by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the virtual meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Defence Ministers' session
NATO Defence Ministers have just addressed in an extraordinary meeting about the COVID-19 crisis NATO’s response. We have done so by secure video conference.
This was a timely and substantive discussion.
We reviewed our response to the pandemic. And we agreed on the next steps we need to take.
To continue to support each other, and support our partners.
COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to our nations.
It has a profound impact on our people and our economies.
And it is imposing historic shocks on the international system, which could have long-term consequences.
The crisis has shown that our nations are resilient, and united.
Our militaries are already playing a key role in support of national civilian efforts.
And using NATO mechanisms, Allies have been helping each other to save lives.
NATOs top operational commander, General Wolters, was tasked by foreign ministers two weeks ago to coordinate military support.
And today he updated us on his efforts to
ensure NATO uses its military resources most effectively.
Military forces from across the Alliance have flown more than 100 missions to transport medical personnel, supplies, and treatment capabilities.
Facilitated the construction of 25 field hospitals.
Added more than 25,000 treatment beds.
And over 4,000 military medical personnel have been deployed in support of civilian efforts.
Today, I encouraged all Allies to make their capabilities available so General Wolters can coordinate further support.
And I welcome the additional offers made by ministers today.
All NATO Allies are affected by the pandemic.
But not in the same way at the same time.
So when we effectively coordinate our resources, we make a real difference.
Defence ministers also addressed NATO’s continued deterrence and defence.
The bottom line is that security challenges have not diminished because of COVID-19.
On the contrary.
Potential adversaries will look to exploit the situation to further their own interests.
Terrorist groups could be emboldened.
The security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq remains fragile.
And we see a continued pace of Russian military activity.
So we must maintain our deterrence and defence.
Because our core mission remains the same: to ensure peace and stability.
While we continue to take all the necessary measures to protect our armed forces,
our operational readiness remains undiminished.
And our forces remain ready, vigilant and prepared to respond to any threat.
We also discussed the importance of countering disinformation.
Both from state and non-state actors.
Trying to sow division in the Alliance and in Europe.
And to undermine our democracies.
We are countering these false narratives with facts, and with concrete actions.
We are also working even closer with Allies, and the European Union, to identify, monitor, and expose disinformation.
And to respond robustly.
Finally, we considered the long-term implications of this health crisis.
For our societies, and for the world around us.
The geo-political effects of the pandemic could be significant.
Some may seek to use the economic downturn as an opening to invest in our critical industries and infrastructure.
Which in turn may affect our long-term security.
And our ability to deal with the next crisis, when it comes.
So ministers had an in-depth discussion on how we prepare for the long-term effects of COVID-19.
It is too soon to draw the final conclusions.
But it is clear that we must further bolster the resilience of our societies.
Better plan for pandemics in the future.
Protect our critical industries.
And improve our business continuity planning.
Ministers agreed a set of recommendations to strengthen our resilience.
By updating our existing baseline requirements for civil preparedness, based on the lessons from the crisis.
And by working even closer with our international partners.
So it is significant that today, we were also joined by the European Union, by the EU High Representative, and our close partners Finland and Sweden.
Because COVID-19 is a threat to all of us.
And together, we can emerge stronger from this unprecedented crisis.
And with that, I am ready to take your questions.
Oana Lungescu [NATO Spokesperson]: Thank you, Secretary General, we now start with a question by Skype from Brooks Tigner from Jane’s Defence. Brooks, please go ahead.
Brooks Tigner [Jane’s Defence]: Thank you for the time, Secretary General. Two quick questions. As you mentioned, the COVID crisis will impose huge pressure on Europe’s leaders to favour, probably, economic spending over defence. First of all, do you think there should be a temporary respite for the Allies’ pledge to reach the 2 per cent GDP spending goal by 2024? I assume you’ll say no, but should this idea at least be considered? Second question: resilience: in operational areas such as air and sea lift, satellite coms and energy, the Allies rely heavily on expensive standby contracts with commercial suppliers. Question: do you think the Allied militaries need to start maintaining this on their own, moving away from so many commercial suppliers, in order to increase their resilience? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg [NATO Secretary General]: So, first on the resilience, we have agreed that of course we will look into the consequences for our resilience planning, when we learn the lessons from this crisis. And we have initiated that work at the meeting today, to look into the medium- and long-term consequences, including how to further strengthen our resilience, so we are prepared for the next crisis.
We have in NATO developed over a long period of time baseline requirements for resilience in seven different areas: health, mass casualties, transportation, infrastructure, telecommunications, continuity of government and other areas. So, of course, when we update these based on requirements, we will take into account the lessons learned from the crisis we face now.
What the concrete outcome will be, I think it’s a bit too early to say, but all Allies have some homework to do, based on what we see in this COVID-19 crisis.
Let me also add that while, of course, there are challenges and there are lessons to be learned, but I would like to highlight two things. One is that our immediate focus now is not to, what should I say, look into the long-term consequences. The time will come when we have to do that. Our immediate concern now is to actually address the crisis, as we face it today, to help to save lives and to mobilise as much support as we can. And SACEUR briefed us on what NATO Allies and NATO is doing. And it is significant, the way the military, NATO, provides support to the civilian efforts to combat COVID-19, or the coronavirus. And I also think that, actually, for instance, the airlift capabilities, the medical evacuation or the ability to transport patients, field hospitals and many other parts of our resilience has proven extremely valuable and very operational in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.
So, of course, there are always things that can be improved, but I think also we have seen that NATO, as a crisis alliance, or an alliance which has been prepared for crisis for decades, actually, and the military, actually play a very important role in providing support to the civilian efforts in dealing with the crisis.
When it comes to economy and budgets, of course, there will be economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, and we have seen a significant reduction in GDP. We have seen forecasts about further reductions and of course, there will be budget consequences. At the same time, I think it’s a bit too early to say how big those consequences will be, because that will not least depend on how long the crisis will last.
Second, what we have seen is that investing in military capabilities is not only important to address military threats, but having military capabilities is also extremely helpful addressing a health crisis. The military provides a surge capacity which is now proven, or which is now becoming very important, or is important for the civilian society as they combat the coronavirus. So, it highlights that investing in military is not only a way to deal with military threats, but also with other threats and challenges. And I think that’s a good thing, proving that the armed forces, the military can help the civilian societies.
Oana Lungescu: For our next question we’ll go to Marc Burleigh from Agence France-Presse. Marc, go ahead. We can’t hear you. Okay, we can’t hear you. We seem to have some technical issues. We’ll try to go to our next question and then we’ll try to come back to Marc. So, Jovana Djurisic from Daily Pobjeda in Podgorica. Jovana, go ahead.
Jovana Djurisic [Daily Pobjeda]: Do you have plans for sending . . . sending NATO counter-hybrid teams to Western Balkan countries? I mean, Western Balkan countries who are NATO member . . . member states, to help them to cope with propaganda and disinformation in the time of the pandemic? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: There has been no request for NATO sending counter-hybrid teams. We have done that before to Montenegro, but there has been no request for doing this now. And actually, I think that the most important thing NATO can do is to send concrete support. And countries in the Western Balkans have received support from NATO and NATO Allies, especially North Macedonia highlighted that very much during the meeting.
This was the first meeting, first ministerial meeting where a defence minister from North Macedonia participated and Minister Radmila Šekerinska listed how many NATO Allies, the Netherlands, the United States, the Czech Republic, Norway, and many other NATO Allies have provided concrete support with medical equipment, a field hospital, financial support and so on to North Macedonia. And that’s . . . and I think that’s the best way, both to provide concrete support to Allies as NATO and NATO Allies do every day. But it’s also the best way to counter any attempt to conduct disinformation campaigns, because by acting, we send a clear message.
So, we provide support to our Allies in the Western Balkans, but today we also discussed with our Supreme Operational Commander, General Wolters, how we can speed up and step up their support.
Oana Lungescu: Thank you. We’ll now go to Teri Schultz from Deutsche Welle/NPR.
Teri Schultz [Deutsche Welle/ NPR]: Mr Secretary General, you mentioned this just briefly in your introduction, but already before COVID hit, there were concerns that China, in particular, was buying up important military assets throughout Europe. Now that companies and countries are going to be suffering serious economic consequences and some of these assets, some of the owners of these assets may need to sell, is it really too early to start reminding of the message that they need to keep important assets that could be useful for . . . for NATO in national hands? And also, did anyone bring up around the table, especially with Josep Borrell there, concerns about the US cut-off of funding for the WHO? There have been comments about this on the EU side, and I wondered what your thoughts were on that, or if any Allies expressed concerns about that? Thanks.
Jens Stoltenberg: We had an in-depth discussion about the medium- and long-term effects, including on our resilience and many Allies highlighted the importance of critical industries, infrastructure, as part of our resilience. And resilience is a NATO responsibility, it’s enshrined in our founding treaty in Article 3. So, reliable infrastructure, reliable telecommunications, governments which can function also in times of crisis. All these issues are of great importance for the civilian society, but also for our military readiness and preparedness. So, this is very much interlinked.
I’m not saying that it’s too early to remind Allies on the importance of focus on this and making sure that we have resilient, critical infrastructure, industries, and that we are able to, for instance, provide critical equipment during crises as we see it today. Actually, that’s something which we have already addressed. And I highlighted that also in the meeting today. And the fact that we will now most likely have an economic downturn may make some Allies more vulnerable for situations where critical infrastructure can be sold out. And that can undermine our resilience. So I conveyed that message, but also many Allies conveyed that message during the meeting.
So, no, it’s not in any way too early to highlight or to underline that message. What I said was a bit too early was to draw the final conclusion about what will be the outcome from our next update review of the resilience guidelines, because that will necessarily take some time and our focus now is on saving lives and addressing the concrete consequences of the current crisis we are faced with.
The WHO is an inter-governmental organisation. NATO is not a member of that organisation. But NATO has used the guidelines from the WHO to implement preventive measures. In NATO, in NATO missions and operations here at the NATO headquarters, NATO command structure. And I believe in the importance of international cooperation and transparency. And, of course, since we are not a member, we will not assess how the organisation is working. But we have used the guidelines provided by the WHO to implement preventive measures in NATO.
Oana Lungescu: Thank you. We can now go to Kabul and Khushnood Nabizada from Khaama Press.
Khushnood Nabizada [Khaama Press] Thank you, Mr Secretary General. I have now a question . . . a question for you on Afghanistan. How will the recent political developments and the US-Taliban peace deal affect NATO mission in Afghanistan? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: Well, NATO Allies and NATO have expressed support to the agreement between the US and Taliban. And to support the peace efforts, we have decided to adjust our troop levels in Afghanistan from currently roughly 16,000 down to 12,000. But we have also said that any reduction will be conditions-based and that we remain committed to Afghanistan and that we will continue to provide training, assistance and also financial support. And we have to understand that even at the level of 12,000, we will be able to continue the mission operations very much as we have done for many . . . for several years now, because we were actually almost at that level until mid-2017. Then we had an increase to 16,000. Now we are back again almost at the same level we had before the increase in 2017. So the NATO troop levels have been adjusted before up and down. And we have conveyed a clear message that what we do in Afghanistan will be conditions-based.
So, NATO’s mission and message is that we went into Afghanistan together, we will make decisions on adjusting our posture together, and when the time is right, we will, of course, leave together. But we will leave when the conditions are in place for reducing further our presence.
We actually believe that the best way we can support the peace efforts is to continue to support the Afghan security forces by . . . and by doing that, sending a message to Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield, they have to sit down and make real compromises on the negotiating table. We call on Taliban to respect the peace . . . or the agreement with the US to reduce violence and to sit down and engage in intra-Afghan negotiations.
It is also important that the political challenges we see on the government side and in Afghanistan, that they are addressed and we need unity. We need a functioning political process in Afghanistan, not least to be able to fully engage in the peace process.
Oana Lungescu: And from Kabul, we can go to Bratislava and Andrej Matisak from Pravda Slovakia.
Andrej Matisak [Pravda Slovakia]: Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr Secretary General. You said that with the pandemic, threats haven’t disappeared. And of course, you’re absolutely right. So we have seen . . . but we have seen that the exercises Europe Defender stopped. We have seen how . . . how high ranking officials were infected and . . . and there are soldiers in quarantine in some countries. So what about a discussion that pandemics can hamper the operational readiness of . . . of armed forces of the member states? Do NATO look at this? And do you think there will be some consequences how to prepare better from the military point of view for the next pandemics? Thank you.
Jens Stoltenberg: There will always be lessons to be learned after a crisis like the corona crisis. So, of course, there will always be a potential to further improve and strengthen our resilience and the way we cope with this kind of crisis. And that’s exactly, also, the reason why we have started to look into more medium- and long-term consequences for, what should I say, for NATO and for our societies more in general.
Having said that, I think that what we have seen over the last weeks is that NATO has been able to implement preventive measures, to minimise the risks for our personnel, to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. And we have done so by, you know, implementing many of the measures that are implementing . . . that have been implemented in the rest of the society, with social distancing, washing hands and also reducing - adapting some of our exercises, cancelling some exercises and other preventive measures.
But at the same time, we have made sure that the readiness of our forces is in place and that we can deploy troops, forces if needed. We have maintained our missions and operations, including the battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance, our air policing, our naval deployments and our missions from Afghanistan to Kosovo.
So, yes, of course, there have been consequences and we have implemented preventive measures. And of course, also some military personnel have been infected and some are in quarantine. But this has not undermined our ability to react, our operational readiness, and we maintain our missions and operations, despite the preventive measures we have implemented.
Oana Lungescu: The next question comes from Helene Cooper, the Pentagon correspondent of The New York Times. And I’m actually going to read it because she’s not on the line. Her question is: ‘NATO countries spend so much time preparing for the next big war and battling traditional adversaries around the world. But a single virus has managed to cripple infrastructure, economies and health systems far and wide. Should the Alliance broaden its definition of what makes an adversary? Shouldn’t public health pandemics get more attention when calculating defensive posture? So that’s the question from The New York Times.
Jens Stoltenberg: The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us all about how vulnerable we all are against a health crisis, against a virus, as the COVID-19 crisis. And I think there are many lessons to be learned and much homework to be done after this crisis.
At the same time, I think that NATO is a security alliance. Our task is to address potential military threats, security threats, and we do that also by adapting and changing and modernising to new and challenging threats like, for instance, the threats we see in cyberspace, terrorism, space, where we have now established a new command, a cyber new command, and also the way NATO has adapted after the end of the Cold War and also the way that NATO has adapted after 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea.
So NATO has to adapt. NATO has to change. But I don’t think that NATO should go into and be, what should I say, the first responder, or the main responder to a health crisis. What NATO should do and what NATO is doing is that we should support the civilian efforts to fight this health crisis. And that’s exactly what we do. We see around the whole world and across all NATO allies, that military personnel are playing a key role in the fight. Field hospitals, transportation of patients in a safe way, airlift of equipment, of protective gear, of medicine and so on is done by military planes. And we see that military personnel are doing everything from disinfecting public spaces to controlling border crossings. And NATO is playing a key role in mobilising, coordinating, deploying support to different NATO-Allied countries and setting up field hospitals and so on.
So, I think that the main lesson for NATO and for the rest of society is that there is a close link between the civilian efforts to fight a health crisis and the ability of the military to support those efforts. And that’s exactly what we are doing and that’s exactly what we also have to look into, how we can do even better when the next crisis hits us.
So, I don’t think it’s the need to change NATO’s core responsibility – a security alliance – but it is good reasons . . . there are good reasons for looking into how we can further strengthen the cooperation between the civilian society combating a health crisis and military capabilities, providing support to those civilian efforts. Because the fact that we have a health crisis doesn’t mean that more traditional security threats disappear. They are still there. Terrorist organisations are still out there. Cyber threats are still real. And we see a more assertive Russia continue to support the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which are violating the ceasefire again and again. Or we see Russia being present in Syria, making it possible for Assad to do what he does against his own population. And we see, also, many other challenges and threats.
So, we don’t have the luxury of saying that we can focus on only one type of threat; we need to focus and be able to mobilise against health threats at the same time as we remain strong and vigilant addressing all the other threats, including security threats.
Oana Lungescu: Thank you. For the next question, we’ll go to Lailuma Sadid from Afghan Voice.
Lailuma Sadid [Afghan Voice]: Thank you, Secretary General and good evening. Yesterday, you said the Taliban attacks are harmful. Why NATO is not pressuring on the Taliban to accept ceasefire? And also, regarding the impact COVID-19 on the NATO troops and their mandate in Afghanistan, does NATO continue the training of Afghan army due to the coronavirus? Thank you very much.
Jens Stoltenberg: NATO is putting pressure on the Taliban by providing support to the Afghan security forces, by maintaining our Resolute Support Mission, which is a train, assist and advise mission and actually following, closely supporting the Afghan forces.
We also have, of course, the US being present, partly in the NATO mission, but the US also has some activities outside the NATO mission. And altogether, this is putting a significant pressure on a Taliban. And, so we don’t . . . we call on them to reduce violence, to fully engage in the peace negotiations, but we do that, not only in words, but also in deeds, by continuing our presence in Afghanistan and continuing to support the Afghan security forces, also with funding.
Of course, COVID-19, it’s also something we have to take into account when we conduct our mission, our activities in Afghanistan. And there are some people who have been infected in our . . . some of the personnel in the Resolute Support Mission, as we have seen all over the world and in many other places, but including, also, among the soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. So there are some who are infected, tested positive and some have been quarantined. But I think also what we have seen is that NATO has been able to deal with that. We have actually transported out of Afghanistan those who have been affected. They are getting treatment [in] other places, the NATO soldiers who have been infected. And we are making sure that the soldiers who are coming in are in quarantine, so we are certain that they don’t bring the virus to Afghanistan.
On top of that, we are not only protecting our own personnel, but we are also providing support to the Afghan security forces. Medical equipment, but also training advice in how to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. So, we maintain our military presence, we continue to put pressure on Taliban, as we also then provide support to the Afghan security forces in fighting the COVID . . . the coronavirus.
Oana Lungescu: Thank you very much. And now for our last question, we go to Bucharest, Radu Tudor from Antena 3.
Radu Tudor [Antena 3]: Thank you, Oana Lungescu.
Oana Lungescu: We can hear you, Radu, go ahead.
Radu Tudor: Secretary General, I want to ask you if you can detail for us a bit about the United States’ proposal to enhance the institutional projection of NATO for transfer capabilities for the Allied countries in the pandemic crisis? And the second question, if you have discussed today with the defence ministers, the extremely aggression rhetoric of Russia and China especially on the online ways of communication? Here in Eastern Europe and especially in Romania, we feel that this aggression is trying to persuade against the Western values with this hybrid war coming from Russia and China. Thank you so much.
Jens Stoltenberg: So, first on the airlift issue. NATO Allies, and United States as all of them, have already provided significant airlift support to NATO Allies, transporting medical equipment around the globe to European NATO Allies and also transporting patients in a safe way from one NATO Ally to another, to provide medical care, and also transported medical personnel.
And SACEUR informed us that so far there have been over a hundred flights where NATO Allies have helped each other in different ways responding to this COVID-19 crisis.
The United States has also instructed its top commander in Europe to make available US capabilities, including airlift capabilities, in Europe to support European NATO Allies.
So Romania is one of the Allies which has benefited from these airlift capabilities. And these are airlift capabilities which partly Allies have by their . . . national capabilities, like, for instance, the US that now provides support to other NATO Allies, with US capabilities, and partly we have some multinational solutions for providing airlift capabilities for Allies together.
But anyway, it’s about NATO providing, or NATO Allies providing, support to each other, addressing the corona crisis or the COVID-19 crisis.
Well . . . also, hybrid. Well, so we have seen - we have to be prepared. And we’ve also seen examples that state actors, non-state actors may try to take advantage of this crisis. And that’s the reason why we have to be vigilant in addressing also them, as we provide support to the civilian efforts fighting the COVID crisis as such.
We have to be aware that there is a potential for terrorist groups taking advantage of the situation. And we have to be vigilant and addressing many other challenges and threats at the same time.
One part of this is also to address disinformation, which has one aim, and that is to divide us and to weaken our unity. And that could have . . . if they succeed, it can have long-term negative consequences for our unity. We have, for instance, seen, you know, social media being used in a very active way to spread absolutely wrong accusations about what NATO Allies do in fighting the coronavirus and how we actually are mobilising together. So, to address these issues - disinformation is of great importance for all of us.
I’ve said before, I’d like to repeat again, that I believe that the best response to disinformation and propaganda is free and independent press, is the work of journalists, because when they check their facts, when they check their sources, when they ask the difficult questions, then disinformation and propaganda will never, never succeed.
Then I will say to all of you, stay healthy, stay safe and thank you for joining me at this virtual press conference this evening.