO also has a role to play in the area of non-proliferation and nuclear arms control. Since the AIV intends to discuss the role of nuclear weapons (in NATO and otherwise) in a separate advisory report, the government will wait until it receives that report before giving an opinion on this issue.

1 Now called the European Deterrence Initiative by the US administration.
2 Parliamentary Paper 2018Z04598.

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