In the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March and continued destabilizing actions along the Ukrainian border, General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of U.S. European Command, addressed the Conference of Defence Associations Institute at the Canadian War Museum in early May. Below are his prepared remarks and excerpts from a lengthy Q&A that followed.

As we look back over 13 years of cooperation in Afghanistan it is important that we take stock in what we have achieved together and what we must do to prepare ourselves for the future.

One of the greatest achievements of the alliance, and a true symbol of the strength of the transatlantic bond, took place just last month. Over seven million people turned out to register their vote in Afghanistan as a part of the first legitimate, credible and transparent elections to take place in that country. The successes of these efforts represent the combined efforts, collaboration and cooperation of the alliance and partner nations who have been committed to the region over the last 13 years.

After my first year as SACEUR, it is clear to me that we are entering a phase of strategic and operational adaptation; adaptation shaped by the end of ISAF and by the rapidly changing global security environment that we are all witnessing play out.

The Washington treaty that created NATO in 1949 was driven by a common interest: World War II was over and a new common threat had emerged which united our efforts, on both sides of the Atlantic, and forged a common alliance. As we came to the end of the Cold War, the 1990’s were a period of great challenge, more adaptation and, quite frankly, opportunity. This was matched by a robust, creative period of NATO military and policy development that led to initiatives such as the Combined Joint Task Force concept, Partnership for Peace and the initial moves toward crisis management and the first true out-of-area operations.

The 2015 to 2020 period of adaptation will require the same level of innovation, robust ideas and creative redesign of the military posture to set the alliance on a stable foundation and trajectory for the next 15 years.

In just the last few weeks, due to Russia’s actions, the security environment has changed. But the alliance remains strong. Moscow recognizes the strength and solidarity of the transatlantic bond and our actions to support and reinforce the decisions made by the international community. Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine has caused a paradigm shift and, in response, NATO must and will adapt to remain credible and relevant to the problem.

If there was ever any doubt of the relevance of NATO and the strength of the transatlantic bond before now, the last few weeks have cleared that up and reinforced the need for our essential core tasks: first, collective defence; second, cooperative security; and third, crisis management.

Now is the time to take stock and consider what we have accomplished over the last 20 years of operational commitment around the world and retain our hard-earned capabilities and interoperability and, importantly, adapt to meet the challenges of this new security environment.

Frankly, it is time to ask ourselves some hard questions: Are we structured correctly to provide a rapid and credible response? Is the alliance agile and flexible enough to react appropriately? Do our exercises and readiness measures need to go beyond current CFI (Connected Forces Initiative) missions in order to match the capacity of, for example, Russian Snap exercises that we have witnessed over the past several months? And, even more tough, are our forces positioned correctly to respond?

NATO must provide the platform that allows our allies and partners to achieve their most fundamental military training and exercise requirements at the operational and strategic levels, a concept that has been dormant over the last 20 years as we have been focused on real operations.

We should also assess our partnership programs: What does it mean to be a partner? Do our partnership programs meet the needs and ambitions of both our allies and our partners? How successfully are we exporting security?

We have to ask ourselves; what benefits has Ukraine gained from being a partner of NATO during this crisis? This crisis has clearly affirmed the strengths of the transatlantic bond to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, even those challenges that we did not anticipate. But it has also highlighted weaknesses in our structures, our tools and mechanisms to respond to a crisis appropriately when necessary.

My three key priorities for ACO (Allied Command Operations) that I have delivered to various audiences over the past 12 months are to get the Afghan transition correct; second, preparedness – we were talking about moving from a deployed alliance to a ready alliance; then finally, cooperative security – what are we going to do with our partners? They all still seem to be quite relevant. These three priorities are more relevant to the transatlantic bond than ever and the crisis in the Ukraine has only served to underline their fundamental importance to our alliance.

We must maintain interoperability between the NATO command structure, national elements and partners. This will be critical as we reduce our reliance on cooperation through operations and begin to reshape our readiness to respond to the next crisis – and there will be [a] next crisis.

I will be looking at our ongoing operational activities and our associated footprint to examine the potential for a broader strategic framework that builds on existing partnerships on the ground, at sea and in the air.

In particular we need to identify areas where we have been relying on the operational cycle to provide the resources and opportunities to deliver readiness. Then we must determine which elements need to be reinvested in, in order to maintain our readiness, interoperability and, the hard one now, our responsiveness after 2014.

As we prepare for the NATO Summit in September we must be clear about what we feel are the challenges and the threats that face our alliance. We need to clearly articulate our role in deterrence and then, if required, our role in defence.

NATO turned 65 years old this year. I would offer it is not ready for retirement. In fact, the alliance has more worldwide significance now than ever before. But, being ready is not enough – we need to be responsive in order to meet the next global security challenge.

On Canada’s defence spending (1 percent of GDP versus the 2 percent target NATO has set for member nations):
Clearly most nations in NATO do not meet it; I think there are five in NATO that meet it right now. This is clearly an individual nation’s decision, and nations can contribute in ways other than just a proportion of GDP. Some of our nations in Europe do a great job of hosting forces, hosting opportunities, missile defence platforms… We have come from a period where we saw Russia as a partner and that came with a certain paradigm in defence spending; we are now in a very, very different time. I think nations need to take this aboard and consider it.

On ballistic missile defence:
I think it is reasonable for western nations to want to have ballistic missile defence when we have rogue nations that are developing ballistic missiles and developing nuclear capability. We have had a long relationship with some nations who deal in strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and you can judge whether you think that has been a fruitful history, but so far we have not employed any of those weapons on each other. But we have nations that are far less experienced and, some would say, less responsible who want to enter this game. As a defender of my country and as a defender of our NATO alliance, I think it is prudent that we look at those capabilities that we have. Then I think we have to have a responsible conversation with Russia to enter into this dialogue, so that we can enter into agreements with China and others who have these capabilities.

On the effect of Canada’s decision to opt out of NATO’s AWAC program:
Let me choose not to make a judgment about that. What I will say is that Canada has been very straightforward and very cooperative in the way that they exited the program to make it easy for us to adapt the program and move forward with it… I would tell you that right now NATO AWAC is doing a superb job in Romania and over Poland and what they are doing to assure allies is great, but what they are doing to train with our forces is even better.

On NATO’s assurance measures:
What we have been able to do is build a strong air presence that will include air policing and NATO AWAC in the north, center and south. We have been able to build a good maritime presence for the Baltic sea and a good presence in the Mediterranean that could either react toward the Black Sea or can react toward the Baltic Sea if we require. And now what we are seeing is nations coming in alongside and considering to offer ground forces….[A]ll we have to do is build forces that assure our allies but are not necessarily provocative to the Russians…

On NATO responsiveness:
Many in our business I think confuse readiness and responsiveness. For instance, I think the NRF is a magnificent force, it does exactly what we ask it to do. But I think we need to reassess what we need to ask it to do – especially in the context of responsiveness. We give responsiveness targets now of weeks, sometimes as many as two or three months… [T]hat will not answer what is [happening] on the Ukrainian border right now…I don’t believe we need to build anything new, I think we need to repurpose and re-task some of the forces we have… [M]ore responsive forces cost more, because you need to exercise and have them positioned or ready to immediately load. Nations have done this…[O]ur alliance knows how to have units on very tight strings and, with it, have the strategic lift that makes them available.

On NATO’s cyber capability:
Clearly cyber was a huge part of what Russia has done. When they took Crimea cyber was a part of a well-planned, total decapitation of Crimea from the command and control structure of Ukraine. Ukraine was absolutely disconnected from being able to do anything with their forces in that area. Cyber was one of the three tools used and used quite exquisitely. NATO has a good policy for addressing the defence of NATO networks and that policy is growing in its application. It is still relatively new, essentially adopted almost a year ago. There is great pressure…because every nation, including mine, feels like it needs to do more to defend itself. There is a little reluctance to begin to spend on each other to defend each other, and this is a friction that will be worked through in the next months or so because I think we will take up cyber at the Summit.