Moderator: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. Today, we are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Smith, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador Smith: Thank you. Thank you very much, and thanks to all the journalists joining us today. Good afternoon, or good morning for those sitting on the other side of the Atlantic.
Of course, ahead of the Madrid Summit, we have Secretary of Defense Austin coming to NATO this week, as most of you know, for two separate important events. First, on Wednesday, the U.S. is hosting the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, which brings together a collection of close to 50 countries that are all assisting Ukraine at this moment. The meeting here that will take place in Brussels, here at NATO HQ, will discuss the situation on the ground; folks will trade notes on their observations, what they’re hearing and seeing; they will be reviewing what additional security assistance they can provide in the immediate, medium, and long term to help Ukraine win this war; and the U.S. will make clear that we continue to stand united with Ukraine for as long as it takes. I think most of you are familiar with the figures, but since President Biden came into office in January of 2021, the United States has provided $5.3 billion worth of security assistance and 4.6 billion since February 24th.
Now, on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, starting late Wednesday after the contact group meeting and into Thursday, the Secretary will be joining the defense ministerial. There’ll be a couple of different items on the agenda for this meeting. First and foremost, ministers will be coming together to talk about a new baseline for their deterrence and defense posture in today’s changed security environment, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine. There’ll be a session with partners as well. As is often the tradition, NATO likes to invite close partners into the room. We’ll have a number of those partners present to also have a conversation about what more we can do to strengthen the relationships there. And the ministers will obviously be talking about the situation in Ukraine and looking for ways that they can make additional contributions and support Ukraine.
These are obviously all very important final preparations on the way to the Madrid Summit, and will be a timely opportunity for defense ministers to come together just less than two weeks out or about two weeks out from the Madrid Summit.
In terms of Madrid, let me just say we’ve got our attention turned to a couple of deliverables for the summit. Obviously, what we’re doing here at NATO at the moment is we’re working on the new strategic concept that will be really one of the crown jewels in terms of what will be rolled out in Madrid at the end of June. So those efforts continue, and this document, as many of you know, reaffirms NATO’s core values, identifies its and restates its core purpose, it outlines its core tasks, and will be an important moment for the Alliance to update this document that was last drafted in 2010.
Leaders will be coming together in Madrid also to reaffirm NATO’s “Open Door” policy, something that we’ve been very clear in messaging to Moscow, but many other countries around the world. We, the United States, clearly support the application of Finland and Sweden. We believe that these two countries will make the Alliance stronger not only because of their world-class military capabilities, but also because of the values that we share. There’ll be discussions in Madrid and I suspect some announcements on force posture, and we can get into that in the Q&A if you’d like, and then some additional questions about burden-sharing and resourcing that I suspect will be part of the Madrid Summit as well.
So with that, just a couple of broad comments at the top, I’m happy to take your questions and look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. Let’s turn to the Q&A part of the call. Our first question goes to Danila Galperovich with Voice of America. Please go ahead, Danila.
Question: Hello. Thank you, Ambassador, for doing this. My question is Ukrainian political and military leaders talk about a tenfold superiority of Russia in the amount of ammunition and equipment, which could lead to the loss of significant territory of Ukraine. To – American media has supported – just recently there was an article in Washington Post. To what extent are the United States and NATO ready to increase arms supplies to Ukraine and ammunition supplies, and what is preventing them from doing so? Thank you.
Ambassador Smith: Well, the U.S., as I stated at the top, has been the biggest contributor of security assistance to Ukraine since Russia went in on February 24th, but we’re not alone. There are many, many NATO Allies, and not just NATO Allies but many other countries around the world that have been making contributions in the area of lethal support. All members of the Alliance are supporting Ukraine one way or another, be that through humanitarian and economic assistance or security assistance.
As the conflict ticks on, obviously the United States is intent on sitting down with its partners and allies around the world to better assess what Ukrainian needs are, what their requirements are in this moment. That’s part of the reason why the U.S. was intent on hosting a third contact group meeting here that will take place tomorrow, and the idea again behind that gathering is for the countries that are issuing support to Ukraine at this moment to come together and, number one, hear from Ukraine directly what their requirements are present day and assess what has already been contributed by that group. Again, it’s almost 50 countries that will be represented around the table. And lastly, make a determination about what types of contributions these countries want to make going forward. This is an evolving process that ebbs and flows. We get inputs from our Ukrainian friends almost daily. We’re assessing those needs and requirements and pairing them with countries that have the ability to meet those requirements.
So I take your point that this is a critical moment. I think all of the leaders or the ministers that will be meeting here at NATO tomorrow are in agreement that it’s important in this moment for all of us to sit together around a table and assess what more we can do.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that, Ambassador. We have a question that was emailed to us from Marek Świerczyński with Polityka Insight in Poland. “What is the future of NATO’s eFP posture? We had a statement from Germany last week about increasing the size of battalion combat group in Lithuania to brigade size. Is this going to happen across the entire eastern flank?”
Ambassador Smith: Well, first of all, just to back up, so to review the history here: In the wake of Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Alliance decided to move forward with four separate multinational battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland. Then fast-forward to what happened on February 24th of this year. The Alliance then decided to expand the number of multinational battalions to eight, and now we have essentially NATO’s entire eastern flank covered by or assured by these eight battalions.
What’s happening right now inside the Alliance is that Allies are coming together to ask the question, above and beyond the posture that has been moved into Eastern Europe since February 24th and even as far back as 2014, what above and beyond those numbers – what types of capabilities need to be added, need to be included in medium and longer-term posture – in the medium and longer-term posture of the Alliance going forward? The hope is that by we – by the time we get to the Madrid Summit, leaders will be able to come together and say something more concrete about that medium and longer-term posture.
You noted the decision that just came out of Berlin. They have decided to take a brigade element headquarters and move it into the country where they already have considerable force presence, and that is the country of Lithuania. And the idea there is to enhance NATO’s ability to reinforce Lithuania in the face of a crisis. We will have other things to say about that when we get to Madrid, but this is part of the discussions that are ongoing right now here in Brussels.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. Let’s go to Yaroslav Dovgopol with Ukrinform. Please go ahead, Yaroslav.
Question: Hello. Thank you, Ambassador, for this opportunity and for doing this. My question is regarding the initiative of creating a new alliance between the United Kingdom, Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and possibly Turkey. So the question is, what does the United States think about this initiative? And in your opinion, can it strengthen the defense capability of Ukraine and NATO countries in the face of Russian aggression? Thank you.
Ambassador Smith: Well, obviously the NATO Alliance is very focused on NATO-related initiatives. And as I just noted, we’re thinking through right now what more the NATO Alliance can do on its eastern flank to further reinforce that corner of the Alliance. But I will say that certainly from a U.S. perspective, we’ve seen over the years multiple bilateral relationships flourish. There have been countries that have come together to launch new defense initiatives. We’ve seen I guess what I would describe as mini-lateral formations come together over the years. Obviously, we support initiatives that help build capacity. And to the extent that NATO members break off into partnerships or into some groups to help build capacity and collectively strength the Alliance – strengthen the Alliance, then that’s something that we would want to support.
Moderator: Thank you for that. We have a question that was emailed to us from Teija Sutinen with Helsingin Sanomat in Finland. The question is: “How is the United States trying to help Finland and Sweden to start membership discussions with NATO? And what could be done to satisfy concerns Turkey has expressed recently?”
Ambassador Smith: Well, there are multiple efforts being undertaken right now in different formats. So we have the three countries in question, the two aspirant countries, the two countries that have formally submitted their requests for memberships, Sweden and Finland, working with Turkey to address the concerns that the Turks have raised with both of those countries. So that’s a trilateral format that is underway. And you’ve seen news about those three countries coming together to try and address some of the concerns that Ankara has put on the table.
You also have individual countries. I know in my own country, some of our principals have reached out to engage Turkey in a conversation, to talk with our friends in Sweden/Finland to see what concerns they have about this time where they have submitted their letter of application and they are waiting for the process to begin. So you’ll see continued engagement from Washington, and then other individual Allies have gotten engaged as well. They have picked up the phone, trying to find out how they can play a constructive role. And lastly, here at NATO, we’re obviously sitting around the table. We’ve had a series of conversations in the NAC, in the North Atlantic Council, at 30, listening to some of the concerns that Turkey has expressed with the Swedes and the Finns in particular, and then trying to chart a way forward.
Our goal here is to try and see if we might have Sweden and Finland sitting at the table in Madrid as invitees. If that doesn’t happen, the process will continue. We will work to get those accession talks open. We’re still confident that, ultimately, this will happen. In terms of timing, I can’t say anything with any certainty. But we are behind closed doors addressing the concerns that the Turks have put on the table.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. We have a question from John Paul Rathbone with the Financial Times. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you very much, and thank you, Ambassador. I wondered if this – may not quite be your – your section, but if you could address any thoughts about the Black Sea and any thinking, philosophical or operational, that might be taking place within NATO or within the U.S. about how to address the de facto Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports there and what that means for freedom of navigation issues. Thank you.
Ambassador Smith: Well, obviously the Black Sea comes up a lot in our conversations. We’ve talked about it in regards to the strategic concept. We have talked about it obviously because we have member states and we have partners that are on the Black Sea. We talk about it because, collectively, Allies fully appreciate the ramifications of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and that is the Russian blockade of grain getting out of Ukraine, and it’s creating food security issues globally, around the world.
I don’t have any breaking news in terms of a specific NATO role in the Black Sea at the moment. The conversations continue not only at NATO but in, as you well know, other multilateral institutions like the United Nations, and we’ll continue to grapple with this challenge here at NATO and in other institutions around the world.
Question: Thank you.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Let’s see. It looks like we have an unknown caller from – it looks like from the United States with a 917 area code. Please identify yourself and go ahead. Okay. Maybe we can – are you there? Okay. Maybe we can get back to you.
Question: Yes. This is Paolo Mastrolilli with the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. I would like to ask of the Ambassador, Italy presented peace – a possible peace plan. I would like to know if you think that there is any room to discuss a similar initiative, and if not, what is the most useful contribution that Allies like Italy could give in terms of military help to Ukraine?
Ambassador Smith: Well, first of all, let me thank Italy for the contributions it’s already made to Ukraine. Italy is a terrific partner to us here at the NATO Alliance and has done a lot to support the Ukrainian military and the people of Ukraine writ large and we’re very grateful for that support.
In terms of a peace plan, I mean, you’ve heard President Biden talk about this, the fact that, ultimately, this will have to be settled through some sort of negotiation at the table. I mean, we made many efforts, diplomatic efforts before February 24th to try and persuade President Putin not to go to war in Ukraine and to opt for some sort of diplomatic off-ramp. We did that through bilateral channels. We met with the Russians here at NATO on January 12th. We met with the Russians in the OSCE. Multiple efforts were undertaken by heads of state who traveled back and forth to Kyiv and Moscow before February 24th. But alas, Putin chose another course. He opted for war and on February 24th, as we all know, went into Ukraine.
In terms of the way forward, we certainly support countries trying to find some sort of diplomatic path forward. We are skeptical that the Russians are negotiating in good faith. What we saw at the beginning of the conflict was a situation where we felt the Ukrainians were coming to the table with genuine proposals, real ideas, sitting down and negotiating in good faith, but that was not matched on the Russian side. So those talks broke down.
Since then, we are ultimately leaving this in the hands of President Zelenskyy. He needs to determine when he’s ready to sit down at a negotiating table. He needs to make the determination about any final negotiation that would take place. He will have to make the decision about how he wants to proceed. So we are looking to him for his guidance and his interest in sitting down and trying another round of negotiations. But yes, certainly we support countries that want to try and reach some sort of diplomatic settlement sooner rather than later.
Moderator: Great, thanks for that, Ambassador. Our next question comes to us from Pekka Hakala with Helsingin Sanomat. Please go ahead.
Question: Hear me now?
Moderator: Yes, we can.
Question: Fine, fine. Okay. Mr. Erdogan said, I think today, that Turkey is ready to keep Sweden and Finland on hold with NATO membership at least a year. Do you think that this – starts to be a problem of the whole Alliance and the United States, not only problem of Sweden and Finland?
Ambassador Smith: Well, I think the Allies all hope that this is something that we could resolve, again, in weeks and months, not years. We all had hopes – many of us had hopes that we would see these two countries join us in Madrid as invitees at the table with the other leaders. We don’t know if that will come to pass. But I think what has been encouraging is hearing what capitals are doing to try and expedite the ratification process when it comes to that phase of admitting them into the Alliance.
You’ve seen, for example, in the United States strong bipartisan support for these two countries joining the Alliance. And for that reason, the Senate is trying to signal that it will be ready when the time comes to ratify quickly their membership.
So again, behind the scenes at NATO, you feel and experience strong support for these two countries. You feel an interest in moving this as soon as humanly possible. But we also have an interest in working with Turkey on the concerns that they’ve raised to date.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Looks like we’ve got time for maybe one final question. We’ve got Steve Erlanger on the line from The New York Times. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you, Madam Ambassador. Can I just ask you in a very simple way, are the Ukrainians correct to complain that NATO Allies are not serious enough about providing them the weapons they say they need?
Ambassador Smith: I think the NATO Allies – individually, again, NATO as an Alliance is not providing assistance. But I think individual NATO Allies have been extremely responsive in recent months. We have met countless times with Ukrainian counterparts, whether it’s the foreign minister, defense minister, or President Zelenskyy joining us via videoconference. He joined the last NATO Summit at the top. We hear directly from them almost daily about the requirements that they believe they need.
Obviously, it’s an evolving list. The list that they gave us early on in the conflict looks very different from the list that we’re talking about now. We were heavily focused in the beginning on air defense. We transitioned to a conversation about ammunition. We’ve had moments where we’ve talked about coastal defense. We’re talking about heavy rocket artillery. We have shifted the conversation. We’ve talked about armored vehicles.
So we will continue to stay in close touch with Ukraine and the Ukrainian military and their commanders. We will assess in real time what those needs are. The contact group that is being run by the United States, through the coordination with EUCOM, will make real-time assessments and will work with Allies in that group to move that equipment as fast as they humanly can.
So again, I think in light of recent events and the evolving nature of the conflict on the ground, I think NATO Allies have been quite responsive.
Question: Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today. I’d like to thank all the reporters on the line for their questions and thank Ambassador Smith for joining us. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if Ambassador Smith has any final remarks for the group.
Ambassador Smith: No. Thank you very much, everybody, for joining us. Look forward to doing this again sometime soon.
Moderator: Great. Well, thanks again, Ambassador. Very shortly, the Brussels Media Hub will send the audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it becomes available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time by emailing TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call.
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