Closing press conference

by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meetings of NATO Foreign Ministers in Riga, Latvia

  • 01 Dec. 2021 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 02 Dec. 2021 12:20

(As delivered)

Good afternoon.

We have just concluded a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers.
In our first session, we were joined by Georgia and Ukraine.
We discussed the security situation in the region.

Russia’s continued aggressive and destabilising actions against its neighbours.
And its military build-up in and around Ukraine.

We need to remain vigilant and avoid escalation.
Ministers made clear any future Russian aggression would come at a high price, and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia.

Georgia and Ukraine are long-standing and close NATO partners.
Contributing to our missions and operations.
And aspiring for membership.

Ministers made clear that we stand by our decisions.
Our support for their sovereignty and territorial integrity remains unwavering.
And we remain committed to enhance our support to both countries.

We are already strengthening their capabilities to defend themselves.
Training and exercising together.
Providing maritime support.
And sharing information.

We also addressed the importance of moving ahead with reforms.
To strengthen the rule of law and democracy.
Fight corruption.
And continue to transform their security and defense sectors.
These reforms are key to make both Georgia and Ukraine stronger and more resilient.

Our second session focused on Afghanistan, and the lessons learned from NATO’s engagement there over almost two decades.

Ministers had an in-depth discussion on these lessons.
And how we can improve the way NATO plans and conducts future crisis management operations.
Both at the political and military levels.

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan was not in vain.
For over twenty years, there have been no terrorist attacks on our countries organised from Afghanistan.

Only NATO had the capacity and political will to conduct this massive and complex crisis management operation.
And it is clear that crisis management must remain a core task for NATO.

At the same time, we must recognise that the international community, including NATO, the UN, and the EU and other actors, raised the level of ambition to nation-building.

That broader task proved much more difficult.

So we must ensure that our levels of ambition remain realistic.

Despite the brave service of many Afghan soldiers, and years of international support, they were hampered by corruption, poor leadership, and an inability to sustain their own forces.
For the future, we must ensure that NATO training efforts create more self-sustaining forces.

Ministers also agreed that we would have benefitted from more meaningful discussions on the negotiations of the US-Taliban agreement concluded in February last year.

At the same time, the consultations this year on the future of our mission were open and sincere.
And based on these consultations, we decided together to end NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

The Kabul airlift in August demonstrated our capability to support a massive evacuation operation.

NATO provided critical functions to ensure the operation of Kabul airport, and led coordination of the evacuation effort on the ground.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Norway provided security, and operated the airport under extremely challenging circumstances.

For the future, we should explore how to strengthen NATO’s ability to conduct short-notice, large scale non-combatant evacuation efforts,
either through the NATO Response Force or as a stand-alone force.

These lessons we have learned from Afghanistan will shape NATO’s crisis management role in the future.

And as we look back at the lessons from Afghanistan, we must maintain our efforts to fight terrorism and build the capacity of our partners.
Including through the critical work of our training mission in Iraq. 

For our final session, we were joined by our partners Finland, Sweden, and by EU High Representative Borrell.

We discussed stability and security in the Western Balkans.

The region has come a long way since the conflicts of the 1990s.
But recently we have seen tensions rise.
Including in Kosovo, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With more aggressive rhetoric.
Stalled reforms.
And foreign actors working to undermine progress.

NATO will continue to promote stability, security and cooperation in the region.
And we agreed on the importance of our presence.
Including our KFOR mission in Kosovo.
And our offices in Sarajevo and in Belgrade.

Our cooperation with the European Union remains essential.
And we will continue to work together to preserve stability, and support reforms.

I want to end by thanking our Latvian colleagues for their excellent work in hosting this meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers.

This shows once again Latvia’s strong commitment to our Alliance.

With that, I am ready to take your questions.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: Okay. We'll start with NBC, second row. Second row, here. Thanks.

Andrea Mitchell (NBC News): I wanted to ask you about the serious consequences to Russia given that Ukraine, if they are threatened with an invasion, is obviously not a NATO member. So what more could NATO do? What would be the economic and political consequences?
And on Afghanistan, is it your view that given the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, that NATO members such as the US, should consider other means of getting money without going through the Taliban? What more can be done? Given, you know, the 7 billion that's frozen by, of assets frozen by the US and other assets, to get to the crying need of the starving people of Afghanistan? Thank you, sir.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a tragedy for Afghan people. And we also see that they now face a very, very severe humanitarian situation,with the coming winter, and the risk for serious humanitarian consequences of the economic crisis in Afghanistan.

NATO has ended its military presence in Afghanistan. But NATO Allies continue to provide humanitarian support through different UN institutions, to humanitarian organisations. And I welcome that because we need to continue to provide support to the people of Afghanistan. And that was also addressed during the meeting today, the need to provide humanitarian support through different international institutions, and the UN.

Then, on Ukraine. So we have a wide range of options to make sure that Russia will be confronted with serious consequences, if they once again use force against an independent, sovereign nation Ukraine.

Everything from economic sanctions, financial sanctions, political restrictions. But also, as we saw after 2014 when they illegally annexed Crimea, and continued to destabilize eastern Ukraine, support the separatists in Donbass, that actually triggered the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War, with the deployment of battlegroups in the Baltic region and Poland, combat ready NATO troops for the first time in NATO’s history, and also increased presence in the Black Sea. And also increased air policing and other military activities that demonstrates NATO’s resolve to protect and defend all Allies, especially in the eastern part of the Alliance, the Black Sea region and the Baltic region.

We provide support to Ukraine with capacity building. Allies provide training, equipment, and advice. And also share information with them. And we monitor very closely what is going on the borders of Ukraine. But of course, there's a difference between a close and highly-valued partner, Ukraine, where we provide  support, and NATO Allies, where we actually have our collective defence clause, where we provide security guarantees enshrined in the Washington Treaty for all NATO Allies.

So we will continue to use NATO as a platform to consult, to coordinate, also on potential economic sanctions and other measures. Even though NATO is not making those decisions. NATO is the platform that brings together North America, European Allies, EU and others, to discuss also economic sanctions. And then, of course, NATO make decisions on everything related to the security guarantees for our NATO allied countries.

NATO Spokesperson: We’ll go to ZDF.

Florian Neuhann (ZDF): Mr. Stoltenberg, this morning, the Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs told us that membership of his country in NATO was inevitable. I'd like to know whether you agree with this assessment? And do you think this would also be a signal of de-escalation, if NATO expands towards the Russian sphere of influence?

NATO Secretary General: You know, just the question is reflecting something, which I think we should be very much aware of, that is not acceptable. And that is that Russia has a sphere of influence. They try to re-establish some kind of acceptance that Russia has the right to control what neighbours do, or not do.

And that's the kind of world we don't want to return to, where big powers had a say, or a kind of right, to put limitations of what sovereign, independent nations can do. I, myself, I'm coming from a small country bordering Russia. And I'm very glad that our NATO Allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the North, trying to decide what Norway, as a small, independent country can do or not do.

And that's exactly the same for Ukraine. Ukraine is an independent, sovereign nation with internationally recognised borders, guaranteed by Russia and all the other powers. And those borders, those internationally recognised borders should be respected. And that includes, of course, Crimea as part of Ukraine, and Donbass as part of Ukraine. So this idea that NATO’s support to a sovereign nation is the provocation, is just wrong. It's to respect the sovereignty of, the will of, the Ukrainian people.

So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO. NATO is a defensive Alliance. NATO is not a threat to anyone, but NATO respects the decision of countries like the Baltic countries, Poland, when they decided to join. And we will also respect the decision of Ukraine, that they aspire for NATO membership. We have stated that they will become a member, but of course, it's up to us, 30 NATO Allies, to decide when Ukraine is ready for membership, when they meet the NATO standards. We help them on their way towards membership with reforms, with support, with fighting corruption, with building defence and security institutions. And the message is that it is only Ukraine and 30 NATO Allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbours.

NATO Spokesperson: Okay. Al Jazeera Balkans, first row.

Nadina Maličbegović (Al Jazeera Balkans): What we see in Bosnia is not only separatistic rhetoric, as we can hear from international diplomats. There are concrete acts which undermine the state institutions. [Inaudible] how worried NATO, UN, US are? Milorad Dodik is in Russia, asking Putin for more support for his acts. What he understand is that if NATO is not coming to Bosnia, we will have Russian forces there. Russian media already are talking about that option. I would like to ask you, if NATO will allow that?

NATO Secretary General: NATO strongly supports the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO has its history there. We went into Bosnia in the 1990s and ended the brutal, ethnic war there. And since then, NATO has been in Bosnia, closely working together with the European Union. And we actually discussed that with our Western European partners today, Sweden, Finland and the High Representative Josep Borrell, the importance of NATO and the EU continuing to work closely together in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We are, of course, concerned about the very aggressive rhetoric from Mr. Dodik. And his inflammatory rhetoric is just undermining the Dayton Agreement and the efforts to build a stable, multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina.

NATO will continue to provide support, with capacity building, with implementing reforms. And one of the few multi-ethnic institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the armed forces. And that's a success story of NATO. Because we have really helped to build, train that as a multi-ethnic institution. Anything that can undermine that, of course, we will do whatever we can to prevent that from happening, because we need  multi-ethnic institutions, state institutions, including the armed forces. So we will be focused and continue to work with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): We’ll take one question online from Associated Press. Lorne Cook.

Lorne Cook (AP): Secretary General, I hope you can hear me well. Lorne Cook from Associated Press. On Afghanistan and the report that you've been looking at with the ministers. Would you agree that tax-payers, and voters, and Afghans themselves should actually see what lessons you've learnt? There must be more to it than what you've said today. Can you guarantee that this report is not going to be watered down, or it's going to disappear, like some of the field commanders’ reports did on Afghanistan?

Just more broadly, doesn't NATO need a profound reform? You seem to suggest that it's been a victim of mission creep, dragged by the international community? How's it useful, a one member country makes most of the decisions, really big ones like the troop surge, when it's time to leave, who can take part in talks with the Taliban, and then others follow and they complain about it later? Don’t you think you need a more robust debate in the North Atlantic Council?

NATO Secretary General: First of all, we had a very good discussion today. And we had many open and sincere discussions over the last weeks and months in NATO, about the lessons learned from Afghanistan. Because I think, it's extremely important that after 20 years ending in a mission like we did in Afghanistan, there's an absolute need for an honest and thorough lessons learning process. And that's exactly what we have conducted. Including by inviting external experts, by inviting all Allies to share their experiences. And there have been different experiences, and different views. And that's part of lessons learned process to have this open and sincere discussion within the Alliance.

We will publish the main conclusions, the main findings. 
And then, I think, we also understand that just the process in itself has been important. Because we actually used time, also with external experts, to try to understand both what went well and what we achieved, and where we didn't achieve our goals.

And as I said, we have to remember that the main task, the main reason we went into Afghanistan, was to fight international terrorism. And on that we actually achieved a lot. We were able to degrade al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Since 9/11, we have prevented any terrorist attack organized from Afghanistan against our countries, which was the main purpose of going in. And we have prevented Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists organizations. And our aim is to preserve those gains.

Then, gradually, and we all have responsibility for that, NATO, individual Allies, my own country Norway, the UN, the EU, and the whole international community, we have a responsibility that gradually we have mission creep. Because gradually, the aim of the whole mission evolved from fighting terrorism, preventing Afghanistan being a safe haven for international terrorist, to nation building.

And I understand that, because that's also a very important task, but much more difficult, and requires much more forces and resources over a long period of time.

And there, of course, even though we have made some gains that are not easily reversed, like, for instance, educating millions of people, not least women. We, the return of Taliban was of course a collapse of the efforts of having a democratic, stable Afghanistan based on human rights.

So yes, there are some lessons learned, where we can actually say we achieved a lot. And then there are some lessons where we didn't achieve the goals, and one of them was connected to that there was a gradual mission creep.

Another lesson is that we need to make sure that when we train and build local capacity, that we enable those forces to be self-sustained and not totally depend on us.  So when we leave they can actually be able to sustain their own efforts, and presence. And that will be something, … a lesson learned for any future crisis management operation by NATO. 

Because another lesson learned is that of course NATO has to be ready, once again, to conduct big operations, fighting international terrorism. As NATO Allies and NATO did in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And we cannot rule out that that will also be a need for this kind of military presence also in the future.

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Okay, we'll take one very last and very quick question online from Lailuma Sadid from Brussels Morning.

Lailuma Sadid (Brussels Morning): Secretary General, you said in 20 years there is no [inaudible] from Afghanistan. Who can make guarantee, any attack will not [be] organized for the future because the Taliban couldn't cut their ties with al-Qaeda and also with Haqqani Network.

And second, there are daily reports about the killings of the Afghan ANDSF members at the hands of the Taliban. So you had provided enduring support for them. Isn’t it NATO failed on that? And thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General: So NATO will continue to hold the Taliban regime accountable for what they have promised, including on human rights, on safe passage. And we continue to get people out of Afghanistan. And of course, we continue also to communicate very clearly that we expect them to respect what they have promised.
And I think, we also need to understand that we also have been… NATO Allies have also imposed sanctions. And this is a way to make sure that they live up to their commitments, including on human rights. But there is no doubt that the return of Taliban was a serious setback. And it was heart-breaking for all of us who have supported Afghanistan for decades. And it's a tragedy for Afghan people.

But my message was that the core, the main reason for NATO going in was to fight the international terrorism.  And that gain, the aim is actually to preserve, partly by holding Taliban accountable, partly by also being ready to strike from distance, over the horizon, if needed. And NATO Allies have those capabilities, if needed.

So we will continue to work hard to prevent Afghanistan once again being a safe haven, a platform where terrorist organizations can plan, organize, train, finance, big terrorist attacks against our own countries.

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson): Thank you very much. This concludes this press conference. Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: Thank you so much.