Brigadier General Tommaso Vitale, Chief of the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, said in an exclusive interview with the Strategic Policy Council portal, cfsp.rs, that the public does not see how much NATO and Serbia have been working together for almost 15 years, that is, since signing of the Partnership for Peace.
Vitale recalled that his first operational mission was to participate in KFOR, during which, he says, he “saw the suffering and difficulties faced by the local population, but at the same time exceptional dignity”.
“We must never forget the past, but we can overcome it and that is what NATO and Serbia are doing with this partnership, we are looking towards a better future”, said the general.
He also emphasized that in accordance with the UN mandate, KFOR remains fully committed to the protection of Decani, as an important shrine for the Serbian community, and added that he was lucky to spend time and feel the hospitality of Father Sava and the monks of Decani.
The head of the NATO mission did not want to comment on the opening of military office of the Russian Federation in Belgrade and characterized it as an issue for Serbian or Russian authorities, but he emphasized that NATO fully respects Serbia’s policy of military neutrality.
Speaking about the increasingly frequent cyber threats, the brigadier general emphasized that the attackers were targeting an increasing number of targets – from national parliaments to the Olympic Games, from vaccine manufacturers to the sites of election bodies.
“Cyber defense is part of the collective defense. We have made it clear that a serious cyber attack could lead to the activation of Article 5 of the Washington Agreement, our clause on collective defense,” he said.
In this pre-holiday interview, Vitale said that it helped him feel at home and the fact that Italian espresso was served in Belgrade cafes “just the way Italians love it”, but that he was deeply touched when Serbia sent medical equipment to his country and that his countrymen would carry it in their hearts forever.
Read more below in the interview which we are presenting in full.
Next year is the 15th year since Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace. How do you assess the relations between Serbia and the Alliance?
Serbia and NATO have been developing this partnership steadily for the last fifteen years, both at the political and practical levels. We see Serbia as a valued, committed and respected partner in our efforts to consolidate security and stability in the Western Balkans. Albeit perhaps not at first glance, the NATO-Serbia partnership is indeed multifaceted if you take a deeper look. From a major civilian disaster response exercise held in Serbia in October 2018, to cooperation in the scientific and technological fields, to training of Serbian military for deployment in international peace-keeping operations, just to name a few examples. I am proud to be here and witness this first-hand. I also look forward to the further development of the NATO-Serbia partnership, during my tenure as Head of the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade.
NATO is an alliance of 30 countries, all of which have their own bilateral relations with Serbia. This is of course an important factor of consideration, as we look at how Serbia interacts with NATO as an entity. For instance, in our office we have Italian, German, Hungarian, Greek, Slovenian and Croatian personnel working side by side on a daily basis with their Serbian colleagues and counterparts. NATO’s partnership with Serbia is based on a request from the Serbian authorities and is conducted in full respect of your country’s stated policy of military neutrality. In other words, we are here to assist and to support Serbia according to its own priorities. All our efforts are therefore tailor-made to Serbia’s needs. Throughout the years, we have developed extensive practical cooperation in various domains, with a focus on the reform of Serbia’s security forces, institutions and structures as the core element of our cooperation. In addition, as in any partnership, we have consolidated our political dialogue, which is key to fostering mutual understanding.
In late 2019, Serbia and NATO renewed the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) within the framework of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. This was a great step forward as it provided us with an agreed cooperation platform for the next two years, featuring over 200 activities. The IPAP is a fundamental document, which encompasses both political and military issues, setting priorities and coordinating all aspects of our cooperation. For thirteen years, Serbia has been a part of the Planning and Review Process (PARP) – the basic mechanism of the PfP designed to foster the level of interoperability between Allied forces and partner forces. Through PARP, Serbia has been strengthening the capacity and operational standards of its armed forces taking part in international missions led by the UN and the EU, for which Serbia is a well-known and respected contributor across the world. I would like to take this opportunity to also mention the Operational Capabilities Concept (OCC), a PfP mechanism through which Serbian units can be trained and evaluated according to NATO standards. Through the Operational Capabilities Concept partner countries, including Serbia, have access to well-tested NATO procedures and standards; and this helps to significantly improve their respective defence capacities. Let’s be clear: this process is a two-way street, which benefits both of us. We learn from each other and we help each other. Serbia has been constantly proving that it has a lot to offer to this end. One of the latest examples comes from the implementation of NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP), through which Serbia offers its valuable experience in the reform of defence education institutions, a critical aspect in its own right for the security of many countries. Furthermore, since 2006, Serbia has contributed to more than 30 projects under NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme. These have included energy and environmental security, defence against chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear agents, counter-terrorism, cyber-defence, and human security. There are numerous ways, mechanisms and platforms for our cooperation and we are happy that Serbia uses many of them. Also, several NATO Allies and partners – including for instance Austria, the Czech Republic and Turkey – have provided critical medical aid to Serbia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, all in all the relations between Serbia and the Alliance are on a solid ground; they are mutually beneficial; and they are based on mutual respect.
In which areas do you see room for improvement?
We are very happy with the level of cooperation developed with Serbia. Serbia is a valued partner for us. It is up to Serbia to decide where and in what direction it wishes to take this partnership forward. Currently, in line with its own prerogatives, Serbia can choose from over 1,400 different activities to conduct together with NATO.
We stand ready to provide all the required assistance to this end, including through the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade. Our office was established in 2006, at Serbia’s request, to provide support in a range of activities designed to strengthen Serbia’s defence and security capacities, its structures and institutions, within the framework of the Partnership for Peace with NATO, signed by Serbia in 2006.
How do you comment on the recent announcement that a military office of the Russian Federation will be opened in Belgrade?
We welcome our partnership with Serbia, and we fully respect its stated policy of military neutrality. We also fully respect the sovereign decision by our partners regarding the security arrangements that they want to undertake. We can have strong relations with partners – like Austria or Finland – without them being members. For the specific issue you have raised, you will have to approach the Serbian and Russian authorities for any comment.
In the domain of cyber security, how does NATO view this type of threat given that democratic societies are increasingly exposed to sophisticated hybrid attacks?
Cyber threats to the security of the Alliance are becoming more frequent, complex and destructive. Attackers are targeting an ever-growing list of targets – from national parliaments to the Olympics, and from vaccine developers to elections websites. NATO is vigilant and our defences are robust. We protect our own IT networks from cyber-attacks 24 hours a day; and we have rapid reaction cyber defence teams on 24/7 standby that can help Allies under attack. We share information about cyber threats in real-time with Allies and partners – including the EU.
Cyber defence is part of collective defence. We have made clear that a serious cyber-attack could trigger Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, our collective defence clause. We have designated cyberspace an operational domain in which NATO will operate and defend itself as effectively as it does on land, in the air, and at sea. We have set up NATO’s Cyberspace Operations Centre, in Mons, Belgium. We have also agreed Allies can integrate national cyber effects (including offensive cyber) into Alliance operations and missions. NATO’s cyber policy is defensive. As in all other domains, in cyberspace NATO acts in line with international law. Enhancing our resilience to cyber threats is critical and Allies are also bolstering their national networks and infrastructures.
How do you comment on the frequent and definitely too strong anti-NATO narrative of certain people in the authorities and certain media under their control?
I think one of the biggest challenges for NATO in Serbia is public diplomacy, since the public does not see how much we do together, and there is still a considerable information-gap. We are open and transparent about what we do and we are willing to exchange views on NATO with all interested parties. We will continue to do our best; our colleagues at NATO Headquarters in Brussels do their very best to explain what NATO is, to engage with Serbian media outlets with the aim of portraying an accurate and factual image of NATO and of our partnership with Serbia. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg himself is especially attached to Serbia and this is apparent every time he speaks with the Serbian media.
When we talk about NATO, not everyone in Serbia is aware that NATO is actually an alliance of 30 democracies. Some of those countries are among the biggest investors and economic partners of Serbia. NATO is Italy, my home country, one of its 12 founding members, NATO is also Canada. NATO is Norway, where our Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is from. NATO is Greece, where the majority of Serbs take their kids for summer holidays. NATO is Hungary, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark and many other member countries.
We highly respect the Serbian public opinion. Its perceptions and perspectives are a crucial factor for us; and we take them into due account in our daily activities. We fully respect that NATO remains controversial. At the same time the NATO-Serbia partnership is on solid ground and continues to develop, in a transparent, reliable and mutually beneficial fashion. This is the message we want to give to ordinary Serbian citizens.
Since you spent more than a year in Kosovo, we can freely ask you: can Dečani exist without NATO protection?
Through its long-standing KFOR mission, NATO remains committed to perform its role throughout Kosovo, to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities of Kosovo, under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999. We know that this marvellous and spectacular monastery has been there for centuries and I am convinced it is going to stand there for centuries to come, despite all challenges. I was lucky enough to see it, spend some time there and experience the hospitality of Abbot Sava and the monks in Decani. We are fully aware of how important this place of worship is for the Serbian communities and remain fully committed to contribute to its protection, in line with our UN mandate.
The NATO-led KFOR was my first operational mission. I learned a lot during my time in Kosovo: I witnessed the suffering and hardships of local people, but at the same time I was able to see the remarkable dignity of those citizens during such a difficult time for them. We must never forget the past, but we can move beyond it; and that is what NATO and Serbia are doing with our partnership, looking towards a better future.
And to wrap up, one interesting thing – you are not the first Italian Chief of the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, and the presence of Italian diplomats in other international missions is quite noticeable. Do the Italians love Serbia or do you come to our country because it is believed that you are culturally closest to us? All Italians I know love Serbia and we are delighted that the relations between our countries are thriving. Belgrade is a truly wonderful city, the kind of city you like at first sight. It’s full of life, full of intelligent, joyful young people. It is the kind of city that makes it easy to be in a really good mood. When I arrived at the beginning of this year, I experienced a very warm welcome, something I really appreciated. It was easy for me to feel about Belgrade as a home away from home, since people here are very friendly and kind. The fact that cafes serve real Italian espresso as Italians like it also helps. Being Italian, I was delighted to see how Serbian people love Italy and Italians. Given that I have been in Belgrade since the start of the pandemic, let me add one last point, which is very important for me: the generosity and solidarity that your country showed when you sent medical equipment to Italy deeply touched me. Italians will forever remember and will always carry in our hearts what you have done for us. Thank you.