Press Conference by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip M. Breedlove
following the NATO Chiefs of Defence meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania
Good afternoon and thank you for staying on here and spending a few more minutes to talk with me about this afternoon’s work. I’ve got a very short statement and I’ll get right to your questions.
This is what I think. It’s an historic moment for the Alliance and I’m proud to say that NATO is adapting as rapidly as its 21st century challenges are evolving themselves.
As we are preparing to transition in Afghanistan from our combat mission to a train, advise and assist mission, we are also, as you well know, adapting to changes here in Europe.
It has been truly heartening these past few weeks to see our Alliance demonstrating its commitment to the people of Afghanistan while at the same time stepping up to these challenges in our rapidly changing security environment. The members have quite tangibly shown their unity and their resolve to provide the responsive collective defense that this new environment calls for.
I have had excellent discussions with our chiefs of defense over the past two days as we have developed our military advice for our political leaders who will decide now how the Alliance moves forward in the coming weeks. We are looking forward to implementing those decisions.
And with that I'm happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Baltic News.
Q: (Inaudible) Baltic News Service. Mister General, talking about the Readiness Action Plan, what options are now being considered to boost the security in the Baltic region under this plan.
GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: So, as I mentioned, we had a great Wales Summit. And we received a lot of political guidance at the Wales Summit which we brought forward into these last two days here in Lithuania. Now, let me add my incredible thanks to the Lithuanian people and to the Lithuanian military for how they helped us conduct this. It was truly a great show. But that guidance, political guidance, we just talked about with the 28 chiefs of defence who will have to provide the forces and the capability that will become this capability that we need in the future. So much like the Chairman of the Military Committee said earlier, we received their guidance. We've been given sort of the boundaries to work on. And now we, the military authorities will go back and put the details into the plans based on this guidance. Those details will then be provided to our political leadership for decision. So right now, it's just too early to talk about the specific details until they're approved.
MODERATOR: Gentlemen, just next to Baltic News Agency.
Q: (Inaudible) Reuters. General, could you update us on the military situation in Ukraine? How many Russian soldiers are in Ukraine? And how many are near the borders? Is the ceasefire holding? Can... will it hold further?
GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: So the situation in Ukraine is not good right now. I think basically we have a ceasefire in name only. The number of events and the number of rounds fired and the artillery used across the past few days match some of the pre-ceasefire levels. And so the ceasefire is still there in name. But what is happening on the ground is quite a different story.
We hope that this will change. And we heard today of some possibly new agreements that this will change. And it is our sincere hope and desire that the innocents who are being wounded and that the two combatants can come to agreement to again get to a ceasefire situation.
As to Russian forces on the ground, yes, they're still inside Ukraine. The number of Russian forces inside Ukraine, it would inappropriate to try to determine. Because right now, the border is being maintained open by Russian forces and Russian-backed forces. And the fluidity of movement of Russian forces and Russian-backed forces, back and forth across that border, makes it almost impossible to understand the numbers. What we do know is that from the height of the Russian movement into Ukraine over a week ago, that the numbers have come down significantly. And some of those forces have returned back to the Russian side of the border; which is good except for that they haven't returned home and are still available to bring their military force to bear on Ukraine, should it be desired. And then, of course, we have seen Russian forces reposition inside the country to bring great pressure on Mariupol in the South. And so, the short answer is yes, there are still Russians inside of Ukraine, enabling the Russian-backed forces there.
MODERATOR: The gentleman at the back.
Q: General, Bob Burns with the Associated Press. With the announcement today in Kabul that there will be a declaration tomorrow of the outcome of the situation with the presidency, what's your estimate of whether NATO will be able... how long it will take NATO to complete its... you know agreement with the government of Afghanistan on continued... beginning Resolute Support. And if I may ask a similar question on the security situation there, how do you assess the... perhaps damages who have been done to the security situation in the intervening months since the election?
GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: Two great questions! And we are hopeful, as you say. I haven't actually seen that report; because I've been in meetings all day. But I've heard of the report that we may have an announcement tomorrow. We're very hopeful for that.
We have had fruitful conversations with both of the candidates. And we believe that they are very, very close also to forming that unity government which we think is very important.
Both candidates have completely endorsed a quick signature of the BSA (Bilateral Statement Agreement) and the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). I wouldn't want to speculate on how fast. But we're hoping for very fast signatures. And that would be important because it brings great stability to the conversation of our continued support and easy transition to the Resolute Support Mission in a firm stance and recommitment by the donating nations that are a big part of the future of Afghanistan. So I'm very, very hopeful there. And wouldn't want to speculate on exactly; but hopefully very soon.
As to what's happened in Afghanistan across the past months, this is one of those tyrannies. What we sometimes hear as reported may not be actually what we see on the ground. And quite frankly the ANSF continues to perform well. It continues to hold its own. And through this great political uncertainty that we've seen for the past weeks, what we have not seen is any fracture in the ANSF. It remains steadfast in its duties. It has fared well. And it is holding ground where it needs to hold ground. And I just hope you took from what I've just said that I'm very positive on the performance of the ANSF. And the narrative may not accurately reflect how well they've done across the past few weeks.
MODERATOR: The last question, Reuters. In the back (inaudible)...
Q: General, do you think Russia has achieved its mission of institutionalizing a "frozen conflict" in Ukraine? Does it still have wider objectives such as linking up its forces with Crimea? And also are you concerned by the recent announcement of Russian defence minister Shoigu that Russia is going to increase its deployment in Crimea?
GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: OK, you may have to help me remember all three of those. I'm a simple fighter pilot. And my brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Rather than speculate what Russia might intend to do in Ukraine, I think what we should do is take a realistic look at what Russia can do and has the capabilities to do in Eastern Ukraine right now. There is a large force still on the Russian side of the border. That force is completely capable of doing what it did a little over a week ago which is cross that border and impose its military will on the Ukrainian military. And so this capability remains. And we have to respect what that could do.
The Russian-backed forces and Russian forces continue to maintain a wide-open border which allows free movement of resupply to the rebel factions and Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine which will pose huge problems for the Ukrainian army in the future. And then again, as to their intentions to possibly take action along the coast, I would not speculate again on what their intentions is.
But they certainly have put in place the military capability to take action along that coast if they choose to do it. Remind me the other ones, very quickly.
Q: (Inaudible)... business in Crimea, do you think this is in response to the Joint exercises of US and Ukraine?
GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: And so, again, I would not speculate on what motivates the Russians in their actions. But what we have seen is a remilitarization of Crimea, the coastal defence cruise missiles which have been in place there. They are defence systems which have been in place there ...can exert great influence on the northern Black Sea and those who operate in the northern Black Sea. And this is a concern for all of us. Right?
MODERATOR: No further questions?
GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: Thank you all!