Britain’s defense chief, a contender to run NATO, lays out his vision
The Washington Post June 2, 2023
LULEÅ, Sweden — NATO must compel its member nations to grow their military spending if the alliance is to deter Russia effectively beyond the war in Ukraine and manage other threats to transatlantic security, Britain’s defense chief said, outlining his ambitions for the bloc’s future as it considers its next leader.
“The world is getting more dangerous, more insecure and more anxious, and the next secretary general has to be able to deliver that funding to make sure that that is never taken off the boil,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in an interview this week.
Wallace, who has guided Britain’s efforts to arm Ukraine, most recently by expanding Kyiv’s battlefield reach with Storm Shadow cruise missiles, called for a more informative NATO, one that more persuasively educates voters about threats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to defy international borders.
“That is our demand signal,” he said. “Until Ukraine happened, there were too many people who didn’t want to see the threat from Putin, and look where we are now.” The same complacency exists today, he said, about the threats posed by China and destabilizing activity in Africa.
Wallace spoke with The Washington Post as speculation intensifies about who will replace NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following his expected departure this year. Officials from alliance nations have said that likely contenders, in addition to Wallace, include Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
While the process for selecting a secretary general is murky, officials say members states will attempt to reach consensus via informal consultations but acknowledge that the United States, whose military might overshadows that of NATO peers, will wield an important say.
The race to replace Stoltenberg reveals insights about regional rivalries and dealmaking on the continent. Some officials in Western Europe have voiced concern that a secretary general from Eastern Europe, where leaders have adopted a harder line against Moscow, might push for actions more likely to plunge NATO into direct conflict with Russia. Other countries think it’s time for a chief from Southern Europe after a series of secretaries general from the north. Others say the bloc’s next leader must be a woman, or someone from an European Union nation, which Britain is not.
While Stoltenberg, of Norway, is not expected to extend his tenure again, officials say it’s possible he could do so. He’s held the post since 2014.
Wallace, who was posted in Germany as a young officer in the British army, described his qualifications for the job but addressed his ambitions only indirectly.
“I’m doing a job I love, and I’ve done it for four years, nearly,” he said. “But NATO is incredibly important.”
Whoever replaces Stoltenberg will face the perennial challenge that the alliance, while energized by a renewed purpose following Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, still falls well short of self-imposed spending targets. Nearly a decade after NATO reaffirmed a goal that each country would spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, only eight of its 31 members meet or exceed that target, according to diplomats and recent NATO data. Britain is one of those countries.
Wallace said one positive outcome of the Ukraine war is that more than half of NATO nations had increased their defense spending since Russia’s full-scale invasion began, moving toward the 2 percent benchmark as they embrace the need for what he described as “cultural change.”
Most dramatic was the move by Germany, Europe’s largest economy but a longtime laggard in military spending, to overhaul its defense spending and military policy.
“NATO needs to make sure its members are match-fit, and some members are fitter than others,” Wallace said.
Wallace, Britain’s defense chief since 2019, was seen as a potential prime-ministerial candidate but has removed himself from consideration several times in recent races, saying he preferred to remain in charge of the military portfolio. His call for greater spending echoes those of successive American administrations of both political parties — most dramatically from President Donald Trump, who issued scathing criticism of the bloc’s spending record and questioned NATO’s core tenets — and of Stoltenberg himself.
He voiced a more optimistic view about Ukraine’s current battlefield effort than that described by U.S. intelligence officials, who in leaked intelligence documents earlier this year said that personnel and equipment challenges probably would result in Kyiv notching only modest gains once it begins a highly anticipated offensive to retake Russian-held territory. While U.S. officials say there have been improvements since then, they have also suggested that even the recapture of small areas could affect Russia’s war plans.
And contrary to the private ruminations of some other NATO officials, Wallace said there was a real possibility Ukraine could successfully retake Crimea, the peninsula Putin illegally annexed in 2014, this year as Russian forces run out of needed equipment.
“What we’ve seen on the battlefield is that, if you punch Russian forces in the wrong place, they’ll actually collapse,” he said. “You can send young men to die in their tens of thousands, which is what they do, but you can’t magic up tanks and weapons systems that they need.”
Asked about the prospects for Ukraine joining NATO, Wallace cited persisting differences about Kyiv’s path toward accession. He said that NATO — like the E.U. — should not repeat the mistakes of the past in overpromising to aspirants such as Ukraine.
“We have to be realistic and say, ‘It’s not going to happen at Vilnius; It’s not going to happen anytime soon,’” he said, referring to a NATO leaders summit scheduled for this summer in Lithuania’s capital. “But what can those powers that want to be more forward-leaning do to help Ukraine, and to give it not 100 percent but a similar effect to what NATO delivers?”
Wallace said a number of nations were ready to forge bilateral or multilateral “mutual defense pacts” with Ukraine and commit to longer-term plans to build the country’s military capability “to make sure it’s a very expensive opportunity for Russia or anyone else to invade Ukraine in the future.”
That might succeed in deterring Russia because, in Wallace’s view, “Russia’s land forces are going to be significantly depleted for the next 10 years.”
As the conflict grinds on, Wallace said Western countries remain supportive of providing weapons and funding to Ukraine without pressuring leaders in Kyiv to negotiate with Russia or make concessions.
“But we have seen reality, which is that we are all running out” of defense equipment that can be donated, Wallace said, meaning that Britain and other countries are being forced to buy more weapons than donate them from national stockpiles.
Wallace said the scale of Russian losses suggests Putin still believes he can prevail if he pours more troops into the war. He suggested Putin may not be getting accurate information about the military effort and might not realize the extent of his country’s military challenges until a moment of collapse or internal challenge.
If that happens, he said, “NATO and the West have to be ready for whatever happens.”
The Washington Post’s Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.