Pre-ministerial press conference
by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
And thank you for joining me today.
These are unprecedented times.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the world.
This is why I am addressing you by virtual press conference today.
And tomorrow, I will chair a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers by secure videoconference.
The first such meeting in NATO's 70 year history.
Our response to COVID-19 will be at the top of our agenda.
We will address the measures that NATO and Allies are taking in the current crisis.
While ensuring that we continue to deliver on our core mission:
Credible and effective deterrence and defence.
This is a global health crisis.
Our thoughts are with the loved ones of the victims, and with all those who suffer from the pandemic.
We thank all those who are on the front line.
The remarkable health workers.
And also our committed armed forces, who are supporting the civilian effort.
NATO is doing its part to help in this common fight against an invisible enemy.
Our airlift capabilities have delivered significant amounts of crucial medical equipment.
And field hospital tents.
Just this morning, a military cargo plane with masks, protective equipment and other medical supplies has taken off from Turkey, heading to Italy and Spain. In response to requests made through NATO's disaster relief coordination centre.
Hospitals with spare capacity in Germany have taken patients from Italy and France.
Doctors have travelled from Albania and Poland to help their Italian colleagues.
The United States has delivered medical equipment to Italy.
And the Czech Republic has donated twenty thousand protective suits to Italy and Spain.
Our newest Ally, North Macedonia, is using a NATO crisis response system to coordinate across government.
Across NATO, Allied armed forces are playing a key role in domestic response as well.
They are providing vital support to civilian efforts.
Including with field hospitals, transport of patients, disinfection of public areas, and securing border crossings.
So when Foreign Ministers meet tomorrow, we will look at ways to coordinate our response even closer.
We will consider how to use NATO military capabilities and structures even more effectively to step up and to speed up our support to national efforts against COVID-19.
Because we are in this crisis together.
And when we respond together, our response is more effective.
NATO's core task is to provide security and defence for almost 1 billion people.
So our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis.
Therefore tomorrow, ministers will also discuss NATO's role in the fight against international terrorism.
Including our training mission in Iraq.
I expect we will decide to enhance our training mission further.
Taking on some of the training activities currently conducted by the Global Coalition.
Helping boost the skills of the Iraqi forces as they continue to prevent the return of ISIS and other terrorist groups.
We will also discuss what more NATO could do across the wider region to support our partners.
Afghanistan will be on the agenda.
As part of the peace efforts, we are reducing our military presence.
By the summer, we should have around 12,000 forces in the country.
No decision for a further reduction has been taken.
And all of our steps will be conditions-based.
NATO will maintain its commitment to long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The situation remains difficult.
So now is the time for the Taliban and all political actors to play their part.
All parties need to engage constructively.
Honour their commitments.
And ensure intra-Afghan negotiations can start.
And we will address how to further strengthen NATO's political dimension.
I have appointed a group of ten experts – five women and five men – to help me in this process.
Finally, we will welcome the Republic of North Macedonia as our thirtieth member at this ministerial.
So even in difficult times, we continue to look forward.
And to stay united.
Because our unity is our strength.
And with that, I am ready to take your questions.
OANA LUNGESCU: And we will now take questions on Skype and by WhatsApp. We start in Brussels with Agence France-Presse, Damon Wake. Damon, please go ahead
DAMON WAKE [Agence France-Presse]: Oh, hello there, good morning. I'd like to ask how NATO plans to learn the lessons from this coronavirus epidemic? Are there any plans to set up some kind of group to study the response that's being done, what's gone well, what could be done better. And a second, separate question, also on reflection groups, when do you expect the . . . the reflection group you announced yesterday, when you do you expect that to report . . . to report back? There was some mention of it being before the summit next year, will there be any interim report before then? Thanks.
JENS STOLTENBERG [NATO Secretary General]: The reflection group is set up to support me in the reflection process I was asked by the leaders to organise at the Leaders Meeting in London, last December. And I will put forward my proposals to the leaders of the NATO-Allied countries, when they meet again in 2021, so next year. So the group is there to support my efforts to organise this reflection process.
And I think we have to remember that NATO has been through, or have conducted similar processes before. Last time it was headed by Madeleine Albright, the Foreign Minister, Madeleine Albright, and I think this is a good opportunity, a perfect opportunity for NATO to look into how we can further strengthen a strong Alliance, strengthen our political dimension.
NATO is a strong Alliance, we are delivering every day on deterrence, defence. We have implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence in a decade, and we are stepping up in the fight against terrorism.
At the same time, I have stated many times that we also see that we are an alliance of 30 democracies, from both sides of the Atlantic with different history, different political parties in government. So, of course, there are differences between Allies and therefore I think it is a good thing to look into how we can strengthen NATO as a platform for transatlantic discussion, transatlantic coordination. And I think that this reflection process is a good way of doing that. And I'm looking forward to working with the group. And I'm looking forward to also receiving their input, their advice. And then based on that, I will then provide my suggestions or put forward my proposals for the leaders next year.
Our focus now when it comes to the COVID-19 crisis is, of course, to help the civilian authorities, the health care systems to combat the virus, to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. And we see across the Alliance that military personnel are actually helping a lot with everything from controlling border crossings, to disinfecting public areas, to providing field hospitals.
And we see how NATO Allies also provide support to each other. Just today, a Turkish plane left Turkey with medical equipment for two NATO Allies, Spain and Italy. And this was a request within the NATO Disaster Relief Coordination Centre.
We are also now looking into lessons learned. Of course, it's too early to draw any conclusions, but anything related to how we are able to respond, to coordinate our responses, and also the resilience of our health systems, of our civilian infrastructure, but also of NATO in times of crisis, are issues we have to look into after this COVID-19 crisis. NATO has developed baseline requirements for civilian resilience, for resilience of our societies, and we need to look into them to see if there is any need for updating, further developing them in the light of the COVID-19 crisis.
OANA LUNGESCU: Next question goes to Teri Schultz from Deutsche Welle/NPR.
TERI SCHULTZ [Deutsche Welle/NPR]: Hi thank you. I wanted to find out what you think of . . . of proposals being made that NATO could take a stronger role in, sort of, coordination of the aid. The Alliance may have a better idea of exactly what assets Allies have in stockpiles that could be used. And additionally, also is . . . is more able to work quickly with command and control. I'm sorry, the lag here is really bad and . . . hold on, I need to mute myself. And so there are suggestions being made that NATO could . . . could actually take a central role in coordination and not leave it just to the European Union. And I also wanted to know about this lag in providing the supplies. Did . . . do Allies have some responsibility in allowing Russia and China to have used that space early, to make these claims about NATO responsibility and effectiveness and the other disinformation that's being put out right now? Thanks.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Since the beginning of this crisis, we have seen that military capabilities have supported the civilian efforts to combat the COVID-19 crisis. And of course, Allies, nations know best what kind of help they need and how to use their armed forces. What NATO is doing is to help to coordinate some of those efforts, help to coordinate some of the support. And also with our NATO structures and NATO capabilities, provide some support to Allies.
It's always, what should I say, possible to discuss how we can even further step up and do things even more quickly and do more. And that's exactly why we are going to have COVID-19 as the issue on the top of the agenda tomorrow when NATO foreign ministers meet in a virtual meeting. And I expect them to look into what can be done to provide more support and to speed up the support we provide, because this is going to take time. There'll be a need for support over a long period of time. Military capabilities have been part of the response from the beginning, supporting the civilian efforts, but I expect also military capabilities to be part of the efforts in the coming weeks and months.
We already use NATO structures to coordinate efforts, for instance, today we have this Turkish plane, it's a Turkish plane delivering support to two NATO Allies, Spain and Italy. But it is a military plane and it's coordinated by the NATO Disaster Relief Coordination Centre. So, it's a way NATO helping to mobilise bilateral support between NATO Allies. And we will continue to do exactly that and try to do even more. And also even more, even faster when Allies put forward requests.
TERI SCHULTZ: You didn't answer the part, sorry, sir, about Russia . . . Russia, it being easy for Russia and China to exploit that space. And are you suspicious, for example, about these Russian medics who were sent there during the time that Europeans were not sending that kind of assistance? You've got at least a hundred, possibly more, personnel on the ground now in Italy, for example.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, it is for nations to decide what kind of help they need and what we see is that this is an international crisis and we need to help each other. NATO Allies help, other countries help and at the end of the day, it has to be based on national requests and national needs. That's in a way what I can say about the different kinds of help which different Allies are receiving.
OANA LUNGESCU: We now go to Lailuma Sadid from Afghanistan Voice.
LAILUMA SADID [Afghanistan Voice]: Thank you very much. Secretary General, as you mentioned in your speech that the security situation in Afghanistan remains challenging. As you know, the month of March was one of the deadliest for Afghan security forces, more than 40 Afghan security were killed in the Taliban attack in different provinces. Isn't this approach contrary to peace, ending the war in Afghanistan? And second question, how do you assess the role of Pakistan and other regional countries in the peace talk process with the Taliban? Thank you very much.
JENS STOLTENBERG: The Taliban must reduce violence and respect the agreement they have made with the US, which is the basis for intra-Afghan peace talks, peace negotiations.
We strongly believe that NATO has to be, continue to be, committed to Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan remains very difficult. We see violence. We also see challenges within the government. And therefore, it is important, too, that all parties now are constructive and engage in the peace . . . or make the conditions, establish the conditions for launching intra-Afghan negotiations.
We are in the process of reducing our presence in Afghanistan, but we will stay committed to the Afghan . . . to Afghanistan, to the peace and security in the region. And everything we do will be conditions-based. And as I said, we will reduce to a level of around 12,000 troops. That's actually roughly the same level of troops we had before we increased the troop levels in 2017 and 12,000 troops is a level of troops that enables us to continue with the Train, Assist and Advise Mission we have in Afghanistan, also with the different bases outside Kabul.
A lasting peace in Afghanistan requires the support of all the countries in the region. And that, of course, includes Pakistan. So regional support is key to any stable peace in Afghanistan.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. The next question goes to Iryna Somer from Interfax-Ukraine. Iryna, please go ahead.
IRYNA SOMER [Interfax-Ukraine]: Good morning.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Good morning. I can hear you.
IRYNA SOMER: Good, you hear me, good. Secretary General, I have several questions for you. Considering such extraordinary circumstances, what prevented the Allies from holding meetings, with . . . in the same format, I mean, via conference secure, of these partners country, Ukraine and Georgia? Second question. You already mentioned a help, assistance which provided to Italy in Portugal, via . . . via EADRCC. I would like to know if NATO got similar requests from partners country? And third question is regarding your expert group you appointed yesterday. Can you please tell us a little bit more? How did you actually select these people? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, I selected the group based on nominations from the different countries, but these, the members of the group does not represent their country. They are there in their own capacity, with their own background and knowledge, skills. And the group is composed in a way which reflects that, we actually have a group there that have a variety of different backgrounds. And I think that makes the group a valuable group for NATO and for the whole reflection process and will be helpful for me in my work when I prepare my proposals for the leaders at the summit next year.
We have a virtual meeting tomorrow, and of course, that means we had to change a bit the format of that meeting. It was originally planned over two days with several meetings, including with a meeting with Ukraine and Georgia. But what leaders will do is that they . . . sorry, what I expect foreign ministers to do is to agree a package, a new package of support for Georgia and Ukraine to further strengthen our partnerships, including with exercises in the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance for NATO. So I expect that even though there is no meeting with Georgia and Ukraine, I actually expect that the foreign ministers will agree a package that will further strengthen our political support and practical support to these two countries.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. And now we go to Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
THOMAS GUTSCHKER [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]: Yes. Good morning, Secretary General. Thank you very much for providing this opportunity again. I have two questions. The first one is on: how does COVID-19 affect operations, especially in Afghanistan and Lithuania? And what is NATO doing to prevent the spread of the virus with troops on the ground? And the second question: how much are you concerned that Russia is taking advantage of this current health crisis, and which indications do you have for that besides disinformation? So maybe you can refer to the military exercise that has been taking place. Thanks a lot.
JENS STOLTENBERG: We are, of course, making sure that we are taking the necessary preventive measures to prevent the spread of the virus. We do that at these NATO headquarters, that's reason why we now conduct virtual meetings in the way we do now and also virtual press conferences. And we have reduced significantly the number of meetings, the number of people coming to these headquarters.
That's also the case when we look at our different military missions and operations. The different military commanders have implemented a wide range of precautionary measures to help reduce the spread of the virus. That's also the case in Afghanistan, where Germany's present with its troops in the Resolute Support Mission. It's also the case in our battlegroups in the Baltic countries, again in Lithuania, where Germany is present. So, the military commanders have made sure that they have implemented measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
At the same time, it is extremely important that while we have the COVID-19 crisis, that NATO can continue to operate. Because the threats and the challenges we are faced with don't disappear because of the COVID-19 crisis. So we still have terrorist threats. We still have al-Qaida and ISIS out there. They don't disappear because of the COVID-19 crisis. We still have a unique opportunity for peace in Afghanistan. We need to be present and make sure that we do everything we can to create peace in Afghanistan.
And we, of course, see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military districts of Russia, close to NATO borders. We have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea. So therefore, NATO has to continue to patrol our skies with air policing. We need to be present on land, but also in the air and at sea. And we have our Standing Naval Forces, which continues to patrol the seas. So our operational readiness is maintained, is not undermined.
We have made some adjustments to exercises. We have cancelled some exercises. We have adjusted some other exercises. But that doesn't change, that doesn't undermine our operational readiness. And we continue to patrol the skies. And defend our borders, and we continue our missions and operations, not least in the fight against terrorism, because these threats continues to exist.
OANA LUNGESCU: The next question will come from Bucharest, Romania. Calea Europeana, Robert Lupitu. Go ahead, Robert.
ROBERT LUPITU [Calea Europeana]: Thank you. Good morning, Mr Secretary General, so given your phone call with US Secretary of State Pompeo, how will NATO act to counter disinformation and propaganda from both Russia and China on the virus? And secondly, regardless of the pandemic, Russia continues to pose a challenge on the eastern flank and the Black Sea. Last year in Washington, you announced a package of measures for the Black Sea Region. What will NATO do during the course of the current situation with the virus, with the security in the region with also . . . which also remains very important? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: We have seen examples of disinformation, propaganda. And I don't believe that the best response to propaganda is propaganda. I believe that the best response to propaganda is the facts, is the truth. And therefore, what NATO will do is that we will provide facts, we will provide factual information about what we are doing. And that's the best way also to counter disinformation and propaganda.
I will also say that every time we see disinformation, every time we see any attempts to use the situation or to spread propaganda, it highlights the importance of a free and independent press, of the work journalists are doing every day. We need people who are asking the difficult questions, who are checking their stories, checking their sources and then conveying that to the broader public. That's always important. But in many ways, information, free and independent press, is perhaps even more important in times of crisis like we are faced with now.
So NATO will respond, sharing facts, being transparent, telling the truth, and then also defending the right of free and open societies to also have a free and open press, especially in times as these.
I will also say that just by doing more together as we do now, providing support to each other, we demonstrate that NATO Allies stand together.
And let me also add that in my annual report, which we published a couple of weeks ago, we also published numbers from an independent survey showing that there is broad support to NATO. So, yes, we have seen years of propaganda, years of disinformation, trying to undermine the unity and the strength of NATO. But the reality is that the public support to NATO across the Alliance remains strong.
OANA LUNGESCU: And the next question will come from Kabul, actually, so Voice of America and Samsama Sirat, please.
SAMSAMA SIRAT [Voice of America]: Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr Secretary General. You know, about the political crisis in Afghanistan, what do you think? Do you think it has negative effect on the intra-Afghan peace talks?
JENS STOLTENBERG: I visited Kabul recently, a couple of weeks ago, or when we signed the . . . or perhaps about three weeks ago or something like that, recently. I visited Kabul when the agreement was signed in Doha between the US and Taliban, I was in Kabul at the ceremony there and I met with President Ghani, I met also Chief Executive Abdullah, they were together at the signing ceremony. And, of course, we are aware of the political crisis in Kabul. And of course, we urge the political actors in Kabul to find a solution, because we need a strong government. We need a unity approach from the Afghans in engaging with Taliban to have real peace negotiations.
At the end of the day, this has to be for the Afghans to solve. We can do a lot from Brussels and Washington and London and Berlin and other NATO capitals, but at the end of the day, the Afghans have to take responsibility for their own future. And that's the reason why we so strongly support the idea and the efforts to establish intra-Afghan negotiations, an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. We are very close to that now with the agreement.
We continue to be committed to Afghanistan with financial support, with political support and with continued military presence, because we believe that the best way we can support the peace process is to send a message to the Taliban that they will never win on the battlefield, they have to sit down at the negotiating table and make real compromises. So we'll continue to do that. But at the same time, the political problems, challenges, crisis in Kabul, in Afghanistan, have to be solved by the Afghans. So therefore, we urge Afghans to do that.
OANA LUNGESCU: We'll now go back to Brussels and Montenegro Television, Ivan Mijanovic. Go ahead, Ivan.
IVAN MIJANOVIC [Montenegro Television]: Hello, thank you very much. Montenegro recently sent a request for help from international partners. Are you going to discuss the Montenegrin demand during this meeting? And my second question would be: what are mechanisms that NATO will use in order to tackle misinformation that are linked to COVID-19, and that can put people's life in danger? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: The best response to disinformation is the truth. The best response to propaganda is fact. And that's exactly what we will provide. NATO is a transparent, open organisation, we are transparent about what we do. We are transparent about how we work together with all Allies and partners. And we are also transparent about what we do in this particular situation with the COVID-19 crisis.
I mentioned some examples of how NATO Allies provide help to each other and we will continue to be transparent about everything. I also know that Allies are transparent on how they deal with the COVID-19 crisis. So facts, that's the best response to disinformation – and the fact that we are actually doing more together. And also, as I said, the free, independent press is the best way to counter propaganda and disinformation.
We have several requests for Allies providing support to each other. And some of this is coordinated through the NATO Coordination . . . or Disaster Relief Coordination Centre. And NATO Allies have already provided, for instance, with our air capabilities, help to each other.
We will discuss what more we can do, based on the requests that we have seen from different Allies. We will discuss that tomorrow when foreign ministers meet. And I expect them to look into how we can provide more help and also with higher speed. The reality is that the armed forces of NATO-Allied countries have been part of the response since the very beginning. But of course, if it is possible to do more, we will look into that, including specific requests from specific nations.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. Now we go to Ketevan Kardava from TV-Imedi, Georgia, for the next question. Please go ahead, Ketevan.
KETEVAN KARDAVA [Imedi-TV, Georgia]: Good morning, Mr Secretary General. The Georgian Foreign Affairs Minister said that you had a telephone conversation and he briefed you about the measures taken by Georgian government to prevent the spread of the . . . the virus in Georgia. How would you assess these measures at this stage? And also, as we know, you discussed the additional measures to support Georgia. You have just mentioned about the future new package. Can you tell us more about this package? Can we consider it as an update of a substantial package, or it will be completely new package? Thank you very much. And again, take care.
JENS STOLTENBERG: The package I expect foreign ministers to agree tomorrow will be a kind of upgrade, will be additional measures to the packages and support we already provide to Georgia. And it's about exercises, it's about participation in different programmes, training and also educational programs provided by NATO. So it shows that we step-by-step are doing more together and step-by-step NATO provides more support and help.
We are, as I've stated many times before, I was extremely grateful for the help that Georgia provides to NATO, especially to our missions and operations, and in particular in Afghanistan.
I spoke with the Georgian Foreign Minister a few days ago and we discussed also the efforts in the fight against COVID-19. I highlighted the role of NATO - that our core task is, of course, to provide deterrence and defence and to make sure that this health crisis doesn't develop into a security crisis. It has to be for the national authorities to make decisions on how to deal with the medical side, or the medical response, the health response to the COVID-19 crisis. So I cannot assess exactly what Georgia is doing in the health domain, but I just highlight the importance that we all do as much as we can, because this is a common challenge that requires a common response. And of course, the World Health Organisation provides a lot of important advice and guidance when it comes to how different nations should respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much. This will conclude this press conference. So, Secretary General, over to you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much for joining me at this virtual press conference. And stay healthy, stay safe and looking forward to see you again soon. Thank you.