Monthly press conference
by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Over the past few weeks, I have visited many of our Allies in Central and Eastern Europe. This year, they are marking significant anniversaries of their accession to NATO. Together, we have gone a long way towards our goal: a Europe whole, free and at peace.
But today it's clear that we cannot take what we have achieved for granted. Because Russia's aggression against Ukraine has posed a challenge to a fundamental principle: the right of sovereign states to choose their own path. Russia has committed to this precept many times, but we see that President Putin now refuses to uphold this promise.
On May 25th, Ukraine will hold presidential elections. This is an important opportunity to find a peaceful way forward for a united Ukraine. This is when people across the country, regardless of the language they speak, have the chance to make their free and democratic choice, in line with national law and international standards. This is the vote that counts – for Ukraine and for the international community.
Any effort to delay or disrupt the elections would be an attempt to deny the Ukrainian people their choice. And a further step back for efforts to find a genuine political solution to the crisis.
We see a completely new security situation in Europe. It is less predictable and more dangerous. For NATO, this has implications now and for the future.
We have already taken immediate measures: more planes in the air, more ships at sea, and more exercises on the ground. We have deployed AWACS surveillance planes over Poland and Romania and we have reinforced our air policing mission in the Baltic region. I have seen them in action, and they are doing a remarkable job. Allies have reinforced our naval presence from the Baltic to the Black Sea. And deployed troops to participate in training and exercises.
Right now, around 6,000 troops from across NATO are taking part in exercise Steadfast Javelin in Estonia. This is a significant exercise, aiming to test our ability to repel an attack against an Ally. It includes infantry, fighter jets and also a cyber security team. This exercise was planned long before the current crisis. But it is a good example of the steps we are taking to bolster our forces and their readiness.
Let me stress: all these measures are entirely defensive, and entirely in line with NATO's commitments.
And we will continue to do what is necessary, for as long as necessary. In early June, NATO defence ministers will meet here in Brussels to pave the way for our Wales Summit in September. And we will discuss further steps to reinforce our collective defence.
Our commitment to defend and protect our Allies is rock solid.
So we are looking to strengthen our ability to respond quickly to any threat, including where we have little warning. We are reviewing and updating our defence plans to take into account a more unpredictable security environment.
And we are considering how we can build on our Connected Forces Initiative to make our exercises more frequent and more demanding. We must exercise all scenarios, including collective defence. And we must rehearse reinforcement.
To maintain credible defence and deterrence, we need credible capabilities. Certainly, capabilities cost money. But our security is the foundation for our prosperity. So we must continue to look at how much we spend on defence, and how we spend it. This is an ongoing process, and we are seeing encouraging efforts to start reversing the trend in declining defence budgets, and we see greater multinational cooperation. It is not easy, but more than ever, it is vital. NATO is based on solidarity: all for one, and one for all. NATO keeps every Ally safe. And every Ally must play their full part in contributing to our shared security.
And with that, I'm ready to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Go to Financial Times first.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary General. Peter Spiegel from The Financial Times. Two questions, if you permit me, one short-term and one sort of more medium- to long-term.
The short-term question is we've heard President Putin again today declare that he wants forces that have been arrayed along the Ukrainian border to return to base. We've heard this multiple times before, and both NATO and the US have provided satellite imagery and other intelligence to show this hasn't happened.
Do you have any evidence today that this has happened yet? And should we still believe Vladimir Putin when he makes these declarations?
And any… any… more medium-term, if I could, the Ukrainians have repeatedly requested military assistance in the form of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Do you have a view as to whether it's advisable for NATO members to provide that assistance? Thank you.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: First, on the Putin statement, unfortunately, I have to say that we haven't seen any evidence at all that the Russians have started withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian borders.
Now, I think it's the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven't seen any withdrawal at all. I strongly regret that because a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.
And I mean, there's no reason whatsoever why the Russians should mass military forces to that… at that scale along Ukrainian borders.
If we one day see clear evidence of a meaningful Russian withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian borders, I would be the very first to welcome it because it would be a step in the right direction. But again, we haven't seen any evidence of a Russian withdrawal of troops.
On our cooperation with Ukraine, first of all, let me stress that, as NATO doesn't possess military capabilities, it is for individual Allies to decide whether they will deliver military equipment to any country. And it remains a national decision.
And I don't think nations need recommendations from my side in… in that respect. I have full confidence that each individual Ally will take decisions that will contribute to stabilizing the situation in Ukraine and the neighbourhood.
MODERATOR: Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: You spoke about the apparent policing and about (inaudible)… Black Sea involvement. I was wondering if there's any sort of consideration being given to the shipping of ground (inaudible)… permanent basing for temporary deployment aside from exercises. Is there any movement or thought in that direction?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: These are indeed questions that are under consideration for the time being. I think the NATO summit in… in Wales should adopt a readiness action plan, a plan that will improve our readiness and responsiveness, taking into account the dramatically changed security situation in… in Europe.
And in that respect, a number of elements should be included in our considerations, such as an update of existing defence plans, development of new defence plans, enhanced exercises, and also appropriate deployment.
It's a bit too early to go into details what that might entail. But of course that would also very much depend on the evolving security situation. So in conclusion, all options are on the table.
MODERATOR: NPR CBS. (Inaudible)…
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary General, have you reached out to the Russians at all? Have you tried to make any contact with Russian officials? And what do you think, at this point, the prospects are for any kind of resumption of cooperation within the NRC? You have not completely ruled out all… all… all contacts. What's the status of that right now?
There are some, including the Deputy Secretary General, who said maybe lessons should be drawn from having gone back to business as usual after Georgia a little bit too soon. Can… can you give us an… an update on… on those contacts? Thanks.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: As you know, we have taken a two-track decision. On the one hand, we have suspended all practical cooperation with Russia. On the other hand, we have also decided to keep open the channel for political and diplomatic dialogue within the NATO-Russia Council.
We had a meeting in the NATO-Russia Council on the 5th of March, after the crisis started. And actually, we have suggested a new meeting in the NATO-Russia Council maybe to be held next week. But so far we haven't heard from the Russians. So we are open to a political dialogue.
MODERATOR: Georgian TV.
MODERATOR: You need to pick up the microphone. It's right next to you. That's it.
QUESTION: Georgian Public Broadcaster. Mr. Secretary General, two days ago I read in the Romanian press your interview, and the articles says that Rasmussen says that he had no doubt that Russia will increase pressure on Moldova as well as possibly on Georgia. The signing of this association agreement is coming. This topic is crucial for us. Can you specify for us what do you mean?
And the second question, Georgian Defence Minister asks NATO to instal air defences and other military systems in Georgia. You said in Bratislava that the organization NATO has no such equipment, and it's a matter of negotiation with individual country… countries. But still, what is your position about it?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: First, on… on pressure, yeah, I have based my assessment on our experience. We… we have seen… we have seen Russia put a lot of pressure on countries in their near neighbourhood as they are approaching the European Union for progress on the association agreement.
We saw it in the run-up to the Vilnius Summit in November. So that's why it is my assessment that we will see the same as Moldova and Georgia are going to finalize these agreements with the European Union.
Of course we don't know exactly which instrument the Russians might use. But again, based on previous experience, that might include gas prices, gas supply, trade restrictions, and also attempts to further destabilize the situation in those countries through exploitation of the protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Apatia (ph), South Ossetia.
So I think only imagination sets limits to what the Russians might use of tools when it comes to preventing countries in their near neighbourhood to seek Euro-Atlantic integration.
Now, on practical defence cooperation, as… as far as NATO is concerned, we work with Georgia within the NATO-Georgia Commission, and that work also includes practical, military-to-military cooperation. When it comes to more concrete delivery or establishment of military capabilities, it is for individual Allies to make those decisions and engage with Georgia in… in that respect.
MODERATOR: Nawab Khan, Kuna
QUESTION: Nawab Khan (ph) from the Kuwait News Agency. To another region, Mr. Secretary General, to the situation in Libya, which, as you know, has been deteriorating in the last few days. So is NATO going to offer any kind of cooperation to the Libyan authorities to restore calm and… and security?
And my second question is on Syria, where, as you know, there are going to be elections held next month. So do you think these elections will contribute to solving the crisis or make it more complicated? Thank you, sir.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: First of all, let me express my… my grave concerns about the security situation in Libya. And I… I urge all parties to… to refrain from violence and engage in a constructive, national, political dialogue leading to free and fair elections based on a new constitution to ensure fully-fledged legitimacy of the future government of Libya.
You asked me if NATO stands ready to offer assistance to… to Libya. Actually, last year we received a request from the Libyan authorities, a request for NATO assistance to help develop their security sector. We responded positively.
Unfortunately, we have had some difficulties in engaging with the Libyan authorities, also because of instability and lack of security in Libya. But once the Libyan authorities are ready to engage with us in a way that also ensures a safe environment for our assistance, we are ready to assist Libya to develop their security sector, as requested.
On… on Syria, as I have stated previously, the only way forward in Syria is to find a political solution to… to the crisis. To the extent that elections that are organized are free, fair, transparent, and produce an outcome that is considered a true reflection of the will of the Syrian people, I think elections could contribute to a political solution.
But there are many ifs, and the great if, of course, is whether these elections will be considered legitimate by a majority of the Libyan population. If not, then of course the elections cannot contribute to a political solution.
QUESTION: RIA Novosti I've got a question about the Ukraine. Don't you think that the ongoing security operation in the eastern Ukraine can disturb the whole, you know, the presidential elections? And don't you call the Ukraine government to show restraint? Thank you.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: Of course the lack of stability in the east is a matter of concern. And obviously there is a clear relationship that instability in the eastern regions will make it difficult to conduct elections in that part of the country in an orderly manner.
And that's exactly why we urge the… the armed pro-Russian separatist groups to stop their illegal activities and allow presidential elections to go forward in an orderly manner.
In that respect, I also think Russia could play a much more constructive role, living up to their Geneva commitments, and stop their support for these armed groups.
I think Russia should demonstrate a clear will to let the presidential elections go forward in such a manner that they can produce a result that is considered by the Ukrainian people to be a true reflection of the will of the Ukrainian people. This… I mean, the presidential elections constitute the best chance to find a credible and sustainable political solution to the crisis in Ukraine.
QUESTION: Anja Slojewska, Rzeczpospolita, PolandSecretary General, you have mentioned that you have visited some central and eastern European countries in… in last weeks, and I have a question, because there is a… we can see a divergence of views on… on… on the… I would say on the level of Russian threat. This divergence of views between, in general, the western European and the eastern European countries, we can see it in NATO and in the EU.
As you've been there, do you see this… this view there in… in… in eastern European countries in the centre eastern European Allies as a bit exaggerated, how they see the threat? And do you think this… this divergence of views makes the united and decisive action by NATO more difficult?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: First of all, let me stress that all decisions in NATO are taken by consensus. So per definition, we move together, and all decisions are based on an agreement among all 28 Allies. And so far, you have seen a clear demonstration of unity within our Alliance when it comes to a number of immediate steps we have taken to reinforce collective defences.
So you haven't seen any splits within our Alliance. We move in a unified manner. That's my… my first point.
Secondly, you asked me whether the concerns expressed by eastern European Allies are exaggerated. Definitely not. I mean, what we have seen in… in Ukraine is outrageous. We have seen illegal Russian military actions in Crimea. We have seen an illegal annexation of Crimea. There's no doubt that Russia is deeply involved in the destabilization of the situation in eastern Ukraine.
We have seen the Russian doctrine that they preserve the right to intervene in other countries to do what they call protect the interests of Russian-speaking communities. For many very obvious reasons, our eastern Allies are gravely concerned by that Russian behaviour.
So their concerns are definitely not exaggerated, and they should be taken seriously. And I think their concerns are being taken seriously. And… and this is the reason why we have taken immediate steps to reinforce collective defence, and that's the reason why we are now considering further steps, more long-term measures, to reinforce collective defence.
And I think all Allies are listening carefully to the concerns expressed by our eastern Allies. And we should.
MODERATOR: We have time just for a couple more questions. We have two at the front and two from the Japanese media at the back. We'll start with Bruxelles2. You just need to pick up the microphone from next to your seat, Nicolas.
QUESTION: Nicolas Gros-Verhyde, Bruxelles2 and Ouest-France. One question, do you go the 6th of June to the Beach of Normandy for the anniversary of the… of the.. of the Second War? And do you have some maybe intention to… to have a meeting with Vladimir Putin?
And the second question, this is more for your future. Do you have… do you think your future after the General Secretary for NATO is at European Union, and what post could be current or very good for you?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: First, on the Normandy commemoration, no, it's not foreseen that I will go to participate in… in the Normandy commemoration, which, in my opinion, is not NATO business anyway. It's for individual Allies and partners to commemorate together.
On… on my personal future, actually, I haven't started reflections or planning of that for the very reason that I'm very much focused on my tasks at hand, the NATO Summit in September and of course the ongoing Ukraine crisis. And I know from the way I used to work that, if I already now started planning for post-September, my attention would more or less start being directed towards that. And I want to focus 100 percent on the current crisis as well as the NATO Summit in September. So something will show up after September, I'm sure.
QUESTION: Sorry, Adrian Croft from Reuters, Secretary General. Two questions, if I may. I… I know that NATO officials have been involved in a number of talks with the Ukrainians about energy safety and security. Could you tell us what… what role you envisage for NATO in helping Ukraine with energy security?
And the… the second one was in connection with the Spiegel report yesterday where you said that NATO military planners said it would be difficult to defend the Baltics by conventional means. I wondered… wasn't sure what conventional meant, but I wondered whether, in light of the Ukraine crisis, you're reconsidering the… your 1997 commitment not to place nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states. Thank you.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: First, on the Ukraine and energy security, yes, we… we have, on… upon Ukrainian request, sent a small team of civilian experts to… to Ukraine to… to assist the Ukrainians in improving security of their civilian nuclear plants.
On… the defence of eastern Allies, including our Baltic Allies, first of all, let me stress that we never comment on defence plans or alleged leaks. But rest assured that we have all plans in place to ensure effective defence and protection of all Allies against any threat, and we have all the means to do it.
But having said that, it's also clear that the illegal Russian military actions in Ukraine have created a completely new security situation in Europe. For more than 20 years, we have based our defence planning on the assumption that there would be no imminent threat from Russia.
But now we have seen the Russian doctrine that Russia preserves the right to intervene in other countries to protect the interests of Russian communities, and we have seen their actions in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, and learned that this doctrine is not just words; it can easily be transformed into action.
We have seen the Russian military doctrine that NATO is considered an adverse… an adversary. And I think we should take that seriously. It's not just words. So we have to adapt accordingly to review our defence plans, enhance our exercises, and also consider appropriate deployment.
On the latter, it's premature to go into details. We will continue our considerations in the run-up to the Wales Summit, and I would expect the NATO Summit in Wales to take decisions on the long-term measures.
And, as regards the very last question you asked me about the NATO-Russia Founding Act, at this stage I do not foresee any NATO request to change the content of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. But we would also expect Russia to live up to the basic principles of that joint document, the NATO-Russian Founding Act.
MODERATOR: What we're going to do is our two Japanese colleagues who have been waiting very patiently, we'll start there, and then we'll go there.
QUESTION: Mainichi, Saito.My name is Ito. Secretary General, I have one question. In recent interview, German Chancellor Ms. Merkel said something negative to increase defence budget because this problem cannot be solved by military. It's a little bit contradictory to your appeal. What do you think about it?
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: Well, I don't think we… we have a disagreement because I agree that there is no military solution to the crisis in… in Ukraine. The right way forward is a political and diplomatic solution, and… and we urge all parties involved to engage in a constructive dialogue to find a political solution, and, in that respect, also to let the presidential elections go forward in a manner that allow a result that really reflects the will of the Ukrainian people.
So that's clear. We are all for a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine. When I speak about the need for increased defence investments, I'm more speaking about the broader, long-term, strategic perspectives.
During the last five years, we have seen Russia increase its defence investments by around ten percent per year -- ten percent per year. During the same period of time, we have seen drastic cuts -- drastic cuts -- in particular among European Allies. Some of them have cut their defence budgets by up to 40 percent.
And my point is this trend must be reversed. We can't continue that way. Taking the new security situation in Europe into account, European Allies must invest more in defence. I know very well it's not easy, taking into account that many governments are still struggling with their budgets and to cut deficits, and that's absolutely also important. But, while defence comes at a cost, it's… it's rather clear, and I think Ukraine… the Ukraine crisis has demonstrated it, that insecurity is much more expensive.
So I urge governments to fair… find ways and means to gradually reverse the trend, that is now stop the cuts, and then gradually increase defence investments, including through multiannual plans.
I had an opportunity to discuss this with some eastern Allies, and… and they have already taken decisions in that respect. Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, which I visited last week, they have taken decisions to gradually move towards the NATO two percent benchmark, and that sets a good example.
MODERATOR: Last question.
QUESTION: Juen Navata (ph) with Global News Japanese News Agency. Mr. Secretary General, I have a question… quick question on another region, Asia. Recently there is a strong tension concerning the South China Sea among Vietnam, Philippines, China. It's not totally parallel to the Ukraine crisis, and it's a little bit far from Europe, but it's also with regard to territory and sovereignty. So what… what do you see this situation? Thank you.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: While NATO of course, as an organization, is not involved in… in Asia or East Asia, obviously, for individual Allies, the situation in… in East Asia is a matter of… of concern. And we urge all nations in the region to seek peaceful solutions to disputes, and live up to their international commitments.
I think China has a particular responsibility as a major power, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. I think China has a particular responsibility to help upholding international law, rules, and norms, and I urge China to live up to those commitments also in dealing with China's neighbours when it comes to certain border disputes.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I'm sorry we couldn't take all questions today, but hopefully we'll see you at the NATO Defence Ministerial in just over two weeks from now. Thank you.