For more than six months now, a war has been going on in Ukraine, right here in Europe. What does that war mean for us? Is the security of NATO’s territory in jeopardy?
The security of the Alliance’s territory is not at risk. At the moment, I do not think that there could be an attack. However, we have to face up to a new reality. Russia’s attack against Ukraine reminded us that even here in Europe wars are once again being waged for selfish goals. We must be able to defend ourselves and the free world should the need arise.
As a NATO general serving in Szczecin in Poland, you also have an outside perspective. How do our Eastern European partners view the war?
As the Commanding General of Multinational Corps Northeast, my area of responsibility includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. In these countries, there is a palpable fear of Russia. This includes politicians, the military leadership and the general population. My area of responsibility is unique in that it shares an over 1,000-km-long border with Russia and Belarus, widely considered an extension of Russia. In many of the countries concerned, parts of the population are Russian speakers, and, furthermore, the Russian enclave Kaliningrad is located right amidst the Alliance’s territory. We know this sense of threat from the Cold War, when the border to the Warsaw Pact ran right through Germany.
What role do Germany and the Bundeswehr play? What do our partners in Eastern Europe expect of us?
In Eastern Europe, Germany is seen as an important and reliable partner. In addition to the German-led NATO battlegroup in Lithuania, the Bundeswehr for years has been engaged in supporting the security of NATO’s sea and air space. Our contribution to the protection of the eastern flank is viewed very positively, but is at the same time expected of us. Germany is after all the central land power in Europe. My recommendation is to be even more confident and proactive in our role as a framework nation. We are a much-respected and strong ally. We have the potential to make a contribution to peace and security in Europe – which is what our allies expect of us.
Lieutenant General von Sandrart (right) and Major General (then Brigadier General) Brzuszko, Commander Multinational Division North East, assess the terrain during a field visit to Poland and Lithuania, May 2022 / Photo by CPL Hans-Peter Alzner
You are the commander of the NATO headquarters for Eastern Europe. The headquarters is the hub for all activities concerning the defence of the eastern flank. What exactly is your task?
In my capacity as the Commanding General, I am – from a tactical perspective – the military leader with responsibility for land operations in North-Eastern Europe. We are the only NATO headquarters with a clearly defined area of responsibility and affiliated subordinate forces at the division-, brigade- and battalion-level. We fuse the defence plans of the individual countries into a common defence plan in order to be able to effectively defend the Alliance’s territory should the need arise. Our responsibility is to guarantee a convincing defence capability and to provide an effective deterrence. We can, we want to and we will defend every inch of NATO territory within my area of responsibility.
NATO’s new strategic concept, which was adopted in June, refers to Russia as the most significant threat. Has this had any influence on your responsibilities?
Of course, we have noticed that the Alliance’s focus has shifted. In Eastern Europe, Russia for a long time has been regarded as the biggest threat. Our defence plans were not spawned by the events of 24 February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, but they go back to 2014. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, everyone around here has been aware that Russia poses a threat to NATO’s eastern flank. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated our defence efforts.
In the current war, one mainly sees land forces and heavy weapons. What are the conclusions you draw from the way the war has unfolded and how it has been conducted?
It is plain for everyone to see that this is primarily a land war. I do not intend to downplay the role of the other services, but the outcome of the war will be decided by the land forces. Generally speaking, we are witnessing a classic, conventional war in all its indiscriminate and cruel destructiveness. I do not intend to assess how the Russians conduct the war. Their approach is very similar to the Soviet doctrines of the 1970s and 1980s, with their focus on artillery and the concentration of forces.
There is something, though, that is largely absent: combined-arms operations, which are a regular feature of NATO exercises. What does that mean?
I admit that I, too, would have expected Russia to conduct the war differently. A different combination of the individual elements, more cyber activities and electronic warfare. This does not mean, however, that we should underestimate Russia. Neither does that mean that the Western states are better at everything. We need to honestly assess the deficits Russia has shown in command and control, logistics and combined-arms operations. Are we able to do all that better? We certainly do not have poor equipment – but that is not sufficient to put us in a clearly superior position over a resurgent Russia. I am very pleased that many members of the Alliance, including Germany, intensify their defence efforts. This is of vital importance if we want to be able to protect the Alliance against any threat.
The NATO headquarters in Szczecin is on guard 24/7. What would happen in the event of a Russian attack against the Alliance’s territory, for instance in the Baltics?
I can only speak for my area of responsibility. Our processes are clearly defined and time-tested. Every NATO state under attack will immediately take the appropriate measures. NATO is already present in all NATO states. Once the mutual defence clause has been invoked, NATO – acting as a collective – will forcefully and successfully repel any attack. I know what we are capable of and I am certain that we will act very quickly and successfully.
In the event of a conflict, will it be your responsibility to coordinate the national defence plans of the member states with NATO land forces in Eastern Europe?
In my area of responsibility, the Alliance is at any time ready to go into action and defend NATO’s territory. That is all I can say about that now.