Pre-ministerial press conference
by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
And thank you for joining me for this online press conference.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect us all.
Even though we have seen that the rate of increase is slowing down in some countries, the illness continues to take a terrible toll.
I want to begin by expressing my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones.
And my deep thanks to the heroic health workers and all the others on the front lines.
Tomorrow, I will chair an extraordinary meeting of Defence Ministers by secure video conference.
We have just one issue on the agenda: the COVID-19 crisis.
Defence Ministers will review the actions NATO and Allies are taking and decide on the next steps.
NATO has been responding since the beginning of the crisis.
Implementing preventive measures, assuring the continuation of our operations and assisting Allies in combating the virus.
NATO Foreign Ministers met two weeks ago.
They asked our top military commander, SACEUR, to set up a task force to step up and speed up military support to allies in response to the pandemic.
NATO Allies are cooperating to airlift critical supplies from across the globe.
Hundreds of tons of medical equipment have been donated and delivered.
Allies are sharing medical expertise, and spare hospital capacity.
Let me give you just a few examples from the past few days:
- The Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Turkey and the United States have sent medical and financial support to our newest Ally, North Macedonia;
- NATO's disaster response centre has facilitated Denmark's delivery of ventilators and a field hospital to Italy, and Germany's delivery of ventilators to Spain;
- Turkey has delivered medical supplies to Allies and partners across the Balkans, following similar deliveries to Italy and Spain;
- For the first time, the unique NATO call sign has been used to facilitate the delivery of aid from Turkey to the United Kingdom;
- Luxembourg has donated protective equipment material to Spain;
- Allied strategic airlift has brought crucial supplies to Allies including Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
- US military forces stationed in Europe have been directed to provide support to Allies as part of this joint NATO effort.
- And we are working to deliver innovative solutions, including 3D-printed respirators.
Allied armed forces are also providing essential support to civilian responses in our nations.
Including with logistics and planning, field hospitals and hospital ships, transport for patients, repatriation of citizens abroad, disinfection of public areas, and at border crossings.
So our Alliance is helping to get the right support to the right places at the right time.
Helping our nations save lives.
NATO's core task remains to preserve the security of our almost 1 billion citizens.
We must continue to work hard to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis.
And that we are better prepared when the next crisis comes.
The coronavirus crisis has shaken us all.
And it will have far-reaching consequences for how we think about security, and about national resilience.
Tomorrow, we will also address how to maintain NATO's deterrence and defence and sustain our missions and operations throughout the pandemic.
Our forces remain ready, and our work goes on.
From our battlegroups in Eastern Europe to our air policing and maritime deployments.
And from Afghanistan to Kosovo.
Finally, we will address the importance of countering disinformation.
We have seen state and non-state actors try to take advantage of the pandemic to spread false and harmful narratives.
And to try to divide us.
So Allies need to work closely together to identify, monitor and expose these efforts.
An open and transparent press is the best bulwark against disinformation and propaganda.
The challenges posed by COVID-19 know no borders.
And we are stronger and safer when we work with our partners.
So, we will be joined tomorrow by our partners Finland and Sweden, as well as EU High Representative Borrell.
NATO is committed to learning the right lessons.
So that we can all emerge stronger.
And as determined as ever to protect our people and our nations.
And with that, I'm ready to take your questions.
OANA LUNGESCU [NATO Spokesperson]: And we're taking questions by Skype, and we go first to Robin Emmott from Reuters. Robin, go ahead, please.
ROBIN EMMOTT [Reuters]: Thanks very much, Oana. Thank you Secretary General for this question. My question is: given this worsening situation in Russia, with COVID-19 and given that Russia provided Italy with help, are there any NATO Allies who are providing urgent medical supplies to Russia? And would NATO be willing to provide Russia with urgent medical supplies? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG [NATO Secretary General]: The situation in Russia reminds us of the fact that this is a truly global crisis. Countries all over the world are affected and therefore this is a common challenge we have to address together. And I welcome efforts by countries all over the world, including NATO Allies, to mobilise a global response, including working with the World Health Organization, organising, facilitating international responses to the COVID-19 crisis.
There has been no request from Russia. My main focus now is on how to coordinate and mobilise support among NATO Allies, and that's also what we have tasked our top military commander SACEUR to coordinate and to do.
OANA LUNGESCU: The next question will be from Helen Warrell, the Financial Times in London.
HELEN WARRELL [Financial Times]: Thank you for taking this question. There have been some concerns that China is perpetrating disinformation in relation to this . . . in relation to this COVID crisis, and as a result that some NATO countries need to take a more strong response, security response, against China and that maybe coming out of this we need to be more careful about including China in critical infrastructure. What is your response to these concerns?
JENS STOLTENBERG: So, we have seen examples of efforts to, what should I say, convey message of . . . messages of disinformation. We have seen examples of disinformation and propaganda, trying to use, utilise this health crisis for propaganda purposes. And of course, that should not happen.
And one of the issues we will address together tomorrow, all the defence ministers, is how to respond to disinformation, propaganda and efforts to try to divide us. The best way of doing that is to provide the facts, the truth. And as I've stated again and again, the best weapon we have against disinformation is a free and open and independent press. So therefore, the work journalists are doing is so extremely important, always, but especially in difficult times, in crises, as we are faced with today.
There will be a time . . . our focus now is to deal with the immediate consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, to help to save lives. And that's what the military personnel, NATO Allies are doing every day, 24/7.
But at the same time, we will also at the meeting tomorrow start the work on looking into the medium- and long-term consequences. And it's too early to conclude that work now, of course. But I think it's obvious that one of the lessons we all have to learn is lessons about . . . is a lesson about the importance of resilience. And we have to look into the issues like supplies of medical equipment, protective suits, medicines, all that kind of stuff. And also ask questions whether we are too dependent on production coming from outside, whether we need to produce more of these equipments in our own countries. And also the issue of stocks.
Resilience is an important part of what NATO is doing. It's actually enshrined in Article 3 of our treaty, that national resilience is a NATO responsibility. We have baseline requirements, guidelines for national resilience, including health and dealing with mass casualties. And all of these issues, resilience, national resilience, including how to make sure that we have the necessary medical equipment, will be part of the lesson-learned process, which will have to take place after this crisis.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. We now have the next question from Michel Winder from Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Brussels.
MICHEL WINDER [DPA]: Hello Sec Gen, thanks a lot. You always stress that NATO remains operable during this crisis and that missions continue. However, training activities in Iraq have been paused due to the coronavirus crisis. So obviously, NATO isn't operable there for the moment. For how long this pause is foreseen? What is also the timeframe regarding the decision to take over some troops from the international coalition in Iraq? And how have other missions, meanwhile, been affected by the crisis? Thanks a lot.
JENS STOLTENBERG: It's correct that the training activities in Iraq have been reduced, and that's actually very much to do with, not the corona crisis, but with the security situation on the ground. So they were actually . . . the level of training, both in NATO and in the Global Coalition to Defeat the Daesh was reduced, also, before the COVID-19 crisis. Then the COVID-19 crisis add to the challenges in Iraq.
We are still present in Iraq. Our commander is there. We provide some support to the Iraqi security forces, also actually helping them to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. And we have just taken the decision to scale up, step up, our training efforts in Iraq and we will increase our activities on the ground as soon as the conditions permit, and we are ready to do so as soon as possible.
But as I said, the reason why we reduced our presence in Iraq was security conditions, actually a decision taken before the COVID-19 crisis. But we will step up as soon as the conditions on the ground permit. And we have made a decision to do so and also welcome the decision by the, by the German Bundestag, the German parliament, to be part of these efforts, that Germany should be part of the NATO training efforts in Iraq.
Of course, for all other NATO missions and operations, we have implemented preventive measures, to minimise the risk for our personnel, for our soldiers, but also to be able to continue our missions and operations in the midst of the coronavirus challenges. And that's exactly what we are doing. Our mission in Afghanistan continues. Our mission in Kosovo continues, with some preventive measures. But the missions are maintained.
And we also maintain our battlegroups in the Baltic countries and in Poland, one of them led by Germany. We maintain our air policing missions and we maintain our naval deployments, including in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. So NATO's . . . and most of all, we maintain our operational readiness. So, if there is a need NATO is able to deploy forces to respond to any threat and any challenge, also in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
So, we have adapted, we have implemented preventive measures, but the operational readiness of our troops and our missions and operations are maintained.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. The next question comes from Serife Cetin from Anadolu.
SERIFE CETIN [Anadolu]: Thank you, Secretary General. You've mentioned that NATO continues to deliver its . . . on its core task of defence, deterrence and security. I would like to ask, as you may recall, Turkey, following its soldiers being targeted by the Assad regime, end of February, invoked Article 4 and asked for additional security guarantees. I'd like to know what the latest developments are regarding these? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO's core task is to protect close to one billion citizens in NATO-Allied countries. And we do that by maintaining our missions and operations, but also maintaining the readiness to deploy forces. The NATO Response Force, the High Readiness Joint Task Force and all the other parts of what NATO can deliver if called for.
We are also, of course, supporting our Ally, Turkey. We have some what we call . . . we call them Tailored Assurance Measures already in place in Turkey. Spain is delivering a Patriot battery, augmenting the air defences of Turkey. We have AWACS surveillance flights. And we have also provided some other types of assurance measures for Turkey, increased NATO presence in Turkey.
But we still work with Allies to do more. And I'm in constant dialogue with the Allied capitals to see whether we can further step up our assurance measures for Turkey, because Turkey is an important Ally for our Alliance, not least in the fight against terrorism. Turkey is the only Ally bordering Iraq and Syria. Turkey has been extremely important in helping us to make all the progress we have made in the fight against Daesh/ISIS. And we need to continue, of course, to work, all NATO Allies together, including Turkey, making sure that ISIS is not able, or Daesh is not able to return. So we will continue to work with Turkey, we will continue to provide assurance measures, and I will continue to also work with Allies on how we can further step up our support to Turkey.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. We will now go to Bratislava for a question from Andrej Matisak from Pravda Slovakia.
ANDREJ MATISAK [Pravda Slovakia]: Thank you very much. Thank you for this opportunity. And my question would be: does NATO have some early estimates regarding near- medium-term decrease of defence expenditures in member states, because, of course, the corona crisis is also an economic crisis, so how . . . how do you estimate what kind of impact that may have on defence spending? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO Allies have not provided any updated estimates on defence spending. And I don't expect them to do so either, because the reality is that their focus now is on the immediate challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Their focus and my focus, NATO's focus, is on how to save lives. And that's exactly what we all are doing, mobilising as much support as possible. And we also see the important role of military personnel in helping the civilian society dealing with a health crisis.
So it illustrates, in a way, that the military, NATO military capabilities can play, and actually is playing, an important role in supporting civilian efforts in dealing with the health crisis.
What we know is that, of course, there will be economic consequences of the coronavirus, the COVID-19 crisis. How severe these economic consequences will be will depend, of course, on how long the crisis will last. But there will be, and we have already seen economic consequences on overall economic growth and, of course, also on public expenditure.
At the same time, what we also have seen during this crisis is that the threats and challenges that made us decide to invest in defence, they have not disappeared. There is still a terrorist threat out there. There are threats in cyberspace. And we see the global balance of power shifting with the rise of China. And we see a more assertive Russia. We, for instance, we see continued violations of the ceasefire in Ukraine. We see Russia's military presence, activities, in Syria.
So the challenges we are faced with as a security Alliance have not disappeared because of the COVID-19 crisis. And then, the COVID-19 crisis also demonstrates that military capabilities which Allies have invested in, everything from airlift to medevac to medical evacuation, to logistics, to transportation capabilities, all of these capabilities, military capabilities, have proven extremely important and helpful in the civilian efforts to fight the COVID-19 crisis.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. And the next question will go to Hans-Uwe Mergener from Mittler Report. Hans-Uwe?
HANS-UWE MERGENER [Mittler Report]: Thank you. Thank you Sec Gen for this opportunity. Thank you for the question. I have two questions. The first one is a little bit out of the subject of corona. It is concerning the situation around the Mediterranean. And as I understand, foreign ministers agreed two weeks ago to engage more in the NATO southern flank. You enumerated Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, the Sahel. Efforts needs to be coordinate, to my mind, with the European Union as there will . . . as there is also an emphasis laid upon the same areas. In particular, it has been declared to reinforce the footsteps of the . . . of the EU in Sahel. What kind of coordination do you foresee? What can we expect in terms of objectives, timelines and measures? And my second question is more corona-related, as it will have an impact on national budgets. In previous events, you Secretary General defended this empathy . . . this emphasis that there will be no major concern. In fact, this is hard to believe. How can we cope with the situation? You've just outlined your emphasis on resilience and may this, let's say, put more weight on resilience, not divert assets, budgetary assets from the more fight . . . more war-fighting capabilities, what we are looking for and struggling so hard in NATO. Thank you, sir.
JENS STOLTENBERG: First on the Mediterranean. You are right that NATO has decided to step up our efforts in the wider Middle East region and North Africa. And we do that stepwise and we do that through different efforts.
We have already decided to step up our training activities in Iraq. So as soon as the security conditions permit, we will do more training in Iraq, taking over some of the activities, also, today conducted by the Global Coalition, the US-led the Global Coalition, and Germany will be part of those efforts, the NATO efforts, and I welcome that. So we have agreed to step up training in Iraq.
Then we have also agreed to do more in the whole region, including North Africa. We have already partners in the region, partners like, for instance, Tunisia. And we are working closely with Tunisia to try to help them. We have different programmes where we work with them on border security, on special operation forces, intelligence and so on. We also have a country like Mauritania, which is a partner nation. We are also discussing with them what more we can do. And there are, of course, many other partners in North Africa, where we now are sitting down and looking into what more we can do.
It's a bit early to speculate about exactly what kind of concrete activities we will add to the work we already do, but these can be everything from, you know, political consultations, political capacity-building, helping countries who are build . . . building their security institutions, to different kinds of training activities. It's a bit too early.
We are also looking into the challenges we face in the Sahel. And of course, anything we do in North Africa, Sahel, the Middle East, is something we will do in close coordination with other international institutions, including the European Union. And we only do that if we are requested, or there's a demand for NATO activities in different forms.
Let me highlight that NATO values the cooperation with the European Union very much. And we have been able to bring the NATO-EU cooperation up to unprecedented levels over the last years. We continue to step up and we work together, for instance, in the Mediterranean, where the NATO mission, Operation Sea Guardian, provides support to EU efforts. And also in the Aegean Sea, where we have naval presence, where we help to implement . . . there is a NATO naval presence in the Aegean Sea, or deployment, where we help to implement the agreement between the European Union and Turkey addressing the migrant and refugee crisis.
So we work closely with the European Union. And that's also the reason why I welcome the fact that we will have Josep Borrell, the High Representative, Vice President, present at our meeting, together with two other EU members, Finland and Sweden.
OANA LUNGESCU: And for the next question, we'll go to Kabul, Miraqa Popal from TOLO News.
MIRAQA POPAL [TOLO News]: Thanks Mr Secretary. My question is that, that we have some reports that the Taliban have increased their attacks against Afghan forces. How do you assess these attacks and how much it will be harmful for the peace process? Meanwhile, what is the NATO position on the Afghan/Taliban prisoner swap? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: The Taliban attacks are harmful and therefore we call on Taliban to cease the attacks, to fully implement the agreement between the United States and the Taliban and to reduce violence, because that's the only way towards a peaceful negotiated solution. And we strongly support all efforts to initiate intra-Afghan negotiations. We welcome the fact that the Afghan government has appointed an inclusive negotiating team and we support the agreement between the US and Taliban, which also then includes provisions about exchange of prisoners.
But it's not for me to . . . well, what I would say today is only that we urge all parties to fully respect the promise to reduce the violence and make all their efforts to implement the agreement and to initiate intra-Afghan negotiations. I also, therefore, welcome that NATO's Commander in Afghanistan, our top Commander in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, recently met with the Taliban and also the US envoy, Ambassador Khalilzad is also in close contact with them, to try to facilitate a peace process, which is the only way to reach a peaceful negotiated solution in Afghanistan.
NATO will continue to stay committed to Afghanistan with financial support, with our Resolute Support mission, with training, because we believe that the best way for us to support the peace process is to continue to support the Afghans, so Taliban understands that they will never win on the battlefield, they have to sit down at the negotiating table and make real compromises.
If I then just briefly can move back to the last question, because I only answered one of two questions, there was the second question, was about resilience. And I say, yes, resilience will be extremely important as a lesson learned after the COVID-19 crisis. There will be economic consequences. But I think it's a bit too early to say exactly how large they'll be, because that will depend on how long this crisis will last and the threats which we are faced with will . . . or, have not disappeared, despite the fact that . . . have not disappeared because of the coronavirus crisis, they are still there. And we have to make sure that we continue to be able to defend us against threats and challenges from whatever direction. That was for the previous question.
OANA LUNGESCU: And now from Kabul, we can go over to Podgorica and Jovana Djurisic from Daily Pobjeda.
JOVANA DJURISIC [Daily Pobjeda]: Good afternoon, Secretary General, can you please answer my following question? Government of Netherland has helped Montenegro in transport of medical equipment from China to Podgorica, is this the only kind of help which NATO will provide to Montenegro, bearing in mind that government requests from . . . Montenegrin government requests … [audio cuts out]
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much. I heard, what should I say, not everything you said, but my understanding was that you asked about NATO support, NATO Allied support to Montenegro and whether there could be some more. Well, what I can say is that we will discuss tomorrow how we can step up, speed up support NATO Allies are giving to each other.
NATO started to respond to this crisis very early. We implemented the first preventive measures in January and February. And then different NATO agencies have helped Allies coping with the COVID-19 crises, including transportation and setting up different medical facilities. And this, of course, includes Montenegro. But what we have done over the last weeks is to ask our top Commander, SACEUR, to further step up and to continue to mobilise support. And of course, that's also something that is relevant for Montenegro.
I think you mentioned that the Netherlands have already provided some help with airlift, equipment to Montenegro. And Turkey has, as a NATO Ally, has provided medical equipment. And what NATO does is that we try to identify where is there any spare capacity, where do we have any surplus stocks of medical equipment and where do we have surplus lift capacity, and then match that with the requests from different NATO Allies. So that's exactly the coordinating and mobilising role NATO has. We also use NATO capabilities to provide direct support. We will continue to look into what more we can do. That's exactly why we meet tomorrow.
Let me also highlight that, normally, when we are faced with crises, there are one or two or three countries affected by a natural disaster or earthquake or some other kinds of crises, and then all other Allies, all the countries can mobilise support to the Ally which is affected. This time, all Allies are affected at the same time. And that makes, of course, the situation even more difficult, because all our Allies, all nations all over the world are focussed on their own national needs. So what we have to then realise that, well, all Allies are affected, but not all Allies are affected in the same way at the same time, not all Allies are at the peak at the same time. So there is some spare capacity. There are some surplus stocks. And then we need to mobilise those surplus stocks, those surplus capacities, and also fully utilise, for instance, our airlift capabilities, fill the planes, fill the different transportation means, so we utilise them in the most effective way. And that's exactly what we are doing. And Montenegro has benefited from that. But we will, of course, continue to constantly assess what more we can do for all Allies.
OANA LUNGESCU: The next question comes from Iryna Somer from Interfax, Ukraine.
IRYNA SOMER [Interfax Ukraine]: Good morning, Secretary General. I would like to know if also partners countries are involved in the fight with coronavirus, because as far as I do know, the biggest in the world aircraft, Ukrainian Mriya and Ruslan also participating in the operation. And second part of my question is: I would like to know if this experience of the cooperation, these allies will be taken into consideration during the assessment to grant Ukraine, the Enhanced Opportunity Programme? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Yes. We are also working with partners in different ways and we welcome the fact that NATO has so many partners and that we can stand together and address common challenges, as the COVID-19 crisis is. And Ukraine helps NATO Allies, because Ukraine provides strategic airlift, or actually, there are Ukrainian planes which are used by NATO to provide strategic airlift. And I've seen these planes. They are huge. They have an enormous capacity. And the Ukrainian planes show, in a way, how NATO works with a partner, Ukraine, to provide airlift for NATO Allies. And these planes have been important for a long period of time to lift medical equipment all the way from China, across the globe into NATO Allied countries in Europe.
So, yes, we work with Ukraine. We welcome the close partnership with Ukraine. We are all affected. This is a common challenge. We need to respond in a common way.
And of course, we are now looking at how we can further strengthen the partnership with Ukraine. The issue of Enhanced Opportunity Partnership is one of the elements in that discussion. It's too early for me to conclude, but everything we do together strengthens the partnership between NATO and Ukraine.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you. For the last question, we'll go to Bucharest and Robert Lupitu from Calea Europeana.
ROBERT LUPITU [Calea Europeana]: Good morning. Mr Secretary General, what's NATO's assessment on Russia's overall conduct with disinformation and military posture in the eastern flank and the Black Sea during this pandemic of COVID-19? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, what we have seen is that Russia maintains military presence close to NATO borders and NATO countries, including in the Black Sea. But of course, we see them also continuing to support the separatist in . . . separatists in . . . in Ukraine, in eastern Ukraine. We see their significant military build-up that has taken place in Crimea and we see also their naval presence in the Black Sea.
So this is part of the security challenges we are faced with. We were faced with them before the COVID-19 crisis and we are faced with them during the COVID-19 crisis. And I expect them to be there also after this crisis has ended.
So it just highlights the fact that NATO has to be able to both provide support to the civilian efforts in combating COVID-19, but at the same time deliver on what is our core responsibility, the protection of all Allies. And that's exactly what we're doing.
And we also have increased our presence in the Black Sea Region on land with the Tailored Presence in Romania, but also at sea and in the air. And we work closely, also, with partner countries in the Black Sea Region, like Georgia and Ukraine.
So, yes, so we just have to understand that the corona crisis is of . . . is affecting us all, but it doesn't remove the security challenges we faced before the crisis. And that's also the reason why, when ministers meet tomorrow, they will also address how to maintain our military posture and our deterrence and defence in the midst of the corona crisis.
OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much, Secretary General. This concludes the press conference. Over to you for your last words.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much for joining me for this online press conference. I think this works quite well and it shows that we need to be able to work and to operate also in times where we cannot have the in-person, physical meetings, but using online platforms to communicate. So that is exactly what we'll do tomorrow with the secure videoconference with the ministers. And that's what we do now with engaging with the press. And thank you for the important work you do as journalists. As I said, that's the best response to disinformation, is a free and independent press, and stay safe.