by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council
I have just chaired a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. This is our third meeting this year. It was a long meeting but it was also a meeting with frank and open discussions on several important issues.
Our dialogue is not easy, but that is exactly why our dialogue is so important.
Today, we discussed three topics: Ukraine, Afghanistan, and transparency and risk reduction.
NATO Allies and Russia continue to have fundamental differences on the issue of Ukraine, how to solve the crisis in Ukraine.
This conflict continues to have a profound impact on the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic region, and it remains the primary reason for the current state of NATO-Russia relations. Improving the security situation in eastern Ukraine remains the priority in order to move towards the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, the situation remains fragile and violations of the ceasefire continue. Heavy weapons are still close to the conflict line.
And the access of OSCE monitors is still obstructed, including at the Russian-Ukrainian border. We welcome the ongoing diplomatic efforts to promote the implementation of the Minsk agreements by all sides.
We also had a frank exchange on the security situation in Afghanistan, including the regional terrorist threat.
Our analyses differ considerably.
But we all share the same interest in ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan. Russia provided a briefing on its policy in Afghanistan. And Allies set out NATO’s substantial efforts to strengthen the Afghan security forces.
It is important that everybody supports the National Unity Government. This is the best way to help fight terrorists in Afghanistan.
And achieve greater security and stability for the whole region.
We also discussed transparency and risk reduction. This remains a vital issue for the NATO-Russia Council. Last year we initiated a dialogue on air safety in the Baltic region.
Following that, an Expert Group led by Finland on Baltic Sea Air Safety was established. Their work so far is promising.
We have also made progress this year, by addressing both force posture and military exercises, including through reciprocal briefings.
Today, we exchanged information on recent exercises. Allies made clear that the scale and geographical scope of exercise ZAPAD 2017 significantly exceeded what Russia had previously announced.
At the same time, we agreed that the principle of reciprocal exercise briefings, including advance briefings, is useful. And I hope we will continue these exchanges in the next meetings of the NATO-Russia Council.
We also agreed that we can enhance transparency and predictability in the Euro-Atlantic area through contact among our senior military leaders.
We should build on these points of agreement to reduce risks of incidents and misunderstandings due to increased military activity in the region.
And with that I’m ready to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION (Wall Street Journal): Mr. Secretary General, did you learn anything more about the Zapad exercise? Did you present the Russian side with your assessment of the precise figures of the Zapad exercise? And North Korea was not on the agenda here, but you're going to the region, is there a role to play in a NATO-Russia dialogue on that particularly dangerous security matter right now? Should Europe or NATO in specific have a voice in that security matter?
JENS STOLTENBERG (Secretary General of NATO): Zapad was an important part of our discussion today and many NATO allies pointed at the fact that there's a discrepancy between what Russia briefed before the exercise, including the briefing they gave to the NATO-Russia Council some weeks ago, and the actual factual number and the scale and the scope of the exercise.
Allies pointed to the fact that the number of troops participating in the exercise significantly exceeded the number announced before the exercise, that the scenario was a different one, and that also the geographical scope of the exercise was much larger than previously announced. So this was one of the main messages from the NATO allies that there were discrepancies between what the Russians told us before and the actual exercise that took place.
So for me this is yet another argument for having these kinds of briefings and this kind of dialogue because that's a way both to receive briefings but also then to, after the exercises have taken place, ask questions and confront the different nations, or confront Russia with the discrepancies between the briefings and what allies saw took place during the exercise.
When it comes to North Korea, I'm travelling to South Korea and Japan next week. I expect the reckless behaviour of North Korea to be one of the main topics to be discussed both with the leadership, the political leadership in Japan and in South Korea. NATO strongly condemns the missile and nuclear programs of North Korea. We call on North Korea to abandon its missile and nuclear programs and to refrain from further testing.
Russia has of course a role to play when it comes to putting pressure on North Korea. Russia is a member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia is a neighbour of North Korea, and therefore Russia also has a role to play in making sure that for instance all the sanctions are fully implemented. The issue of North Korea was not discussed at the meeting today but of course NATO allies engaged directly with Russia in the U.N. framework because this is something which is discussed for instance in the U.N. Security Council.
MODERATOR: Deutsche Welle.
TERI SCHULTZ (National Public Radio and Deutsche Welle): Me or…?
MODERATOR: Yes, go.
QUESTION (Polish Press Agency): [Inaudible] from Polish Press Agency. I had a question regarding the information in media from two days ago. They informed that NATO is planning to create two new headquarters in Europe. Could you confirm or deny this information? And if yes, could you give us more details about it?
JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO is adapting its military posture because we have to adapt when we see that our security environment is changing, and we have adapted partly by increasing the readiness of our forces and party by increasing our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance, and we do so not least because of the pattern we have seen of Russian behaviour over the last years, in particular with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the destabilizing efforts towards Eastern Ukraine and Ukraine.
So that's the reason why NATO has responded, our response is defensive, it is proportionate, and NATO doesn’t want a new Cold War, we don’t want a new arms race, but we have to respond when the security environment is changing. We are now in the process of assessing our command structure, and NATO's command structure will be discussed at our upcoming Defence Ministerial Meeting in November, so I'm not able to tell you anything precisely because this is now a process which is going on in NATO, but when we have concluded, when we have made decisions, then I'm of course also ready to tell you and to explain what we are doing.
MODERATOR: Deutsche Welle.
TERI SCHULTZ: Teri Schultz with National Public Radio and Deutsche Welle. Mr. Secretary General, when you say that the allies expressed their displeasure with the discrepancies with Russia, Russia knows that, knows that everyone knows that the numbers were not what they said they were, so how did they respond to… were you satisfied with their response? Was there any seeming movement toward a willingness to renegotiate or reinvigorate the Vienna Document which would require them to have provided more access to observers? Did you think that you had made any progress on that point? Thanks.
JENS STOLTENBERG: My role in the NATO-Russia Council is to chair a meeting with the 30 participants, 29 NATO allies and Russia, but many allies, many NATO allies asked questions about the discrepancies between what Russia told us before and the size and the scale and the scope of the exercise that actually took place.
The message is that we need to make sure that Russia fully comply with the Vienna Document, both the letter and the intention, but I think also what we have seen regarding the Zapad exercise underlines the importance of modernizing the Vienna Document because there are loopholes, for instance related to snap exercises, the different thresholds for mandatory observation, and NATO allies have put forward concrete proposals in Vienna, how to modernize and improve the Vienna Document as a tool for transparency and risk reduction.
For instance we have the possibility of having snap observation if there are snap exercises, to lower the threshold for mandatory observation, and this is important because with high attentions, with more military presence close to our borders, with more exercises, then of course the risk for incidents or accidents is also increasing, and we have to make sure that we do everything we can to avoid miscalculations, misunderstandings, incidents, accidents, and if they happen to make sure that they don’t spiral out of control. So the importance of these kinds of tools and respecting them is even more important now and therefore we call on Russia to fully respect the Vienna document but also to engage in a constructive dialogue on how to modernize the Vienna document to improve the way it can be a tool for transparency and risk reduction.
QUESTION (Reuters): Secretary General, on Belarus, there was some confusion, some concern whether Russian troops had left Belarus after the Zapad exercises. Ukraine, a non-NATO ally, did say that Russian troops were still in Belarus. Are you satisfied that they have left? Did you get any update on the situation? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you, and thank you. That was raised during the meeting today. We don’t have any information indicating that Russia has left any troops behind in Belarus and also Belarus has clearly stated that Russian troops are not left behind. We are still of course assessing the exercise but so far we have not seen any evidence for Russian troops being left behind.
MODERATOR: Associated Press.
QUESTION (Associated Press): Another question on Zapad, Secretary General. At least one ally and two partner nations did raise concerns that during Zapad that a type of electronic or cyber weapon was deployed, that affected their communications, infrastructure—telephones notably. Was this raised with the Russian side? Were you satisfied with their response to that? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Several allies, or at least two allies, have reported about that, and that just underlines the importance of transparency, of advanced briefings, and to make sure that there are no miscalculations, misunderstandings, because of course these kinds of consequences can have serious… or these kinds of activities can have serious effects.
I cannot go into the details related to what different nations have reported, but for me these kinds of reports just underline the importance of maximum transparency and that we have the mechanisms in place to avoid any kind of repercussions or negative effects on NATO allies or other neighbouring countries.
MODERATOR: Agence France Presse.
QUESTION (Agence France Presse): Thank you Secretary General. There's a report in the German press saying that German diplomats were briefed by Russian counterparts about the fact that Russia envisions to hold Zapad every two years from now on. Have you been informed about this today? What would that mean in NATO's view about Russia's military posture towards the West? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Every nation has the right to exercise its forces and of course Russia also has the right to exercise its forces, so the message from NATO is that it is important that this is done in a predictable transparent way which is not adding to tensions or creating misunderstandings.
And we have seen before that exercises have been used as a disguise for aggressive actions against neighbours. That was the case in Georgia in 2008 and that was the case in Ukraine in 2014. So therefore of course it is extremely important that, yes, every nation has the right to exercise, but yes at the same time we have to make sure that these exercises are not augmenting or creating even more dangerous situations and increasing tensions.
We were not informed today about that Zapad is going to take place every two years. Again, that's for Russia to answer those questions and to decide. The important thing is that regardless of how often they conduct Zapad exercises, that this is done in a transparent way which is in compliance with their international obligations, including the Vienna Document which ensures transparency.
MODERATOR: We have time for one last question. Kabul Times.
QUESTION (Kabul Times): Thank you Secretary General. As you said you're talking also about Afghanistan, sorry but everybody is talking about Russia, but I would like to know about Afghanistan more. Was the issue of the report of support to Taliban by Russia raised in this meeting? If yes, what was the response of the Russian side? Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: The issue was raised because several allies refer to that the Afghan government has voiced concerns about Russian support to Taliban. Russia denied that, but the issue was discussed during the meeting. The message from NATO is that we are now strongly expressing our support to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process. It has to be led and owned by the Afghans themselves and we strongly support that and we welcome the initiative taken by President Ghani to try to create the basis for a political peaceful solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
At the same time, we have clearly expressed that we will continue to support Afghanistan, we will help them with training their forces to strengthen the Afghan security forces. I visited Afghanistan together with Secretary Mattis a couple of weeks ago, also with Ambassador Hutchinson, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, we met with NATO troops, we met with President Ghani, with Chief Executive Abdullah, and we are now focusing on how can we make the Afghans able to break the stalemate and to send a clear message to Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield, the only way they can have a peaceful solution is to sit down and negotiate with the national unity government.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. This concludes this press point. Thank you.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you.