Press conference

by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings of NATO Foreign Ministers on 23 and 24 March 2021 at NATO Headquarters

  • 22 Mar. 2021 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 30 Nov. 2022 07:12

(As delivered)

Good afternoon.

Foreign Ministers will meet this week to set the stage for the upcoming NATO Summit in Brussels.
This is an opportunity to open a new chapter in transatlantic relations.
And our NATO 2030 Initiative to continue adapting the Alliance will be at the heart of the Summit.

We have had constructive discussions on NATO 2030 over the past weeks. 
And I look forward to our exchange with foreign ministers.

We must be bold and ambitious to build a stronger Alliance for the future. 
Because we live in a more dangerous and competitive world,
where challenges know no borders.

Russia's destabilising activities,
the threat of terrorism,
sophisticated cyber attacks,
disruptive technologies,
the rise of China,
and climate change.

That is why we must reinforce our unity, which derives from our promise to defend each other.
Since 2014, we have been implementing the largest adaptation of our collective defence since the Cold War.

To further support this adaptation, we are discussing how we can increase common funding for deterrence and defence. 
And how we can enhance our political unity, committing to consult on all issues that affect our security.

To keep our people safe, we need to strengthen our resilience,
To ensure minimum standards for critical infrastructure such as energy and telecommunications.

We also need more investment to make sure we maintain our technological edge.

NATO 2030 is also about protecting the rules-based order,
which is being challenged by authoritarian powers like China and Russia. 

So we need to work even closer with like-minded partners around the globe.
And support our neighbours with more training and capacity building.

We must also address the security implications of climate change.
I expect ministers will take a first step by endorsing a policy paper on our approach.

But we must go further, and ensure that NATO takes a leading role when it comes to understanding, adapting and mitigating the impact of climate change on our security.
Finally, it is time to start updating NATO's  Strategic Concept,
So that we jointly address the changing security environment,
And recommit to our fundamental values.
And I expect a task from NATO leaders on updating the Strategic Concept at our Summit later this year.

Together with our partners Finland and Sweden, as well as the EU High Representative, we will also address our relations with Russia.

Russia continues to suppress peaceful dissidents at home,
and display a pattern of aggressive behaviour abroad.
Including with cyber attacks, and attempts to interfere in our elections and undermine our democracies. 

As an Alliance, we remain committed to our dual-track approach to Russia.
Strong deterrence and defence, combined with openness to meaningful dialogue.

Including on issues such as arms control.  

All Allies welcomed the recent decision to extend the New START Treaty.
This is an important beginning.
But we need to further strengthen international arms control.

Ministers will continue consultations on the situation in Afghanistan,
And our military presence,
to assess our next steps together.

There are no easy choices.
And for now, all options remain open.

The security situation is difficult.
And we will take all the necessary measures to keep our troops safe.

We strongly support efforts to infuse fresh energy into the peace process.
This requires all parties to work to achieve progress.
To reduce the high levels of violence,
And to negotiate in good faith.
It also requires constructive engagement from all regional actors and the international community.  

The ongoing peace talks are the best way to preserve the gains made over the last two decades,
And to ensure a stable Afghanistan that will not serve as a safe haven for terrorists.

NATO's work with partners in the Middle East and North Africa is another contribution in the fight against international terrorism.

So ministers will take stock of our support for key partners like Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia.
And consider what more we could do.

And with that, I'm ready to take your questions.

NATO Spokesperson: We'll start our remote questions today with Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Thomas Gutschker: Thanks a lot and good afternoon. Secretary General, with regard to common funding, a few member states including Germany, and as I understand the US, have suggested that common funding should be used to upgrade partnerships, potentially partnerships for instances with partners in the Pacific region. Are you in favour of this idea, your suggestion, of course referred to common funding of deterrence and defence missions in, the European homeland. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: We have different proposals on the table, we have had good discussions, and this is the beginning of a process, the conclusions, they will be made, made when heads of state and government meet later on this year.

I welcome the fact that allies are looking into how we can do more together, the different proposals we are discussing is everything from deterrence, defence, resilience, technology, partnerships, and also how to use common funding to make sure that we do more together as the Alliance.

I will not go into the specific proposals from different allies, I just welcome that we have a good process, a good discussion and a positive tone, and I'm confident that when heads of state and government meet later on this year they will agree an ambitious forward looking agenda, where we demonstrate our commitment to transatlantic unity, not only in words but also in deeds, and this is exactly what NATO 2030 is about, how to do more together, how to strengthen transatlantic bond in NATO, and we have a good process going on in the Alliance as we speak.

NATO Spokesperson: And the next question goes to Dominica Cosic from Polish Television TVP.

Dominica Cosic: Yes, hello. Thank you very much. I would like to ask about this vaccination process, which will start on Thursday in the Headquarters and it will be provided by Polish medical service, I would like to ask you to explain why is the Headquarter of NATO, such an important institution for our security, that should have this vaccination procedure, as soon as possible. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: I'm grateful for Poland's readiness to provide the vaccines against the COVID-19, I think that demonstrates that Poland is a highly valued ally, and an ally which is ready to support NATO efforts in many different ways, solidarity and resilience is at the heart of our Alliance, and the Polish offer demonstrates exactly that. Poland is a strong and reliable ally who has provided support with medical equipment, personnel and expertise to many other allies and partners from the start of the pandemic. This is actually one other example of how Poland is contributing to support NATO, to manage the consequences of the pandemic.
This is a joint fight, and we are stronger together. And of course, the vaccines will help and support our work here at the Headquarters of NATO.

NATO Spokesperson: Thank you. The next question we can go to Lailuma Sadid from Kavian Press

Lailuma Sadid: Yes, thank you very much, Secretary General, as you mentioned, could you please confirm that NATO troops led by the American will not be withdrawing by May 1st. And second, the recent reports by American officials indicated that the ANDSF are not ready to fully assume responsibility of safekeeping Afghanistan and the government will collapse in six months with the full withdrawal. How will that determine the future role NATO will assume, while pursuing peace. Lailuma Sadid from Brussels Morning and Kavian Press. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: So all options are on the table and no final decision has been taken, but I think it's extremely important that allies consult closely as we will do our Foreign Ministerial meeting tomorrow, also of course with Secretary Blinken of the United States. We also had good discussions and consultations at the Defence Minister meeting last month here at NATO.

The main focus now is to provide the support for the renewed efforts to make progress in the peace talks. Peace talks are the only ways to find a sustainable, political, lasting solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and therefore we call on all parties to negotiate in good faith, and on the Taliban also to stop providing support to Al Qaeda or international terrorist groups, and then we need to see a reduction in the level of violence. W

We will assess, we will we will consult, and then we will make decisions together as NATO allies, also knowing that the majority of the troops in Afghanistan now, they are from Europe and from partner nations, so the majority of the troops are non-US.

I think what you're seeing also is that the Afghan National Security Forces, they are capable, they are professional, and they are now actually responsible for the security in Afghanistan themselves. What we do is that we provide support, training, advice, assistance and also financial funding for the Afghan security forces.

And you know, NATO's presence in Afghanistan has changed significantly over the last years, not many years ago, we had more than 100,000 NATO troops in a big combat operation. Now we are around 10,000 troops in the train, assist and advice operation, that demonstrates the strength of the Afghan security forces and their capabilities that they have developed over the last years, with support from NATO.

We will stay committed, not least by continuing to provide financial support, we have stated that we will provide the financial support throughout 2024. When it comes to our military presence, we will make decisions together based on the situation in Afghanistan and of course the progress in the peace talks, and that's the main focus now to make sure that there has been progress in the peace talks.

NATO Spokesperson: For the next question we can go to Momchil Indjov from Club Z Media Group

Momchil Indjov: Good afternoon. Secretary General, do you hear me. Secretary General, last week, the Bulgarian authorities broke up an alleged Russian spy ring. And according to the [inaudible] it's unprecedented prosecution for Bulgaria, US and NATO. My question is, do you have any information, if the alleged spies have caused damage to that NATO security, and if so, to which extent.

NATO Secretary General: We are, of course, following closely the Bulgarian investigation into the alleged Russian spy ring. NATO is always very focused on the protection of classified documents and classified information, and we fully support the work of our ally Bulgaria to tackle Russia's malign activities on its territory.

We will, at our Foreign Ministerial meeting starting tomorrow, also discuss our relationship with Russia, and we have seen a pattern of more assertive behaviour by Russia over the last years, including aggressive actions against nations, Ukraine of course, but also interference in our domestic political processes, undermining the trust in our democratic institutions or attempts to do so, and also interference in our election processes.

We will have this discussion with Finland, Sweden and EU High Representative, and this demonstrates that we are following closely the behaviour and the pattern of behaviour by Russia, and therefore we are also following closely the investigation by the Bulgarian authorities into the alleged Russian spy ring.

NATO Spokesperson: For our next question I hope we can go to Bratislava and Andrej Matisak from Pravda. Andrej.

Andrej Matisak: Thank you very much. Thank you for this opportunity. If I may ask Mr. Secretary General, what kind of impact would you say that the current heated exchange of words between Moscow and Washington might have on NATO-Russia relations. Also, as you mentioned, NATO is following this dual track approach that runs on dialogue. So, what impact this might have, on NATO-Russia relations. And by the way, would you also call Russian President Putin a killer, as US President Joe Biden did or not, and why. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: The relationship between NATO and Russia has been difficult for some time now, and that is a result of Russia's behaviour, violating national law, using military force against neighbours; Georgia and Ukraine. But also, Russia is responsible for aggressive actions against NATO allied member states through cyber, interference in our domestic political processes, and so on.

And this pattern of Russian behaviour over some years, has triggered the biggest adaptation of our Alliance, since the end of the cold war, with high readiness of our forces, with deployment of battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance, with increased spending, and also of course the fact that we are stepping up our efforts when it comes to cyber defence, but also clearly condemning the behaviour of Russia when they violate international law but also cracking down on peaceful demonstrators at home.

And we see a pattern of aggressive actions abroad and suppression of peaceful dissidents at home.

President Putin is of course, ultimately responsible for all actions taken by the Russian state. And we have seen a pattern of aggressive behaviour, including attempts and targeted killing of opponents, and in NATO, we are of course also very concerned about the reports about Russia, promising bounties for the killing of NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

So all of this together, of course, is a pattern, is a behaviour which is unacceptable. And therefore, NATO has responded in the way we have, we will continue to be firm and strong, but at the same time, we will continue to pursue our dual track approach, deterrence, defence and dialogue, because we need to talk to Russia - partly to strive for a better relationship, but even without reaching a better relationship with Russia, we need to manage the difficult relationship with our neighbour Russia.

And that includes, of course, especially arms control and we will come that, despite of all difficulties, despite of the increased tensions, the United States and Russia, they were able to agree the extension of the New START agreement which is an extremely important Arms Control agreement.

NATO Spokesperson: For our next question, we'll go to Iryna Somer from Interfax Ukraine.

Iryna Somer: Thank you Oana. My question is regarding upcoming NATO Summit; is there already a date? And if not, or what does it depend on? Will it be family only summit, or will partners also be invited. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: We are planning for a summit later on this year and there will be a NATO summit later on this year in Brussels, and we have started preparations, including through the NATO 2030 initiative where we are continuing to adapt and strengthen NATO and we are working on a forward leaning, very substantive agenda for the leaders to agree when they meet later on this year.

I also spoke with President Biden and he expressed clearly that he is looking forward to meeting the other NATO leaders here in Brussels later this year. And we will confirm the date in due course. We have not finally decided on the different formats of the meeting, but we'll come back to that and also make decisions on the precise formats of the meeting later on.

NATO Spokesperson: For the next question. Hopefully we can go to Paris, and Jacques Hubert-Rodier from Les Echos.

Jacques Hubert-Rodier: Thank you Oana, I had a question; recently you expressed your concern about Turkey, you know the buying of Russian system, its attitude on Eastern Mediterranean, and also, its attitude about democratic rights. I just wanted to know is NATO contemplating some kind of sanctions or at least a very strong statement about Turkey during its meeting.

NATO Secretary General: NATO 2030, the project we have launched to strengthen NATO both as a political Alliance but also to strengthen, to do together, Also related to deterrence and defence, NATO 2030, this project provides a platform, an opportunity, to recommit to our values, including the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty and I attach great importance to those values, I will continue to underline that in my meetings with allies, including of course, with Turkey.

And I think that we should strength NATO as a political platform to consult also when we see differences and disagreements between allies. Discussions about values may be difficult but that's exactly why we need those discussions and need to use NATO as the unique platform. We have 30 allies from both sides of the Atlantic, different political parties in power, to also have difficult discussions, including on issues like values.
So, I strongly believe that the NATO 2030 project provides a unique opportunity to also put values, democracy, the rule of law, our core values, higher on the NATO agenda.

NATO Spokesperson: Okay, and for our next question, we'll go to Ketevan Kardava from Imedi, Georgia.

Ketevan Kardava: Thank you very much. TV Imedi, Ketevan Kardava, Mr. Secretary General, are you going to discuss with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken open door policy, and especially relations and further strengthening of this relation with aspirant countries, especially with Georgia and Ukraine. Thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General" NATO's door remains open. And we have demonstrated that just over the last few years, by getting new members, Montenegro, and most recently, North Macedonia. So for me that demonstrates clearly that our door is open, not only as a kind of theoretical option but as actually as something in real life, that happens in NATO, when the Allies agree. And we have a country which is aspiring for a NATO membership, that meets the NATO standards.

I have recently met with the Georgian Prime Minister, and I conveyed the same message to him. NATO supports the efforts by Georgia to join NATO, and we support Georgia in different ways, including by supporting reforms, strengthening democratic institutions and we will continue to do so.

I cannot speak on behalf of United States, but I look forward to having the Secretary Blinken here at the NATO Foreign Ministerial meeting and one of the things we'll discuss is also, Russia, and I say that because Russia has often expressed that they have some kind of right to try to deny countries to join NATO. We saw that most recently actually, when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina

And it's not for any nation outside NATO and the aspirant country, to decide whether a country becomes a member of NATO, or not, it's a sovereign right of every nation, including Georgia of course, or Ukraine, or Bosnia and Herzegovina,  to choose their own path. And then it's for those countries that are applying for membership and the NATO allies and only them, and no one else, no one from the outside, to interfere in that democratic process.

NATO Spokesperson: Our next question, now comes from Podgorica, Nova Pobjeda, Jovana Djurisic.

Jovana Djurisic: So, my question, good afternoon Secretary General, my question is to you. NATO constantly repeats that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of member states, nor in intelligence issues in Montenegro. So, in your opinion, is it internal issue of Montenegro, when secret data from one of the NATO members countries leaks from security structures in Montenegro. What will be your response to this and your reaction as NATO. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: So I will not comment on intelligence issues but what I can say, as kind of general approach from NATO is that, of course, we are very focused on the need to protect our data, to protect classified information and classified documents.

And we are constantly working with all NATO allies to make sure that the procedures are in place to make sure that we protect classified information. We also have a vetting process, which applies for all allies but especially for the new members. So personnel which have access to NATO secret information, or NATO classified information, that they are vetted in the right way, so we maximise the protection of our data.

NATO Spokesperson: Okay, and we will now go to Bucharest and Robert Lupitu from Calea Europeana.

Robert Lupitu: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary General, one question on EU strategic autonomy. Earlier today, The Council of the European Union decided to set up the European peace facility. What does this mean for NATO, how NATO sees this, especially in the context that we have the First Ministerial meeting with Secretary Blinken and Secretary Blinken will have a discussion with EU officials, also on transatlantic relations.

NATO Secretary General: I welcome, of course, contacts, dialogue between United States and the European Union, and there are many issues; trade, climate change, economy, and many other issues where of course, the European Union and the United States have many things to discuss.

But when it comes to deterrence and defence, security, NATO plays a unique role because NATO is the only organisation, the only institution that brings together North America and Europe, on a daily basis, in a military Alliance as NATO.

And it has been expressed man,  many times from European leaders also stated many times in European different documents, that when it comes to European NATO allies, NATO remains the cornerstone for their security, for their collective defence. And this is no longer something I say but this is something they say, including in the European Union, and in different decisions by EU members, because that's the fact.

More than 90% of the population in the European Union, they live in a NATO country, but only 20% of defence spending is coming from EU allies. So this is partly about money, but it's also about geography; Norway and Iceland in the north, Turkey in the south, but also the United States, of course, Canada and United Kingdom in the West, they are all critical for the defence and the protection of Europe.

And then, most of all this is about politics, because any attempt to weaken the transatlantic bond in NATO will not only weaken NATO, but it will also divide Europe, so EU efforts on defence, that's something I welcome.

But it must complement the efforts of NATO, and not undermine the transatlantic bond in NATO and this is again stated by many European leaders again and again that this is not the aim; to weaken NATO, the aim is actually to make sure that NATO remains the cornerstone for defence, security, collective defence for EU, NATO allies.

NATO Spokesperson: For the next question we'll go to Hans-Uwe Mergener from the Mittler Report.

Hans-Uwe Mergener: Good afternoon, thank you very much for having this opportunity. Secretary General, you've touched upon the Euro-Atlantic stability space, you touched upon Jordan, Tunisia and Iraq. What could you envisage in terms of creating or enhancing the stability in Northern Africa? Could you envisage a mission in Libya for instance or in Mauritia, or further down in the Sahel region – a mission similar to those missions in Iraq, or what we do in Afghanistan? Thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General: First of all we speak about many very different countries, and therefore we have to, of course, take into account that the needs and what NATO should and could do, will vary between those different countries.

Having said that, I would like to say that I think if there's any lesson learned both from the Balkans in the 1990s or Afghanistan or Iraq and also from Libya, then it is that prevention is better than intervention to help countries to stabilise themselves, by providing training, capacity building is perhaps the best way NATO can help to stabilise our neighbourhood. And when our neighbours are more stable, we are more secure.

So therefore, I think that NATO  - first of all we do a lot. We are working with partners, you mentioned of Afghanistan, but our main focus now is not combat but actually training, enabling the Afghans themselves to stabilise their own country. Iraq, where the focus is exactly the same; train the Iraqi Security Forces so they can prevent ISIS from returning, we're also working with Jordan, we are working in Tunisia.

Also, the President of Mauritania recently visited NATO, and he wanted support from NATO, also to help them fight terrorists, and we will send a team of experts down to Mauritania to sit down and discuss with them what we can do to help.

So, it will not be one size fits all. But the idea of more training, more capacity building, is an overarching message, also in NATO 2030, where allies are now discussing how we can strengthen NATO as a training Alliance providing the support and capacity building for different countries.

Regarding Libya, I welcome the formation of new interim government of national unity in Libya, and all steps that helped to pave the way for national elections in December.

NATO continues to fully support the UN-led peace process, and then we will have to come back to whether the time is right for NATO to also provide some capacity building support to Libya, but that's for a later stage to be decided.

NATO Spokesperson: Thank you. We can now take one question from Noureddhine Fridhi from Al Arabiya.

Noureddhine Fridhi: Good morning Secretary General, good morning Oana. I have a very general question Secretary General about the Middle East security; as you know very well, we have the Mediterranean Dialogue, we have the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, NATO units training forces in Iraq and Tunisia, but for some time, there is an idea in the air which related to regional military organisation in the Middle East, some called it a Middle East NATO.

This kind of organisation, would you encourage the setup of such an organization? Would you see it in the future, that it could stabilise the region? It could maybe extend the stability and security of the Euro-Atlantic area. This idea is emerged after the new change of the Middle East, mainly, the rapprochement between Israel and some Arab states in the Gulf. Do you see this as feasible? Would you encourage that, would you see it useful for the region, and maybe for NATO, why not?

NATO Secretary General: A more stable Middle East will of course be good for all the people living in the Middle East and in countries in North Africa and the Middle East region. And NATO supports different efforts to help to stabilise because a more stable neighbourhood will also be good for our security.

So this is not only about the people living there, but also about the security of NATO allied countries. And we are providing support in many different ways, and we are looking into how we can do more, but I think it's not for NATO to give advice on actually one of several proposals on how to organise the cooperation between countries in the Middle East. What I can say is that any effort that reduces the tension, and reduces the likelihood of conflict, of course it's good for the people in the region but also good for the security of NATO allied countries.

NATO Spokesperson: We have time for one last question, and that will go to Mustafa Mohammad Sarwar from Radio for Europe.

Mustafa Mohammad Sarwar: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary General, as you know, the Afghan officials speak about the presence of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and the connection between the Taliban and those fighters. Are the Taliban still linked to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? And my second question is, how concerned are you about an increase in Taliban attacks this spring? Will Afghan forces be able to fend off the potential attacks on their own. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: The Afghan forces have proven over now several years that they are capable, they're professional, and they're able to stand up against Taliban and also terrorist attacks. We provide them support some training, some help. But we have to remember that the bulk of the efforts are carried out by the Afghan security forces themselves.

Not many years ago, we had more than 100,000 troops in combat operation. Now we are roughly 10,000 troops, providing support, training, capacity building for the Afghan security forces, out of which more than the majority are non-US or from European allies and partner nations. So, that demonstrates the strength of the Afghan security forces and they have been able to fight back when we have seen the Taliban attacks over several years. When it comes to this spring in particular, of course what we expect is that Taliban does not launch any spring offensive.

Because what we need to see is the opposite, not the spring offensive but reduction in violence. They need to demonstrate their commitment to the peace agreement. And any meaningful peace efforts has to be based on reduction of violence.

So therefore the message from me and from other allies and from many the international community, is that we need to see reduction of violence, and this spring offensive will be the exact opposite message.

We also expect Taliban to clearly demonstrate that they have stopped providing any support to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. And of course, one of the issues we will very closely monitor, analyse and assess is to what extent, Taliban is living up to that part of the peace agreement, and their commitment so this will be one of many elements we will look into, when we make the final decisions on our future presence in Afghanistan.

NATO Spokesperson: Thank you very much.  This concludes this press conference and hope to see at least some of you in person at the Ministerial this week. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: Thank you so much.