Press conference

by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence in Brussels

  • 12 Oct. 2023 -
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  • Last updated: 13 Oct. 2023 14:50

(As delivered)

Good afternoon.

Defence Ministers met today to discuss:

Strengthening our deterrence and defence;
NATO missions and operations;
The damage to critical undersea infrastructure in the Baltic Sea;
And the situation in the Middle East.

First, Israeli Defence Minister Gallant briefed us on the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel. 
And on Israel’s ongoing response.

Allies strongly condemned Hamas’ indefensible attacks on civilians, and called for the immediate release of all hostages. 
Our thoughts are with all those affected by these horrific attacks. 

Israel has the right to defend itself.
And as the conflict unfolds, the protection of civilians is essential. 

No nation or organisation hostile to Israel should seek to take advantage of the situation, or to escalate the conflict. 

Today, a number of NATO Allies made clear that they are providing practical support to Israel.
And doing everything possible to provide for their affected citizens. 

Ministers also addressed NATO missions and operations, including in the Western Balkans and in Iraq.
The European Union joined us. 

In response to recent tensions in Kosovo, NATO has deployed hundreds of additional reserve forces to our KFOR operation in recent weeks. 
And we are conducting more patrols in the north of Kosovo.
These are prudent steps to ensure KFOR has the forces it needs to fulfil its UN mandate impartially.

Belgrade and Pristina must behave responsibly, refrain from destabilising actions, and re-engage in the EU-facilitated dialogue.
This is the only way to lasting peace in Kosovo.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO continues to support the EU-led operation Althea, which plays an important role in regional stability. 

In Iraq, our mission is expanding its support to Iraqi security institutions, to help prevent the return of ISIS.

Terrorism remains the most direct asymmetric threat to the Alliance.  

So today I can announce that Assistant Secretary General Tom Goffus will serve as my Special Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism. 

He will ensure that NATO’s response to terrorism remains strong, effective, and coherent. 

Defence Ministers also addressed our progress in strengthening NATO’s defences.

At the Vilnius Summit, we agreed the most robust defence plans since the Cold War. 

We are now taking the next steps. 

This means assigning the necessary forces, developing new capabilities, 
and adjusting our command and control structures.  

Russia’s war on Ukraine is a reminder of the important role NATO’s nuclear weapons play in deterring aggression.

Next week, NATO will hold its annual nuclear exercise, Steadfast Noon.

This is a routine training event that happens every October. 

This year, the training will take place over Italy, Croatia, and the Mediterranean Sea. 

Our exercise will help to ensure the credibility, effectiveness and security of our nuclear deterrent. 
And it sends a clear message that NATO will protect and defend all Allies.

Today, ministers also addressed the damage to critical undersea infrastructure in the Baltic Sea. 

Allies expressed strong solidarity with Estonia and Finland as they work to establish the facts.

NATO and Allies are sharing information to support that effort.

If this is proven to be a deliberate attack on critical infrastructure, it would be a serious incident.
And it would be met by a united and determined response. 

I raised with ministers the need to move forward on ratification of Swedish membership. And I'm glad that the Turkish defence minister confirmed that Türkiye stands by the agreement from Vilnius to finalize Swedish accession.

So I now expect that the Turkish government will submit the accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly and work with the Assembly to ensure speedy ratification. 

And with that I am ready to take your questions. 

NATO Acting Spokesperson Dylan White: Let’s start with the Associated Press in the middle of the room here, please.

Lorne Cook (Associated Press): Secretary General, you said… Lorne Cook from the Associated Press. You said in your opening remarks concerning Israel that no nation should try to take advantage. Do you… Is there concern among Allies that Russia indeed might be trying to use this and in what way do you fear that it may do that? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: The situation in the Middle East is now very challenging. And, of course, there is always the risk that nations and/or organisations hostile to Israel will take try to take advantage. And that includes, for instance, organisations like Hezbollah or a country like Iran. So this is a message to countries and organisations hostile to Israel that they should not try to utilise the situation. And the United States have deployed, or has deployed more military forces in the region, not least to deter any escalation or prevent any escalation of the situation.

NATO Acting Spokesperson: We’ll go to the gentleman in the second row here, please. In the front.

Mikael Holmström (Dagens Nyheter): Thank you, Mikael Holmström, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden. I have two questions on the regional defence plans. How big a problem is it that Sweden is not yet an Allied nation and cannot be included in the defence plan of northern Europe? And my second question is: how was this discussed today by the ministers? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: The Ministers expressed strong support for a speedy ratification of Swedish accession and I called on those Allies who have not yet ratified to do so as quickly as possible, the two Allies that have not yet ratified. So that was a very clear message from all those other Allies that have already ratified, meaning 29 out of the 31 Allies. And I also expressed that myself, and I also referred to the agreement in Vilnius where it was clearly stated that Türkiye was going to submit the accession papers and work with the parliament to ensure ratification. Therefore, I welcome that the defence minister of Türkiye stated clearly that Türkiye stands by the agreement in Vilnius, including the need to ensure ratification.

So this will continue to be my message. I have spoken… I spoke recently with President Erdoğan; I conveyed the same message and I will continue to convey that message on behalf of all those Allies that are calling for a speedy ratification to ensure that that happens as soon as possible. Then we have to understand that Sweden is already very much integrated into NATO, politically, but also militarily. And, of course, even though they are not formally a member and cannot be formally integrated into all our structures, the reality is that they participate in NATO meetings, the military structures, the civilian structures. And, of course, the fact that we have decided that Sweden has already been invited, has the status as an Invitee, also makes it possible to take more and more into account – when we do our planning, when we develop our capability targets – also the fact that Sweden will also be a member. So, of course, we would like to finalise this as soon as possible, but, at the same time, Sweden has come a very long way already on their way to become a full member of the Alliance.

NATO Acting Spokesperson: We’ll go to Sky, third row here please.

Adam Parsons (Sky): Thank you. Adam Parsons, from Sky News. Secretary General, you said yesterday that Israel's response had to be proportionate. Israel has today cut off all supplies of fuel, electricity and water to Gaza and its civilian population. So I want to ask: is that proportionate? If it is proportionate, where exactly is the limit? And if it is not proportionate, what can NATO do about that?

NATO Secretary General: Well, NATO as an Alliance is not directly involved. But of course, it was important for us to address the situation today and we were briefed by the Israeli defence minister. We saw a shocking video and, of course, the reports are shocking. And that's also the reason why Allies have so strongly condemned these horrific terrorist attacks against civilians in Israel and against Israel. As this conflict evolves, it is important to protect civilians and this was also clearly expressed by Allies. There are rules of war. There are the requests for proportionality. And this was highlighted by many Allies. And that's something they state at the same time as they very clearly condemn the brutal atrocities and the violence that Hamas has been responsible for.

NATO Acting Spokesperson: We’ll go to Lithuanian National Television here in the second row please.

Mindaugas Laukagalis (LRT): Mindaugas Laukagalis from Lithuanian National Radio and Television. I also have a question about regional plans. Germany today announced that they will contribute with 35,000 troops to strengthen NATO’s security. We understand this is connected to the regional plans. Have any other Allies announced their contribution to this matter? And in more general terms, how long the implementation of the NATO Summit in Vilnius decisions will take? And, if I may, other one, the other question very, very short one: what is NATO doing to improve the security of undersea critical infrastructure? Thank you.

NATO Secretary General: First on the undersea infrastructure, we have been working on that for many years, because it is obvious that gas pipelines, power cables, internet cables, these types of undersea infrastructure are of critical importance for our societies. So this has been an issue which has been high on the NATO agenda and part of our efforts related to resilience for many years and many things have been done to protect this critical infrastructure. Then of course, after the damage to the Nord Stream pipelines last year, we stepped up and significantly increased our presence in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. We have established a cell here at the NATO headquarters to better coordinate efforts by Allies, between Allies, and also to coordinate the efforts by the governments, the military authorities and the private and civilian sector. Because most of these critical undersea infrastructure is owned by private companies, operated by private companies and they have access to and control important capabilities that can help us with surveillance and also gathering information.

So the work we have done since last year, since the Nord Stream incident, is about strengthening coordination, enabling us to work more closely with the private sector. And also typically this infrastructure goes from one country, in this case Finland, to another country, Estonia, and therefore the need also to work across borders has become even more important. All of this has been done and we are in the process of stepping up. At the same time, I think we need to realise that undersea infrastructure is extremely vulnerable, because we speak about thousands of kilometres of cables or pipelines. And of course, there's no way to have military presence along all these pipelines and infrastructure all the time. So this is about sharing information. This is about intelligence. This is about deterrence, to increase the threshold and to reduce the risks against these types of undersea infrastructure. I have spoken with the Finnish President, I've spoken with the Estonian Prime Minister, we stay in close contact with them. But I think now we need to await the outcome of the ongoing investigations. It's too early to say exactly what caused this incident and whether it was an intentional attack. So yes, we are very much aware of the risks but it's too early to make any final assessment on how and why this happened.

Then briefly on the plans. We are now delivering as soon and as quickly as possible. We need to realise that these plans are not… They're partly about forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance, but they're also about the protection of the whole Alliance, the whole area of operation for SACEUR, in all directions. And not least they are about higher readiness of forces: roughly 300,000 troops on high readiness so we can quickly reinforce if needed, and Allies are constantly delivering on the capabilities needed to make these plans executable.

NATO Acting Spokesperson: We’ll go to ATV Kosovo in the third row please.

Flaka Vitaku (ATV): Flaka Vitaku, ATV Kosovo. So I have two questions. The first one how do you assess the current security situation in Kosovo? And how long will the mandate of NATO's mission KFOR in Kosovo last?

NATO Secretary General: Well, first of all, we have a very clear UN mandate. And of course we continue to follow up on that mandate, and there is no indication that that mandate will change. And NATO has a history, we have a responsibility – in the Western Balkans in general and in Kosovo in particular – and we take this very seriously. So we have now increased our presence with several hundred troops in Kosovo, with new battalions from Romania, from Bulgaria, and also the United Kingdom has also deployed more forces as part of the NATO presence in Kosovo. So this was one of the main items or issues discussed at the defence ministerial meeting.

There is a tense and difficult situation. We follow that very carefully. We have increased our presence especially in the north. And the main message is that both Pristina and Belgrade need to refrain from actions that can further escalate the situation or increase tensions and refrain from inflammatory rhetoric. And Pristina and Belgrade should engage in the EU-facilitated dialogue. I think that's also one of the important messages from the meeting today is that in Kosovo we see how NATO and the European Union are working hand in hand, the NATO military presence… the increased NATO military presence supports the diplomatic and political efforts of the European Union, and we had the European Union also present at the meeting. I think it's good to see that in a difficult and challenging situation in Kosovo and in the Western Balkans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, [NATO] and the European Union are actually working more closely together and have done for a long time and that's a good thing to see.

NATO Acting Spokesperson: I think we have time for one more, we’ll go to ZDF over here on my left please.

Anna Pettini (ZDF): Hi. ZDF, German TV. Could you please explain what was shown in the video that the Israeli minister brought and what was the reaction amongst the ministers?

NATO Secretary General: Well, there were horrific pictures from the attacks and the victims of the attacks over the weekend. And I think it has to be up to the Israelis to decide how much they reveal from those pictures. Some of these pictures have also been actually shown to the broader public. The main message was that it just confirmed the brutality of the attacks on innocent civilians. Young people were killed and of course it makes a strong impact on all of us when we see the pictures and the video describing the consequences of this horrific attack against Israel.

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

NATO Secretary General: Thank you so much.