For some time, NATO has defined itself as a defensive alliance – not initiating offensive military measures and avoiding escalation.

BRUSSELS — The head of NATO has insisted that the alliance’s approach to Russia “remains firm, defensive and proportionate.”

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s comments, at the launch of NATO’s annual report for 2017, come in the wake of the recent use of a nerve agent in the U.K., for which Russia has been widely blamed.

Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, he said that attack, which has left a former Russian spy and his daughter in critical condition, was “the first offensive use of a nerve agent on alliance territory since NATO’s foundation.”

“All allies agree that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements,” he told reporters, and the alliance has “called on Russia to address the U.K.’s questions.”

He said the attack was part of “a reckless pattern of Russian behavior over many years.”

This behavior includes the “illegal annexation” of Crimea, military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the military presence in Moldova and Georgia “against these countries’ will,” according to Stoltenberg.

He cited another concern as Russian “meddling in Montenegro and elsewhere in the Western Balkans.”

He also pointed at “attempts to subvert democratic elections and institutions” and Russian military buildup from the north of Europe to the Middle East.

Stoltenberg also warned that the “blurring of the line” between nuclear and conventional warfare “lowers the threshold for Russia’s use of nuclear weapons.”

He said that the alliance would continue to seek “meaningful dialogue” with Russia, which he described as “difficult” but “vital to increase transparency and to reduce risk.”

Member progress

Aside from Russia, Stoltenberg said that “in an unpredictable world, the alliance is stepping up to keep our nations safe.”

NATO’s annual report published Thursday shows that in 2017, European allies and Canada increased spending on defense by almost 5 percent — meaning there have now been three consecutive years of growth since 2014.

Allies have also made progress on investing in new capabilities. In 2017, 26 NATO members spent more in real terms on major equipment than the year before.

“All NATO members have pledged to continue to increase defense spending in real terms. The majority have already put in place plans on how to meet the 2 percent guideline by 2024. And we expect others to follow,” the secretary general said at NATO headquarters.

The report, he claimed, also shows that NATO allies are contributing more to operations and missions. At the end of 2017, there were more than 23,000 troops serving in NATO deployments, up from just fewer than 18,000 in 2014, before Russia’s “illegal annexation” of Crimea and the rise of the Islamic State group. “This is an increase of around 30 percent,” the Norwegian-born official added.

Commenting on NATO’s Resolute Support training mission in Afghanistan, Stoltenberg said that with the alliance’s assistance, Afghan forces had increased military pressure on the Taliban in 2017, “ensuring that they did not achieve their strategic objective of capturing a provincial capital.”

“We strongly support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. I commend President [Ashraf] Ghani for his courageous leadership. His offer to the Taliban is the clearest invitation to peace yet. So I call on the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. There is an opportunity now to end the conflict,” he said.

The report provides an overview of how NATO has become “more agile and innovative” in the face of a complex and evolving security environment.

It also illustrates “progress” that NATO has made on tackling new threats such as cyberattacks and hybrid warfare, as well as on burden-sharing.

The next step for NATO

Looking to the future, much of Stoltenberg’s concerns were reserved for Russia, which he noted has been modernizing its armed forces over the last decade. It has been investing “significantly” and developing new weapons, including with nuclear capabilities, he said.

Russia has also integrated conventional and nuclear warfare in its military doctrine and exercises, he added.

“NATO will not mirror Russia tank for tank, missile for missile or drone for drone. We do not want a new Cold War. And we do not want to be dragged into a new arms race. An arms race has no winners. It is expensive, it is risky, it is in nobody’s interest. But let there be no doubt: NATO will defend all allies against any threat.”

He also noted that this annual report is the last to be launched at its current headquarters before the Western alliance starts the final stage of its move to a new headquarters next week.

This, he said, is a “a cutting-edge and environmentally friendly building which makes a fitting home for the alliance in the 21st century.”

“The world does not stand still. And neither does NATO,” he added.

Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.

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