Press conference

by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previewing the extraordinary Summit of NATO Heads of State and Government

  • 23 Mar. 2022 -
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  • Last updated: 23 Mar. 2022 17:54

(As delivered)

Good afternoon.
NATO leaders will meet in Brussels tomorrow at a pivotal moment for our security.
And I look forward to welcoming President Zelensky who will address us during the meeting.

President Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is causing death and destruction every day.

Allies stand united.
In support for the brave people of Ukraine.
And against the Kremlin’s cruelty. 

Putin must end this war.
Allow aid and safe passage for civilians.
And engage in real diplomacy.
NATO Allies have responded to this crisis with strong support for Ukraine.
And unprecedented costs for Russia.

NATO has acted with speed and unity to protect and defend all Allies.

There are now hundreds of thousands of Allied troops at heightened readiness across the Alliance.
One hundred thousand US troops in Europe.
And 40,000 forces under direct NATO command, mostly in the eastern part of the alliance.
All backed by major air and naval power. 
Including five carrier strike groups in the High North and in the Mediterranean.

At the Summit tomorrow, we will make further decisions.

I expect leaders will agree to strengthen NATO’s posture in all domains.
With major increases to our forces in the eastern part of the Alliance.
On land, in the air, and at sea.

The first step is the deployment of four new NATO battlegroups.
In Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.
Along with our existing forces in the Baltic countries and Poland, this means that we will have eight multinational NATO battlegroups all along the eastern flank.
From the Baltic to the Black Sea.

We face a new reality for our security.
So we must reset our deterrence and defence for the longer-term.

Tomorrow, NATO leaders will reaffirm our support to Ukraine.
Ukraine has the right to self-defence under the UN Charter.
And we are helping Ukrainians to uphold this fundamental right.

Since 2014, Allies have trained Ukraine’s armed forces, and significantly strengthened their capabilities.
They are putting that training into practice now, on the front lines, with great bravery.

In the last months, Allies have stepped up military support.
Providing anti-tank and air defence systems, drones, fuel and ammunition.
As well as financial aid.
And hosting millions of refugees.

Tomorrow, I expect Allies will agree to provide additional support.

Including cybersecurity assistance.

As well as equipment to help Ukraine protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

President Putin’s invasion is brutal.
And the human suffering is horrifying and painful to witness.

We are determined to do all we can to support Ukraine.

But we have a responsibility to ensure that the war does not escalate beyond Ukraine, and become a conflict between NATO and Russia.

This would cause even more death and even more destruction.

I also expect we will agree to step up tailored support for other partners at risk from Russian pressure.
Including Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Working together, with the European Union, we must help them to uphold their sovereignty, and their right to make independent decisions.

We face a fundamentally changed security environment.
Where authoritarian powers are increasingly prepared to use force to get their way.

So I expect we will also address the role of China in this crisis.

Beijing has joined Moscow in questioning the right of independent nations to choose their own path.

China has provided Russia with political support, including by spreading blatant lies and disinformation.  
And Allies are concerned that China could provide material support for the Russian invasion.

I expect leaders will call on China to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the UN Security Council.
Refrain from supporting Russia’s war effort.
And join the rest of the world in calling for an immediate, peaceful end to this war.

We also call on Belarus to end its complicity in Putin’s invasion.

The decisions we take tomorrow will have far-reaching implications.
Major reinforcements to our security will require major investments in defence.

So I expect Allies will agree to redouble their efforts to invest more.
There is a new sense of urgency.
Because we cannot take peace for granted.

From the start of this crisis, Europe and North America have stood together, united in NATO.
And we remain united.
Opposing Russia’s aggression, supporting Ukraine, and protecting all Allies.

With that, I am ready to take your questions.

Natasha Bertrand (CNN): Mr Secretary General, Estonia has been calling for NATO to build up a permanent force in the region that is capable of stopping a Russian offensive, but the NATO-Russia Founding Act technically does not allow the Alliance to establish permanent military basing in so called new member states. And so I'm wondering if you believe that it's time to repeal the NATO-Russia Founding Act, given its invasion of Ukraine? And I'm also wondering, Estonia's defence chief had also said that NATO should get involved directly if Russia uses weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons, and I'm wondering if these kinds of red lines and how NATO would react if they were crossed, are going to be discussed?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: First of all, we have to remember that we, over the last weeks, have deployed a substantial number of combat-ready troops to the eastern part of the Alliance – unprecedented NATO presence in the Baltic region, including in Estonia. And I’ve been in Estonia myself and I've seen the NATO troops there. We have actually doubled the size of the NATO battlegroup, and we have doubled the number of battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance. So not only doubled the size but also doubled the number of battlegroups, close to 40,000 troops under direct NATO command and then on top of that, increased the presence by the United States and others within the bilateral arrangements. So in totality, this is a significant reinforcement of our presence in the east, including in Estonia, with air, sea and land forces. We are ready and we are there to protect and defend Allies, ready to respond massively to any potential threat or attack against any NATO Allied country. This has already happened. So this reinforcement has already taken place. And we will then also tomorrow make decisions and declare that we have deployed four more battlegroups to Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.

Then there is the need to also address the more long term consequences. So in addition to what we have already done, I expect also Allied leaders tomorrow to agree a tasking to our military commanders to look into the more longer term consequences for our deterrence and defence. There is a need to reset our deterrence and defence, and I expect that to be a substantial increase in our presence for the long term. And we will do what is necessary to ensure that we protect and defend all Allies and ensure that NATO provides credible deterrence and defence to all countries including Estonia.

Russia has walked away from the NATO-Russia Founding Act. They have violated it again and again. They violated it clearly back in 2014 when they illegally annexed Crimea and started to destabilise eastern Ukraine. And they have violated it when they moved into Georgia in 2008. And of course, the invasion of Ukraine now is a blatant violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

On chemical weapons: First of all, any use of chemical weapons would totally change the nature of the conflict. And it will be a blatant violation of international law and will have far reaching consequences. And I think that's the most important message to convey, that any use of chemical weapons is absolutely unacceptable, and will have far reaching consequences.

Andrea Mitchell (NBC): Secretary General, President Biden in leaving Washington just said that he believes that the use of chemical weapons by Russia in Ukraine is a real threat. You have just said that we cannot take peace for granted and there is no sign, certainly, that Vladimir Putin is taking diplomacy seriously. And here we have President Zelensky who will plead again with NATO for admission to NATO. If chemical weapons are used in Ukraine, how would it be morally acceptable for NATO to ignore President Zelensky’s plea for NATO admission?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: For NATO…?

Andrea Mitchell (NBC): For NATO admission, to ignore his plea to be admitted to NATO? Thanks.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: What we see in Ukraine now is really painful. It's horrific, and we see the brutal consequences of a full fledged invasion of a peaceful, independent sovereign nation. And that's also the reason why NATO Allies have stepped up support including with advanced air defence systems, anti-tank systems, different types of weapons, ammunition and we are providing unprecedented support to Ukraine. And this is actually… also comes on top of what we have done for many years, because NATO Allies have trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops since 2014. And they are now on the frontline fighting the invading forces. And it is first and foremost the courage of the Ukrainian forces and the Ukrainian people under the current leadership that has enabled them to resist and to fight back against the Russian invasion. But at the same time, the support they have received for many years has proven extremely important and critical. And I expect that when Allied leaders meet tomorrow, they will address how to further strengthen our support to Ukraine. NATO membership is not on the agenda. But support to Ukraine is absolutely on top of our agenda and will be one of the main issues to be addressed tomorrow.

Mark Stone (Sky News): Secretary General, thank you very much. Could you explain or could you outline how NATO defends itself against a nuclear attack? Because it's clear that on Russian state media, they are openly – propagandists, pundits, people close to the Kremlin – are now talking in pretty straight and stark terms about a nuclear attack. How does NATO defend itself against a nuclear attack? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Russia must stop its nuclear sabre-rattling. This is dangerous and it is irresponsible. NATO is there to protect and defend all Allies and we convey a very clear message to Russia that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought. And it just highlights the importance of ending the war in Ukraine because we need to do everything we can to prevent the war from escalating beyond Ukraine and becoming even more deadly and even more dangerous than what we see today. Any use of nuclear weapons will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict, and Russia must understand that a nuclear war should never been fought and they can never win a nuclear war. This is actually something that Russia has agreed to again and again. And the continued nuclear sabre-rattling from Russia, the nuclear rhetoric, is actually contradicting what they have stated in the UN and in other formats, agreeing that we should do whatever we can to prevent a nuclear conflict.

James Bays (Al Jazeera): Secretary General, staying with weapons of mass destruction. You said in your opening statement on chemical and biological weapons that you were thinking of equipment to protect Ukraine. Can you give us more details of what you're going to be proposing to the leaders tomorrow?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: So we have provided different types of support, also when it comes to different measures to protect against chemical weapons and I expect Allies to look into how they can step up and provide more equipment to protect and defend against chemical weapons. I don't think it's useful if I go into all the details, partly because Allies will discuss this tomorrow, but also partly because I think that when it comes to the details about exactly what kind of support we provide, it's actually not always the best thing to be too detailed about that. We provide support, we are stepping up our support, and we are concerned about the possibility of use of chemical weapons or biological weapons.

We also see not only the nuclear rhetoric from the Russian side, but also these false claims that Ukraine, supported by NATO Allies, are producing and preparing for the use of chemical weapons. This is an absolutely false accusation, but it may be a way for them to in a way try to create a pretext for their use of chemical weapons. Russia has used chemical agents before against their own opposition and also on NATO Allied territory in Salisbury. And Russia was, of course, part of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. They facilitated and supported the Assad regime, which has actually used chemical weapons several times. So we are concerned and that's also the reason why we are ready and we'll address tomorrow ways to provide support to Ukraine to protect themselves against the use of chemical weapons.

And let me add that of course this is extremely serious for the people of Ukraine. But any use of chemical weapons or biological weapons may also have dire consequences for NATO Allied countries, people living there – the contamination, the spread of chemical or biological agents used in Ukraine may have dire consequences also for the population living in NATO Allied countries in Europe. So it just underscores the seriousness of all our concerns.

Irina Somer (Interfax Ukraine): Secretary General, according to NATO and US officials, Belorussia is ready to send their troops into the war against Ukraine. What it will change for Ukrainians, and what it will change for NATO? And my second question is about coalition. Mass media already reported that Poland leadership are ready to put tomorrow for discussion a proposal to send a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine, they mentioned a NATO peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. But how about a coalition? Coming back to 2003, a coalition were created from three NATO Allies and one non-NATO country in Iraq. Do you think it will be a good solution to create a coalition of countries who wants to fight for Ukraine without NATO involvement? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: So first on Belarus. Belarus has been complicit to this invasion from the start, actually before the start, because Belarus allowed its territory to be used as a ground for mobilising and amassing troops that invaded Ukraine. And Belarus continues to enable the invasion by providing the territory, airfields, military infrastructure, bases, but also by allowing Russia to use Belarusian airspace to launch attacks every night, every day, against Ukrainian cities, again Ukrainian civilians, against the Ukrainian nation. So Ukraine, sorry Belarus, is already heavily involved in the way that it has been complicit and has supported the Russian invasion. And of course we call on Belarus to stop doing exactly that, and not be used by Russia to conduct this brutal war against a neighbour, Ukraine.

When it comes to forces – so NATO is not part of the conflict. We provide support to Ukraine, but we are not part of the conflict. We help Ukraine with upholding their right for self defence which is enshrined in the UN Charter. But NATO will not send troops into Ukraine. We have to understand that it is extremely important to provide support to Ukraine and we are stepping up, but at the same time it is also extremely important to prevent that this conflict becomes a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia. And therefore it has been a very clear message from NATO Allies that we will not send troops to Ukraine.

Beata Plomecka (Polske Radio): Secretary General, if I may ask again about enhancing the forward presence on the eastern flank. Is it the time to consider, or to decide, to enlarge the battalions that are in Baltic states and Poland into the brigade groups? And also follow up to the question concerning nuclear threats repeated again and again by Russia – is there any possibility for the leaders to prepare a kind of a plan, just in case? Thank you very much.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: First on the nuclear threat. NATO has plans in place to protect all Allies against any threat. But our main message is that Russia should stop this dangerous, irresponsible nuclear rhetoric. But let there be no doubt about our readiness to protect and defend Allies against any threat, any attack, and of course we have plans in place to do exactly that.

On the size: Well, first of all, before this invasion we had four battlegroups, battalion-sized. Now we have doubled the size of those battlegroups in Poland, in Lithuania, in Estonia and in Latvia. And then we have doubled the number of battlegroups with the new battlegroups in Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania which leaders will then announce tomorrow. And there are more… In Poland there are also additional troops from the US. I recently visited the Łask airbase, I met with US and other pilots. So there has been a significant increase of NATO Allies’, especially the United States, presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.

This is our immediate response, has already taken place. Then I think we need to separate that a bit from the more longer term adaptation of our Alliance. And we will spend some time now, from now until the summit in June, to make more fundamental decisions on our deterrence and defence. It's about resetting our deterrence and defence, especially in the east. And there I expect that a part of that will be a significant increase of our presence on the ground in the eastern part of the Alliance for the long term. So immediately we have done a lot. Then we will start the process of more long term changes in our deterrence and defence which will be lasting and most likely will then include also a significant increase of the size of the presence of the NATO multinational forces in the eastern part of the Alliance, including in Poland.

Ukrainian media: Secretary General, do you believe in the successful and fruitful summit tomorrow, taking on account the position of Hungary, as you know that they are going to block the main issues you will put on the table tomorrow concerning the help to Ukraine?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Well, I believe it will be an important summit tomorrow, an extraordinary NATO summit in an extraordinary security situation where we face the biggest security threat for generations, since actually the end of the Second World War. And therefore I believe this is an important meeting and I'm confident that Allies will agree on important issues, including on the importance of providing support to Ukraine, strengthening our own deterrence and defence, and also provide support to other partners which are now under pressure from Russia, for instance Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And I expect all Allies to agree, all 30.

Lili Bayer (POLITICO): Thank you very much, Secretary General. Some NATO Allies have expressed an interest in having you potentially stay on for an extra year in your current role, given the current situation. Would you be open to staying in your current job another year? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: This is for 30 Allies to decide. My focus is on preparing the summit tomorrow in the midst of the most serious security situation we have been in for decades. And that's my focus and then I leave it to the Allies to decide on the other things.

Lailuma Sadid (Brussels Morning): I'm sorry, I know this is a very tough situation. I would like to ask a question about Afghanistan, which has disappeared from meetings and also from the news unfortunately. Actually today millions of girls and women were waiting to open the schools and universities in Afghanistan, but unfortunately, it's not happened. And I believe the Taliban as a terrorist group, they never change because they didn't cut their tie with al Qaeda and also with Haqqani network. So in a country the woman all disappear from the society and also there is no women’s rights, human rights, and also freedom of expression and also liberty at home. They are killing, raping and also torturing and imprison the people in Afghanistan. Why is it acceptable and attractive for EU and also for NATO? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: I think it is very important that we don't forget Afghanistan. And it is especially important that we don't forget that education is a fundamental human right. And of course that also applies for girls, for women. And it was one of the biggest achievements over the last 20 years that millions of Afghan girls were able to attend school and to get education. Any attempt to deny girls in Afghanistan education will be a violation of what the Taliban has promised. And we have to hold them accountable for what they promised and their commitments, including on the right for education to women. Therefore I agree with the disappointment expressed by the United Nations and I also strongly believe that we must continue to support all Afghans who are working to uphold the right for human rights, for the freedom of speech, but including also the right for education for women.

Henry Foy (Financial Times):  Thank you so much. Secretary General, you mentioned China but do you personally consider China to be an ally of Russia in this conflict? And what would you like to see from NATO member states in terms of real actions that could pressure China into ceasing its support from Russia?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: So what we have seen is that China has not been able to condemn the invasion. They abstained in the UN General Assembly on the vote on the resolution clearly condemning the invasion. We have also seen that Chinese state authorities have spread some of the same lies about Ukraine and about NATO and in that way, probably the political support to Russia. And of course, for NATO, it is of particular concern that China now for the first time has questioned some of the key principles of our security, including the right for every nation in Europe to choose its own path. Because in the joint statement between President Xi and President Putin, they actually, together, stated that they are against any further enlargement of NATO and that is new. Partly that they work so closely together and partly that China joins Russia in trying to deny European nations the freedom to choose their own path. And therefore, we call on Russia, and I expect the leaders when they meet tomorrow, to call on China to condemn the invasion and to engage in diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful way to end this war as soon as possible and not providing material support.

Ukrainian State TV: Do you know about real Ukraine’s defence needs and do you have clear priorities on what Ukrainians need today? Do you know about the disappointment of Ukrainians in NATO now? And how do you explain your strategy to average people in Ukraine who are now under shelling in Kiev and another cities?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: What we see in Ukraine is horrific. It is painful, even for us to watch and of course it is even worse for those who are there. And the human suffering and the scale of violence is something we have not seen since the Second World War in Europe. NATO Allies are in close contact at different levels with Ukraine, with President Zelensky, with ministers. We had the Ukrainian Defence Minister participating in our defence ministerial last week. Tomorrow, President Zelensky will address the NATO Summit and as we all know, President Zelensky and other Ukraine officials are addressing different political bodies, in different countries across the Alliance, almost daily. And by doing that, and by having close contact at many different levels, we also are informed about the needs for different types of help, financial support, humanitarian support but also of course, military support. And Allies are stepping up with military, with financial, with humanitarian support.

Then, we are aware of, because this is something which President Zelensky and the Ukrainian officials have expressed several times to us that they are grateful for the support, but they want us to do even more. We are ready to step up in many ways but for instance, on the call for a no-fly zone, we have stated that we are not going to impose a no-fly zone because we believe that, that will most likely trigger a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia. A no-fly zone means that we need to take out Russian air defence systems in Russia, which are covering their airspace over Ukraine. And it means that we have to be ready to shoot down Russian planes. That will most likely lead to a full-fledged conflict. So we are in regular, almost daily, contact with Ukraine. Ukraine is a highly valued partner. We have worked with Ukraine for many years. I have been there many times myself, and it is horrific and really hard to watch. That is also reason why Allies have provided so much support but also have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia to ensure that this war ends.

Lorne Cook (AP): On the battle groups, please, for Hungary, Slovakia or Romania and Bulgaria. Could you give us a sense of when they are supposed to arrive? I imagine circumstances are urgent and how long they might stay? Is this something that we are looking at for several years or just until this conflict has died down? And within that there was a question I think Hungary didn't necessarily want other troops there. How is that going to work?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: These battlegroups are now actually there. We are increasing; they are becoming more and more integrated, and more and more operational. So the forces are, at last to the larger extent, already there. They are going to be NATO multinational battle groups. There will be of course, an important component of the national home defence forces who will be part of the battlegroup but then there will be other NATO Allies also contributing forces.

Again, this is part of our immediate reaction. So this is something which is happening now, together with all the other things we have done. Hundreds of thousands of NATO troops on heightened alert, roughly 100,000 US troops in Europe now; many of them in eastern part of the Alliance and that is significantly more than before the crisis. And then, around 40,000 NATO troops under direct NATO command and all of this is the immediate response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We will have that in place as long as necessary but in parallel with that we have started the process to reset for the long-term our deterrence and defence because it is already possible today to say that this invasion, this brutal war in Ukraine will have long term consequences for our security. It is a new normal for our security and NATO has to respond to that new reality. That more long-term process will take some more weeks but we can do that because we will have implemented a significant reinforcement of our presence in the East and in parallel of that, we are addressing more long-term changes, including most likely significant increased presence in the air, on land, at sea in eastern part of the Alliance.

Dan Michaels (Wall Street Journal): When you look at how successfully the Ukrainian troops have been able to hold back the Russians in many places, much to the surprise of the Russians apparently, partly thanks to training from NATO and NATO member states. Do you wish that over recent years NATO and its members had been able, actually, to do more? Do you feel that if more had been done, the situation could be different? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: First of all, I would like to commend the courage and the professionalism of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I have met them in Ukraine and we are all aware that compared to where they were back in 2014, this is a totally different force than eight years ago. The Ukrainian Armed Forces today is much bigger, much better equipped, much better trained, much better commanded. They have much better logistics than they had back in 2014. And of course, all of this combined with the courage, the high morale, is the reason why they are really able to push back and to stand up against the much bigger Russian invasion.

At the same time, I think you need to remember that Ukraine is a big nation. It is the biggest country in Europe, and more than 44 million people. So it is a significant nation with a strong army and defence force. Of course, it is important that NATO Allies have provided support for many years, especially the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, but also some other Allies. I believe it is important to understand that NATO has also provided support on logistics, on command, on modernising their security institutions. The transformation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been supported by both NATO as an institution and for instance, Yavoriv, the place that was attacked is a place where we conducted training and support for Ukrainians. I have been there myself, and seen how NATO Allies and NATO, for many years, have provided important support. Of course, it is always, in hindsight, possible to say that we should have gone even more. But first of all, I think the lesson learned is that support and help for many years have a significant impact as it had on the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And second, I think it is also a lesson to be learned about the importance of supporting other partners, which are under Russian pressure.

Natalia Drozdiak (Bloomberg): I just want to go back to the topic of chemical weapons. You mentioned last week, that there was a risk that Russia could try to do this under the cover of a false flag event. And today, you are talking about Allies sending protective equipment. What can you tell us about the threat? How has it evolved? Is it becoming more urgent or imminent? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: We are concerned because we see the rhetoric. We see the attempts by Russia to create this pretext and accuse us and Ukraine for preparing the use of chemical weapons. And we are concerned because we know that Russia has used chemical agents before and they have supported Assad and facilitated the use of chemical weapons in Syria. At the same time, we are also open about our concerns to decrease the likelihood for the use of chemical weapons because that will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict. It will be a blatant violation of international law, and it will have severe consequences in a way that it is important to convey to Russia so they don't use any chemical weapons in Ukraine, both because any use of chemical weapons will have devastating consequences for Ukraine, but it could also have severe consequences for neighbouring countries because any contamination or spread of chemical agents or biological agents will, of course, also potentially affect the neighbours.

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