by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the second day of the Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence
NATO Allies continue their strong diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the serious crisis triggered by Russia’s military build-up in and around Ukraine.
Despite Moscow’s claims, we have seen no sign of withdrawal or de-escalation so far.
On the contrary, Russia’s build-up appears to continue.
We continue to monitor developments very closely.
We call on Russia to do what it says, and withdraw its forces from the borders of Ukraine.
This will be an important first step towards a peaceful political solution.
Today, we met with our close partners Ukraine and Georgia.
We addressed the continued threat of Russian aggression.
The deteriorating security situation in the Black Sea region.
And NATO’s strong political and practical support for both countries.
NATO and Allies are helping Ukraine boost its ability to defend itself.
Self-defence is a right enshrined in the UN Charter.
And Allies are helping Ukraine to uphold that right.
Including with trainers and military equipment for the Ukrainian armed forces.
Cyber and intelligence expertise.
And with significant financial support.
We also discussed the presence of Russian forces in the Georgian regions of Abhkazia and South Ossetia.
And the vote of the Russian Duma recommending the recognition of the non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.
We all agree that would be a further blatant violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
And of the Minsk agreements, undermining the efforts to find a political solution in the Normandy format.
Today, Allies confirmed that NATO’s door remains open.
Any decision on NATO membership is for NATO Allies and aspirant countries to take.
The right of each nation to choose its own path is absolutely fundamental for European and transatlantic security.
And it must be respected.
NATO Allies restated their strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both Georgia and Ukraine.
We cannot accept a return to an age of spheres of influence.
Where big powers bully, intimidate, or dictate to others.
There can be no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine.
And no decisions about Georgia without Georgia.
We agreed that in times of tension, dialogue is even more important.
NATO remains open to engaging with Russia in good faith.
Allies are ready to sit down with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council.
Address a wide range of issues.
And find common ground.
In the final session of our ministerial, we met with our close partners Finland, Sweden and the European Union.
We share the same values.
We face the same challenges.
And the crisis in and around Ukraine affects us all.
So we agree that it is even more important now that we continue to work together.
And complement each other’s efforts to bring this crisis to a peaceful resolution.
With that, I am ready to take your questions.
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NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu: We'll go to the Wall Street Journal.
Dan Michaels (The Wall Street Journal): Thank you very much. Dan Michaels with the Wall Street Journal. Are you concerned, Mr. Secretary General, about reports today out of Russia about hostilities around Donbass firing and possible incursions could be used as a pretext for Russia to attack?
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage as a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine. It is still no clarity, no certainty about Russia’s intensions, we don't know what will happen, but what we do know is that Russia has amassed the biggest force we have seen in Europe for decades, in and around Ukraine. And we also know that there are many Russian intelligence officers operating in Ukraine. They are present in Donbass, and we have seen attempts to stage a pretext, the false flag operations, to provide an excuse for invading Ukraine.
So of course this is of concern. I cannot go into the details of different reports, but this is the reason why we are so closely monitoring what is going on and also why NATO, NATO allies, have exposed the Russian actions, the Russian plans and the Russian efforts when it comes to disinformation. Because we believe that that makes it harder for them to act, harder for them to invade Ukraine and we continue to call on Russia to de-escalate, to withdraw forces and to engage in a political dialogue with NATO allies
NATO Spokesperson: We will go to the BBC.
Jonathan Beale (BBC): Thank you, Secretary General. You have accused Russia of disinformation. I just wonder whether they could make the same charges at the NATO alliance. There were predictions for example, that there might be an invasion on the 16th which never happened. Russia has always said it is not intending to invade Ukraine, accepting that they have more than 100,000 troops. Also, you're saying, we're not clear as to how many troops there are, are there 100,000, more than 100,000, 130,000, 150,000 is the other figure. So I just wonder is there a danger that in accusing Russia of disinformation, they can just turn to you and say, you've put out disinformation about coups that haven’t happened, about false flag operations that hadn't happened? How would you respond to that?
NATO Secretary General: Partly, by just referring to that what we have described are facts on the ground. And of course, we have shared intelligence, we have shared information we have collected, but this is also information which is now available for everyone. It is something you can monitor by commercial satellites, so actually; now no one is trying to deny the fact that Russia has a large force on the border of Ukraine. That's publicly available information.
What nobody knows, and we have been clear about that the whole time, is that we know their capacity, we know the forces they have amassed, but of course, we do not know with certainty their intentions. But if we combine what we know about their forces, what we know about their threatening rhetoric, they have stated clearly that if we don't meet their demands there will be Military Technical consequences, and we know the track record of Russia. They have used force against Ukraine before. If you combine that, and on top of that also put the fact that they have a lot of intelligence officers operating inside Ukraine, If you combine all of that there is reason to be seriously concerned.
That is the reason why we are conveying so clearly that if they use force, it will have a high cost for Russia. That is why NATO Allies brought support for Ukraine so they can defend themselves, and why we have increased our presence on NATO troops in the East. All of this we do to try to prevent an attack on Ukraine. So the fact that we are describing risk doesn’t mean that we believe it… [inaudible]
So, the main story, the main message has been the same from NATO for months. When NATO Allies started in the fall and last autumn to describe the buildup, that was questioned. We also described the most likely plans; that they had reached more than 100.000 troops, that was questioned. That has now happened. And now we need to prevent the next from happening, that they're using this force against Ukraine and that's exactly why we are doing all the things we are doing in calling Russia to de-escalate and also sending a clear message about the high cost they to have to pay if they use force again.
NATO Spokesperson: Okay, we will go to the National News Agency of Ukraine.
Dmytro Shkurko (National News Agency of Ukraine): Secretary General, according to the publicly available information coming from Ukraine, Russian troops are not withdrawing from Belarus, but just maneuvering along the borders of Ukraine. So my question is, does NATO share the Ukraine concern that those troops could be staying in Belarus for constant base? And what would be reaction of NATO if that happens, thanks.
NATO Secretary General: What we have seen over many years now, is a deterioration of the European security environment. With the illegal annexation of Crimea, with Russia’s support to the separatists in Donbass and now with the large number of combat ready troops in and around Ukraine. Also of course, closer and closer integration of Russia and Russian forces. So that's exactly why we have reacted in the way we have in NATO.
We have strengthened our presence in the east, with a modest presence, with a defensive presence, with the battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance, in the Baltic countries and Poland. And that is also the reason why we are now, in light of what has happened in and around the Ukraine and the presence of Russian troops in Belarus, that we are now considering the next steps, including battlegroups in Romania and in the Southeast of the Alliance. NATO has to respond when we see aggressive actions by Russia, but we continue to strive for dialogue, for de-escalation, and we believe it is important to talk. NATO believes in diplomacy, we believe in in dialogue, and therefore we continue to call on Russia to engage in good faith in dialogue with NATO.
NATO Spokesperson: We will go to Imedi.
Ketevan Kardava (TV Imedi): Thank you so much. Mr. Secretary General, can you tell us more about the meeting with the defense minister from Georgia, we're waiting also, NATO Georgia exercises in March. And the second point, Mr. Zelensky today said Ukraine is welcome to NATO, yet not all members of the alliance. How would you respond to that? Thank you so much.
NATO Secretary General: We had a good meeting with both the defense minister from Georgia and Ukraine. In that meeting, Allies expressed very strongly their support to both countries, their territorial integrity and sovereignty. And Allies provide support to Georgia and Ukraine in different ways. We do it in the NATO framework, we provide bilateral support, training, capacity building and there will be an exercise in Georgia later on this year. And of course, NATO will be part of that because it's an exercise we do together and demonstrates in a way how we are working closely together. The Black Sea region is of strategic importance for NATO. So what happens there matters for us. We are three littoral States, NATO allies that are Black Sea littoral states, and we have two very close partners Georgia and Ukraine. So to work closely with them is important for us, important for the partners, and that was also clearly confirmed today.
[Inaudible follow up question].
Our position has not changed. The decisions made at the Bucharest summit still stand, but the focus now is on reform, to help both Ukraine and Georgia to modernize their defense and security institutions and we continue to focus on that.
NATO Spokesperson: Reuters?
Phil Stewart (Reuters): Hi, there, Phil Stewart from Reuters, Belarus’s President said today his country could host nuclear weapons if it feels threatened by the West. What would be your response?
NATO Secretary General: NATO is not a threat. NATO is a defensive alliance and we approved for more than seventy years that we are there to protect and defend. And our deterrence is not to provoke a conflict but to prevent a conflict.
We are of course concerned about what we see that Russia is modernizing its nuclear capable missiles. They have deployed them to Kaliningrad, we have seen also Iskander missiles in Belarus and Iskander missiles are dual capable missiles that can also carry nuclear warheads. That is a part of the pattern we see, and the reason why we are concerned and why we have been concerned for over a long period of time, because this is a development, a pattern, that has taken place over several years.
One of the most important agreements NATO Allies have reached and made with Russia was the INF Treaty, banning all intermediate range weapons globally, but also in Europe, and Russia deployed new missiles violating that treaty. And of course, that has undermined the security of all of us so we are taking the necessary decisions and steps to be able to protect all Allies in a more dangerous and unpredictable security environment, including caused by the Russian nuclear investments and modernizing capabilities.
Alexandra von Nahmen (Deutsche Welle): Thank you, Secretary General, could you tell us what has to happen on the ground so that NATO can state those are real signs of de-escalation? And second question, Russia is apparently about to hand over their response to the US proposals. Are you also expecting them to send a response to your proposal as well? Thank you.
NATO Secretary General: We are waiting for the response from Russia. We received from Russia in December a draft, security treaty that Russia wanted to sign with NATO. We met in the NATO Russia Council, where this proposal was discussed. We have sent to Russia our proposals where we actually list and go through areas like arms control, missiles, transparent military activities, and we believe that these are topics where there is room for common ground to find solutions that will improve the security of all of us, for NATO allies and for the people Russia. Arms control is good for all of us. It will strengthen the security for Russia and for NATO allies. So the reason why we have conveyed these proposals is that we believe that if we sit down in good faith, as we've done in the past, we can actually reach agreements which are strengthening the security of all countries including of course, Russia.
We are waiting for the response. We have not yet received any response. But I continue to believe that the NATO Russia council, that was established by Russia and NATO allies, is the best platform to engage when NATO and Russia have issues to discuss. The NATO Russia Council is an all weather institution. It's even more important that we meet now, when tensions are high and things are difficult, and therefore we are ready to meet. I invited Russia to a series of meetings in the NATO Russia Council to address their concerns, our concerns, and to try to find a common way forward. Then, your first question was?
[Inaudible journalist repeating question].
We have to see a real withdrawal. Of course you have to understand that this is a buildup that has taken place over many months. Over the whole period, it actually started last spring, we have seen the number of troops going a bit up and down. And we have seen some forces moving in and some moving out. But the trend, the net effect, has been a steady increase. You know the fact that you're putting a battletank on a train and move it in some direction, doesn't prove withdrawal of troops. That is not not the same as real de-escalation because these capabilities are moving around all the time, in and out. It has to be a meaningful withdrawal and a meaningful de-escalation. That is what we are waiting for. So far, we have not seen that, but of course, this can change. And that's exactly what we are hoping and working for, that we see that Russia actually does what they are saying, that we see a real significant, meaningful reduction of other Russian troops in and around Ukraine.
NATO Spokesperson: Okay, we'll try to take two quick questions online. Fox News, Greg Palkot.
Greg Palkot (FOX News): Thank you Oana, and thank you, Mr. Secretary General. From the latest information that you are receiving, all the reports on the Russian troop movements, does Russia have enough troops, have enough hardware, on its borders with Ukraine to stage an invasion now? And if so, what could that invasion look like?
NATO Secretary General: They have enough troops and enough capabilities to launch a full fledge invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning time. That is what makes the situation so dangerous. We know about their capabilities, but of course we don't know with certainty about their intentions. It remains to be seen what they actually do. But you have so many combat ready troops in and around Ukraine, it's not a normal exercise, it’s not a normal, in a way, activity on your own territory. This is something, which is threatening an independent sovereign nation, and they can launch an attack with extremely, with hardly any warning time at all and that is the danger. That is the reason why we continue to call on them to de-escalate. It is never too late to de-escalate. It is never too late to find a political solution and we are ready to sit down and address their concerns and find common ground for a political solution.
NATO Spokesperson: For the last question, we will go to Financial Times and John Paul Rathbun.
John Paul Rathbone (Financial Times): Thanks very much for this. Secretary General, I am just wondering what would happen, if we are heading for a situation not of war or peace but of sustained pressure, what does that mean for NATO and its allies, especially in terms of sanctions and what might trigger? Thank you.
NATO Secretary General: Regrettably, I think what we are seeing now is a kind of new normal for European security. Because we have seen this trend over many years. Where Russia contest fundamental principles for European security and where they're willing to use force as I've done against Ukraine, Georgia, but also to threaten with the use of force to intimidate countries in in Europe.
We have seen this development over some time, especially since 2014. And that's the reason why NATO has responded, because we don't have any choice than to make sure that we continue to preserve peace and continue to prevent any room for miscalculation, misunderstanding about our ability to defend and protect all Allies. So we have increased our presence in the eastern part of alliances. We have decided at this defense ministerial meeting, that we have asked our military commanders to look into advice on the next steps for a more longer term increased presence in the eastern part of the Alliance, including with battlegroups in Romania and other countries in the east, central and southeast of the Alliance. So for me, this just underlines the importance of NATO's dual track. We need to be strong, we need to be united, we need to be firm but at the same time, we are always ready to find a peaceful diplomatic solution through dialogue. NATO believes in dialogue. We believe in diplomacy and we are ready to engage in good faith with Russia on that tomorrow.
NATO Spokesperson: Thank you very much. This concludes this press conference.