HALIFAX -- Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Croatia's president, spoke on an all-female panel on the necessity of NATO at the Halifax National Security Forum flanked by Rose Gottemoeller, NATO's deputy secretary general, and Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, the vice prime minister of Ukraine for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

Croatia is a relatively new member of NATO having been admitted to the alliance in 2009 and Ukraine, while it would like to be a full-fledged member of NATO, has many hurdles to clear in getting there, some seemingly insurmountable.

Grabar-Kitarovic admitted Croatia has yet to reach a point where it can spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense in line with NATO requirements but she told the audience it's not necessarily about spending and more about investment that makes a country a good player in NATO.

Defense News sat down with Grabar-Kitarovic, who has been president since February 2015, in an interview directly following the panel at the forum.

Here are some edited excerpts:

Croatia is a NATO country yet unable to reach the goal of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense. What are you spending and why has it not been possible for the country so far to reach the goal?

We are right in the middle right now, so in comparison to other NATO countries we are not doing that well, but to me it's not comparing ourselves to others. What is important for us is to keep our commitments to be a trusted partner and to invest in our own defense because we have challenges that we are dealing with. One of the contradictory issues might be that we will now be realigning our defense spending, but since now we finally have a positive growth of GDP of about 2.6 percent, as a percentage of GDP, it may fall. But we will be investing more in the technological improvements that we need, so we definitely are headed the right way, I would say.

In your talk earlier at the forum you raised a good point that you like to use the word investment rather than spending when discussing the monetary side of NATO contributions. In what specifically are you looking to invest?

As you know we were part of the former Yugoslavia, so most of our weapons and technology are Eastern-made. For instance, our fighter aircraft are MiG, old MiG aircraft, so we need a new fleet which will definitely be Western. We haven't chosen a model yet. … The same with helicopters. We are changing to Kiowa helicopters, but we need new transport helicopters as well. We need new boats. We have more than 1,200 islands in the Adriatic and with illegal trafficking in human beings and migrants etc, there will be an increased need to protect the coast, so this is what I mean, but also other weapons.

When it comes to military technology we have our own industry, which is excellent. We have a company, which is called HS-Produkt, that produces weapons, NATO-grade weapons, that are excellent. We have producers of Kevlar equipment and helmets, probably the best in the world, boots, etc. So we are moving even with our domestic industry and the legacy of the war has helped us to develop some of the technologies, for instance, in de-mining that is now being transferred into civilian areas where you can use them in forest fires and other states of natural disaster. We are getting there, we know what we want.

We are now working on a national security strategy and homeland security strategy, building in a new system that will provide synergy between different areas that is needed to counter the different threats that we will be facing in the future.

US President-elect Trump has said in his campaign he'd hold NATO countries' feet to the fire over not meeting the 2 percent GDP goal. What else would you stress as important when assessing NATO contributions to the new president?

It's not all about money, it's not all about spending. It's a lot more about investment, but it's also about holding the same values. So, yes, some countries are lagging behind the 2 percent commitment, but for different reasons and I think those reasons have to be looked at. Looking at our own country Croatia, we emerged from war and aggression, there were so many things that we needed to do in rebuilding our country. We built our services from scratch, diplomatic services, the armed forces and there was a transition from the war-time to a peace-time army, or armed forces, that required reducing the number of soldiers by tens of thousands. It was a difficult transition, but we are fully aware of what the requirements are and we are looking, of course, primarily our national defense, what the threats to Croatia could be, but also where we could contribute in terms of NATO capabilities. So some of our commitments may seem symbolic in terms of the number of people and the material resources because we are not a big country neither in terms of geography, number of people or the GDP per capita, but I think that we are doing still above and beyond that in order to contribute to the alliance and certainly what is most important if the US ever needed it, we always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.

We will be sending also a unit to Lithuania with a German contingent in order to demonstrate that Article 5 applies to all.

Is that part of NATO's Quick Response Forces to serve as a deterrent in the Baltic States against Russia? And when will they deploy?

Yes, and over the course of next year. We are now working with Germany in order to arrange for the details.

What else is important to keep Europe stable aside from deterring Russia through troop buildup? It's seen as a signal of US commitment, but what else do you look for to assure stability?

It is one of the signals and it's in response to Russia's deployment of their troops alongside the borders of NATO countries. ... We all wish it hasn't come down to that, but it has and I think sometimes people are looking for visible reassurance and that is the presence of the troops. But what is also very important is the talks we have in the background and discussions how to respond and always from rhetoric to physical posture and actually engaging Russia positively and reassuring Russia in spite of the atmosphere that you get from the Kremlin and from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. In spite of that, we need to continue to reassure Russia that none of this is aimed against Russia, this is for the protection of the NATO territory and that NATO is a defense alliance, first and foremost, that is not aimed at destabilizing or occupying or working in any other country that would pose a threat to Russia.

What are the current threats in Croatia's immediate neighborhood?

The instability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as you know, the country is not fully politically emancipated. … Then we've seen these centrifugal forces. One of the entities, Republic of Srpska, they recently filed the referendum on their "national day" -- under quotations -- but that is just the first step in what we see as a potential series of referenda on even independence of the Republic of Srpska. Should they take that decision, there would be a reaction from the [Bosnia and Herzegovina] Federation and we are potentially looking at a new conflict. And considering Russia has been very much in hybrid warfare ... and we see these strong connections between [Republic of Srpska president Milorad] Dodik … and Russia that there would be Russian interference through weapons, through tactics, through intelligence through information and disinformation, a campaign.

Then there are other threats in Bosnia and Herzegovina … some other countries interfering in the way of life not just the political set up there but the kind of Islam that we've known in Bosnia Herzegovina is changing, it's becoming more radicalized, especially in rural areas, changing the way of life, even the appearance of people, in terms of clothing and behavior and a lot more rigid interpretation of the values of Islam. And that is why it's so crucially important to keep the stability of the community of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia as well. In Croatia, we have a small but a very active, excellent Islamic community, who are doing their utmost in order to manage the processes in the region to isolate any radicals, any fundamentalists, and to keep inter-ethnic and inter-religious communication and the full integration of the Islamic community, not assimilation, but integration, in the mainstream society.

How will you go about procuring some of the major weapon systems you need and how involved will Croatian industry be?

With fighter aircraft, unfortunately, we can't do much on our national front. It's too complicated, it's too big and, of course, you purchase aircraft not just having in mind what the best offer financially you get. So we will be looking at different aspects. What kind of fleet we want, what kind of training we can get from the countries of origin. … It is very complicated. It's not just opening a competition and whoever sets the best bid or whoever is the cheapest.

Do you have an idea of how many aircraft you are looking to buy?

Certainly we were supposed to take that decision before the end of this year and throughout the term of the former government, I was warning back in 2014 that 2016 is just around the corner, that we need to take that decision. Now, we have a new government that has been in office for just a few weeks, but we have already talked about it and we will take those decisions before the end of next year.

On the number of fleet, we will look at different offers, different possibilities and certainly I would like for that to be sort of a national discussion as well because of the heritage from what we call the Homeland War [the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995]  in Croatia. Our fighters, although we did not have any aircraft in the beginning apart from agriculture-use aircraft and some schooling etc, but with a few pilots who came from the so-called Yugoslav National Army with quite a few aircraft and through other means later on, we built our fighter aircraft fleet in very little time and they played a crucial role in the war. This is one of the reasons why the whole country feels proud about it. And, honestly, looking at the threats in the region, we do need fighter aircraft, threats are changing.

Where are you in taking ownership of the Kiowa Warrior helicopters the US retired from its fleet?

We are still transferring. It was through assistance with the US, the US has helped us a lot in that. We are still transferring some of the aircraft to Croatia and we are working on the training. Several have come to Croatia and we are still waiting for some deliveries, but I think this is just the beginning of acquiring a new fleet because we still have those Russian helicopters, especially transportation helicopters, and it's becoming increasingly difficult, they are aging and it's become almost impossible to get the spare parts for those.

Those decisions are easier than fighter jets because they are far less expensive. And we will be working with the US for those acquisitions to take place in the months to come.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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