by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meetings of NATO Defence Ministers
We have just finished the last working session of the Defence Ministerial meeting.
Together with High Representative / Vice President Federica Mogherini and our Finnish and Swedish colleagues we discussed and addressed NATO-EU cooperation and EU initiatives on defence.
Allies welcomed the European Union’s focus on defence, and on increasing cooperation among its members.
We also agree that we need to ensure that EU efforts complement NATO.
This is particularly important when it comes to investing more money in our defence; developing new capabilities; improving military mobility in Europe; and ensuring the fullest possible involvement of non-EU Allies.
Earlier today we had a meeting dedicated to NATO missions and operations.
The situation in Afghanistan remains difficult. But we also see ongoing peace process.
Our Resolute Support Mission continues to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, as they fight terrorism and create the conditions for peace.
US envoy Ambassador Khalilzad has kept Allies closely updated of his efforts for a peace settlement. We fully support those efforts. We continue to consult on the implications of a possible peace deal.
We are in this mission together. And we will take decisions regarding the future of the mission together. And of course, our military commanders are constantly assessing our posture, as they do for any NATO mission.
We also addressed our new training mission in Iraq. Which is now up and running.
Providing training and advice to national security institutions. Our support is important to help Iraq prevent the resurgence of ISIS or other terrorist groups.
We also discussed our KFOR mission in Kosovo. NATO is firmly committed to stability in the Western Balkans.
This year, we mark 20 years since the launch of KFOR. And our mission remains unchanged, based on UN Security Council Resolution 1244.
We are there to keep a safe and secure environment for all the people in Kosovo.
And that is what we are doing.
At the same time, following the decision to transition the Kosovo Security Force into an army, we are now reviewing NATO’s level of engagement with the KSF.
That discussion is ongoing.
And we expect to make decisions on the way forward later this spring.
This morning, Allies and the Ukrainian defence minister Stepan Poltorak discussed the security situation in and around Ukraine, including the Sea of Azov.
At this informal breakfast, hosted by UK Defence Minister Gavin Williamson,
Allies expressed strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And called on Russia to immediately release the Ukrainian sailors and ships seized in November.
Allies also encouraged Ukraine to continue on the path of reform, including implementing the Venice Commission’s recommendations on the education law.
At this ministerial, we took important decisions. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Alliance this year, NATO is as determined as ever to keep our people safe in a more unpredictable world.
We look forward to our meeting of Allied Foreign Ministers in Washington in April.
And to the meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in London in December.
And with that, I’m ready to take your questions.
OANA LUNGESCU [NATO Spokesperson]: Okay, we’ll start with Reuters.
QUESTION [Reuters]: Secretary General, I had a question on Afghanistan, you mentioned the implications of the peace deal. We also know that countries . . . are considering drawing down troops, including Italy for instance – was there any discussion today about the reform of RSM and what a smaller RSM might look like? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG [NATO Secretary General]: The main message today is that we are committed to our Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, because we are there to fight terrorism and we are there to create the conditions for a peace deal. And we know that the only way to reach a peace deal with Taliban is to send a clear message that they will never win on the battlefield. So, therefore, we continue to support, to train, to assist and advise the Afghan security forces. And by that, creating the conditions for a political settlement.
We don't know whether there's going to be a settlement, but we strongly hope so and therefore we strongly support the efforts by Ambassador Khalilzad. The US has consulted and briefed NATO Allies all the way, three times just over the last weeks. So, Acting Secretary Shanahan just came from Afghanistan and of course updated all the Allies. And the message is: we are committed; we continue to support the Afghans; but of course the aim is not to stay there forever – the aim is to reach a political settlement, which makes it possible, also then at the end, to reduce our presence.
We have to remember that we support the Afghans in many different ways. We support them with training, with our military operation with our presence, but also with extensive funding. And the NATO Allies have at the summit in July … we decided to extend that funding until 2024. Some Allies actually made a new announcement: they are ready to increase their presence in Afghanistan, and several Allies also expressed that they are ready to stay there for a long time.
We went into Afghanistan together. We will make decisions on our posture together, based on conditions determined together with Afghans. And that was the strong message from this meeting.
OANA LUNGESCU: Okay, we'll go to the gentleman over there.
QUESTION [Nizamuddin Hameedi, Pajhwok Afghan News] Thank you, Nizamuddin Hameedi from Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghan media. Sir, I want to ask about the regional . . . regional role of regional . . . regional countries’ role in Afghan peace process, especially Pakistan’s roles, Pakistan’s recent efforts. And as we see, Ambassador Khalilzad appreciated Pakistan efforts, recent, and how NATO see it, and was there any discussion about encouraging regional efforts for Afghan peace process? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Yes very much so. I think that the message is very clear: that the neighbours of Afghanistan should support the peace efforts. We have to remember that it was President Ghani that really took a bold decision last year to initiate a peace process, to initiate this ceasefire. And the aim of the efforts of the United States is, of course, also to facilitate an Afghan reconciliation process. This has to be supported by Afghanistan's neighbours, because at the end of the day the Afghans have to lead, the Afghan has to own the peace process and it has to be an Afghan reconciliation supported by the international community and especially the neighbours of Afghanistan.
OANA LUNGESCU: Okay, we'll go to the lady in the front row.
QUESTION [Ukranian TV]: Mr General Secretary, I am a reporter of Ukrainian TV channel and let me ask you please, what exactly – if it is possible to answer – you have discussed with the Minister of Defence of Ukraine and is there any way to impact on Russia, to motivate this country to take out their soldiers from the east of Ukraine, because everybody in our country dreams about the end of the war? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: We had a very good discussion with Defence Minister, Stepan Poltorak, where all Allies expressed their very strong support to Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity. NATO Allies have, of course, clearly stated that Russia's aggressive actions against Ukraine are unacceptable. The illegal annexation of Crimea, the continuing efforts to try to destabilise Ukraine through its efforts and presence in Donbass, and also, of course, the totally unjustified seizure of the Ukrainian ship near the Kerch Strait.
NATO Allies provide strong support to Ukraine – political support but also practical support. We are now looking into what more we can do. We have different trust funds. We help them with command and control. Several Allies also provide some training, cyber, modernising Ukraine's defence and security institutions. We are looking into whether we can further increase our presence in the Black Sea and, in the near future within a few days, we will have NATO ships in the Black Sea participating in an exercise. So we have significantly increased our presence at sea, but also in the air and on land, in the Black Sea region.
All of this is also part of our support to Ukraine. So we will continue to support Ukraine. And I think it was very valuable to meet the Defence Minister today.
OANA LUNGESCU: We'll go to Radio Free Europe in the second row, lady there.
QUESTION [Radio Free Europe]: Secretary General, while you're evaluating the relations with Kosovo security forces, Kosovo's President, Hashim Thaçi, recently confirmed that, jointly with a decision to create Kosovo army, he sent you a letter implying that, with this letter, it was out-thrown the previous exchange of letters that occurred in 2013, between your predecessor Rasmussen and then-Prime Minister Thaçi, where he guaranteed that FSK would not go to the north without consent of KFOR Commander. Have you received that letter and can you disclose the content of the letter and if anything changed in the commitments of Pristina officials concerning sending KSF to the north?
JENS STOLTENBERG: So we have been in close contact with the authorities in Pristina, during the whole process. And I have expressed, both in my meetings with both Mr Haradinaj and Mr Thaçi that I believe, and NATO Allies believe, that it was an ill-timed decision, the transition from security force to an army. And I also stated that many times publicly and that's still my opinion.
Second, I also think that to impose high tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is in no way helpful. It actually just makes the whole Pristina-Belgrade dialogue even more difficult, and it's taking the process in the wrong direction to impose these kinds of tariffs. This is something I have expressed, but also many NATO Allies, and we have also seen that United States has been very clear on the issue of the very high tariffs, the 100 percent tariffs which are now imposed on goods from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
And that's the reason why, all of this is the reason why we now have decided to assess our level of engagement with Kosovo. As I've also stated before, this is not about KFOR. KFOR will continue, KFOR is based on the UN Security Council mandate, but NATO provides some support outside KFOR, and that is what we're now going to assess: the level and character of that cooperation. Because we strongly believe that we need a political solution, we need to support the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue. And then when it comes to moving north, well that has been a clear agreement dating back to 2013 and we expect that to continue. But that's just another reason why we have conveyed such a clear message to the authorities in Pristina, that they should respect the agreements which we have already made with them.
OANA LUNGESCU: Okay, we'll go to the gentleman over there in the plaid shirt.
QUESTION [FoNet News Agency]: Davor Pasalic, FoNet News Agency from Belgrade. Two years ago, I thought there was no way for me to see any member of government from Skopje on NATO summit. Obviously I was wrong. So tell me, what do you think: is there any chance for me to witness Serbia becoming a member of . . . of NATO? Keeping in mind that I am 59 years old.
JENS STOLTENBERG: I am also 59. That's a very good age. Dobro došli. The main issue is that that's for Serbia to decide. The enlargement of NATO has been a great success. It has helped to strengthen democracy, to create the conditions for prosperity, for freedom across Europe, based on the fundamental principle that every nation, every sovereign nation, has the right to decide its own path.
So NATO respects when a nation decides that it wants to join NATO, then we sit down with them and we discuss and we negotiate. And, we have seen the enlargement of NATO from, you know, 16 countries at the end of the Cold War to now - we will be 30 countries very soon with the Republic of North Macedonia now in the process of becoming a full member.
But, for instance, Serbia has stated very clearly that they are not aiming for membership. Serbia will be a neutral country. And we also respect that. So we have very good partners, like Finland and Sweden. They joined us at the meeting today. They are not aiming for membership. We respect that. We work closely with them. And that's also the case with Serbia. We respect the decision, the sovereignty and the neutrality of Serbia. And we believe that all other countries should also respect sovereign decisions, whether it is to join or not to join an alliance as NATO.
I visited Belgrade recently. I appreciate very much the cooperation with Belgrade, with Serbia. And we, of course, respect that this is, at the end of the day, a decision that has to be taken by Serbia.
OANA LUNGESCU: Okay, we’ll to Washington Post, the lady in the second row.
QUESTION [Missy Ryan, Washington Post]: Hi, Missy Ryan from the Washington Post. I guess the question is: did you hear anything from Defense Secretary Shanahan that would allay concerns that some NATO countries have about issues affecting them, such as the possibility of an abrupt American departure or a troop reduction from Afghanistan, and the post-INF landscape. And more generally, did he convey assurances that he would continue to support traditional Pentagon positions vis à vis the NATO Alliance versus President Trump's position, more critical position, about NATO?
JENS STOLTENBERG: Acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan gave a very clear message to all Allies – and that is that United States is committed to NATO, committed to Article 5, both in words but also in deeds. He also conveyed a message that we need fairer burden-sharing, and that's exactly the same message we have heard from Pentagon, from the State, but also, of course, from the White House and from President Trump. When President Trump was here at the summit in July, his message was that United States is committed to NATO, but United States wants NATO Allies to invest more in our shared security.
And that's exactly what we are doing. And that was also the message from Secretary Shanahan, that the United States recognises that European Allies are now stepping up together with Canada. Since 2016, they have added 100 billion extra to their defence spending by the end of 2020. This is a big shift after years of cutting defence budgets; they have really started to increase defence spending.
The message from Secretary Shanahan was also that, of course, we will consult, we will work together, both on the INF issue and on Afghanistan. First of all, we work together to try to preserve the INF treaty - that was the message from the US and also from all other European Allies. But at the same time, we are planning for a world without the INF Treaty and it's too early to pre-empt the outcome of that work. But we have been very clear, all of us, including United States and Acting Secretary Shanahan, that the conclusions, the decision we’ll make, we will make as an alliance, we will be coordinated in the way we respond to the new Russian missiles and the demise of the INF Treaty.
The same is the case for Afghanistan. We went in together and we make decisions on our future posture together. So, I really feel that it is a very united alliance. We all accept, or we all see that there are differences between NATO Allies on a lot of issues, for instance, trade, climate change and other things. But what we have seen is that NATO is united, when it comes to our core task to protect and defend each other, and also to improve burden-sharing, making sure that European Allies and Canada are investing more, and that's exactly what they are doing.
OANA LUNGESCU: Okay, we have time for one last question. Associated Press over.
QUESTION [Lorne Cooke, Associated Press]: Lorne Cooke from the Associated Press. Excuse me. You mentioned Ambassador Khalilzad that he’d briefed the NAC three times I believe. Do you understand why the Afghan government is not involved in the political talks at the moment? It seems to me with elections coming in … [inaudible] months, that this is going to undermine the Afghan government in the eyes of the . . . of the public and that that could in fact interfere with NATO's mission in the end?
JENS STOLTENBERG: I think it is very important that the Afghan government, as soon as possible, becomes fully integrated in the peace process. We have to remember it was initiated by President Ghani last summer. We had the ceasefire and we have had the meetings also in Kabul led by the Afghan government. We know that in the talks between the Taliban and the United States one of the main issues is how to facilitate, how to organise, an Afghan reconciliation process and that of course includes the Afghan government.
Again, since these are talks and ongoing negotiations, it is not possible for anyone to predict the outcome, because it depends on an agreement, and that can happen soon, it can happen late. But we convey the message that, of course, we need Afghan reconciliation, meaning also that we need the Afghan government playing a key role, because without that there would be no lasting peace and no strong institutions to make sure that any peace agreement is fully enforced. That's an important element, which is now part of the process and hopefully there will be a good outcome soon. And then on that we can hopefully have a sustainable agreement.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much. We've run out of time. Thank you very much for taking part in the ministerial, and please continue to stay for the next press conferences. Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you.