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Former NATO Commander Says NATO Alliance Has 'Woken Up' To Cybersecurity

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, which is bracing for the arrival of two presidents - Vladimir Putin of Russia and Joe Biden of the U.S. Running to interviews today, we noticed new security checkpoints that had sprouted overnight, new graffiti featuring Putin's political rival, Alexei Navalny. Now, as for Biden, he will be flying in straight from Brussels, where he was warmly greeted today by NATO leaders.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: Mr. President, it is great to see you again and just a week after we met in the White House. And thank you so much for your strong personal commitment and powerful leadership.

KELLY: President Biden returned the love.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty is rock solid and unshakable. It's a sacred commitment.

KELLY: One goal of the NATO summit and Biden's tour across Europe is to repair the NATO alliance that had come under attack by former President Trump. Well, our next guest, Admiral James Stavridis, knows NATO well. He led the alliance's global operations from 2009 to 2013. I asked him, what grade would he give Biden on that effort?

JAMES STAVRIDIS: An A - and I think that it wasn't a hard A to get. What he needed to do when he accomplished it was to come and be himself. Here is a president who is deeply experienced in international relations. He knows and has met with every single one of these leaders formally as the vice president of the United States - many of them before that when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. So he brings experience. He brings personal charm. It could not have been more of a contrast than with Donald Trump, frankly.

KELLY: This NATO meeting - and I should note, the G-7 meetings that came earlier on this Biden swing through Europe - they have focused on what people are noting are the Cs, as in the letter C, on climate, on COVID and a coordinated response - also on China. Do you see evidence of progress, or do you see more coordinated statements, lip service from the allies on this?

STAVRIDIS: I think there's real progress, in particular on cyber and cybersecurity. The alliance has woken up to this since I was supreme allied commander, '09 to '13. At that time, we didn't have much in the way of cyberdefense or cyber offense. That is changing and changing in real time in front of us. Climate, I think...

KELLY: So you're adding another C to the list - cyber.

STAVRIDIS: (Laughter).

KELLY: Would you be specific? I mean, what exactly are you looking at and saying, hey, that's real progress.

STAVRIDIS: The use of the Tallinn, Estonia Cybersecurity Center of Excellence is driving up with additional officers, additional resources, coordinated positions, looking at Russia's use of cyber against the alliance, defining cyber as a potential attack vector under Article 5. These are real signs of progress in the alliance. I think on climate, Mary Louise, that'll be more individual nations. But the additive effect of that, I think, is going to be quite good. And on China, we're seeing NATO allies sign up to sail to the South China Sea. The British carrier Queen Elizabeth is underway right now - six British escorts with it. Where's it going? - South China Sea. The Germans are coming. The French are coming. The Italians are discussing it. Bottom line, I think the alliance - to stay in the grade motif - is in the B-plus range on cyber, China and climate.

KELLY: I suppose worth noting - it's significant that NATO is focused on China and its strategic plans at all. And this was an alliance that was founded to contain and counter Russia.

STAVRIDIS: Absolutely correct - and yet the world moves on. And thus it would be disingenuous and naive on the part of NATO to say, OK, we don't have an immediate threat in and around Europe from China. You have to look at Chinese behavior globally. I think the alliance perfectly capable of doing that. And NATO, in my view, is a 21st century alliance that continues to address changes in threats to the alliance.

KELLY: Let me push you on the China question. Is it clear to you that the U.S. and other NATO members do, in fact, see eye to eye on China? I mean, the national interests of the different NATO countries that are at this summit today are very different when it comes to China.

STAVRIDIS: Indeed. As always, any alliance is going to be a multigear bicycle. And different nations are going to operate that set of gears differently. And so some of the NATO nations will be very aligned with the United States and facing China, and I'd put the British at the top of that list. I think it'll take more time for some of the other nations, but I'm encouraged, again, by what I see from the French, the Germans, the Italians. These are the big nations in NATO. Will there be disagreements, particularly about trade and tech and tariffs? - certainly. But at the end of the day, I'm reasonably confident this alliance is going to pull together, because the reality is, if we don't, we're not going to be able to balance the emergence of China in the 10 to 15-year future.

KELLY: Let me turn you before I let you go to Geneva, where President Biden and President Putin will meet in a couple days' time. We've been out walking the streets today. There's already heavy security presence, police on the streets. We're seeing TV crews angling their trucks for primo satellite position. You tweeted that Biden's task at the summit, above all, is to convince Putin to stop the cyberattacks, which prompts me to ask you, how, when nothing the U.S. has tried has worked?

STAVRIDIS: I'd do four things. One, I would reveal even more of our intelligence. Clearly make the case internationally that Russia is behind this. We see Putin...

KELLY: Yeah.

STAVRIDIS: ...As usual, slouching in his chair, laughing off questions, drilling.

KELLY: He said proof. Show me the proof. You have to show me the proof.

STAVRIDIS: Show the evidence, number one. Number two, we better improve our own defenses. One of the best ways to discourage him is to make it untenable that these attacks don't succeed. So improve the defenses. Number three is go after the perpetrators. Here I'm not speaking about the Russian state, in this point. I'm saying go after the cybercriminals. Take the money back. It's all electronic bitcoin, for starters. Take the money. Take their motivation. And fourth and finally, increase the levels of sanctions on Russia and tighten the noose around Vladimir Putin personally, around his inner circle, their assets abroad. We've got a pretty sweeping range of responses we can make, and that's just cyber, before we go on to other things. So I'll leave it there, but I think that's a good starting prescription to point out to President Putin.

KELLY: Some advice there for President Biden as he prepares to meet Vladimir Putin here in Geneva on Wednesday. We've been speaking with Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO.

Admiral, thanks for speaking with us.

STAVRIDIS: And enjoy Geneva, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I intend to. Thanks again.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "NIGHT HIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.