Informal meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the level of Foreign ministers
Statement by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the press conference following the Informal Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the Level Of Foreign Ministers
As it is my first press conference during this set of Ministerials, let me start by saying how happy we all are to be here, in the charming city of Vilnius, and to enjoy the great hospitality of the Lithuanian government. The venue - in the capital of one of the newest members of NATO - does stimulate reflection on the historic turns of international relations over the last 15 years. But our focus now is on the issues of today.
The meeting of the NATO-Russia Council that has just ended addressed precisely those. Our partnership with Russia is becoming steadily more mature and more sophisticated. We are consulting on a wider set of topics and we are doing more together. That is why today's signature of the Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by Minister Lavrov is so important. The SOFA will allow us to organise better a rich menu of cooperative activities, it will save us time by providing a legal basis for movement of people and equipment agreed in advance, and it will allow us to act together in new areas, such as strategic airlift.
One immediate real life application of these arrangements was discussed by Ministers in the context of Afghanistan. We share of course a joint interest in building peace and stability in that country, and much common ground has underpinned our discussions in the NRC. We are grateful for Russia's assistance to our ISAF mission. We also noted progress in our efforts to explore together possibilities to provide assistance to Afghan and other authorities in training officials fighting the scourge of drug production and drug smuggling.
Another important subject we addressed today was the situation in Kosovo. The stakes are high. The region has suffered enough of conflict and instability. Its integration into European mainstream is long overdue. But we must and will demand from the Balkan leaders the highest standards when it comes to treatment of minorities, respect of international obligations (including the full cooperation with ICTY in The Hague), mutual cooperation and confidence building. Russia, as an active member of the Contact Group, will, with Allies and NATO itself, help to find solutions to the region's challenges.
NATO ministers listened with interest to Minister Lavrov's evaluation of the situation in Georgia, and especially on the latest state of bilateral negotiations between Russia and Georgia. While we may differ in our approaches, we all are keen to see the prompt resolution of outstanding issues, and Allies underscored that this includes those related to the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia - a development Allies believe would pave the way for ratification and entry into force of the updated CFE Treaty. And of course, NATO nations and Russia share a common support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
And just to prove that Foreign Ministers really earn their salaries, NRC members also found the time to address the pivotal issues of the Middle East.
This was a highly productive set of discussions. Intensive political consultations on topics of common interest are essential foundations for our relationship, on topics on which we largely agree, or those on which we are still trying to find common ground.
This political aspect of the NRC will become more important as we continue to deepen our practical cooperation in facing the security challenges before us - terrorism, WMD, or regional instability. I am particularly pleased that our military ties continue to grow stronger. This very week, for example, a SHAPE team visited their colleagues from the Russian 15 th motorised rifle brigade in Samara, exchanging experiences of training for peacekeeping operations.
This is proof that we can work together. That we can talk openly together, as friends. And that this relationship has real potential to deliver better security for NATO nations, for Russia, and for the broader Euro-Atlantic community. And I look forward to carrying forward the defence dimension of our relationship at the upcoming Defence Ministers' meeting in June.
Q (Lithuanian Television): You mentioned that there are differences in approaches; does this also apply to Russia's wish to change the status of their forces in Georgia into anti-terrorism training centres?
DE HOOP SCHEFFER: Well the discussion on Georgia focussed first on the talks Minister Lavrov has had not that long ago in Tlibisi--talks with President Saakashvili, Minister Zurabishvili in Georgia--and on the discussion on what we call the Istanbul Commitments. And the Istanbul Commitments as you know mean that the Russian bases will have to go. Now that is a subject for negotiations between the Russians and the Georgians, it has a relationship with the ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty.
The element you just mentioned was not discussed in detail, it was a general discussion on Georgia on the bases on, I should not forget, the border monitoring operation on the Georgian border with the Russian Federation and I think it was good that we touched on this subject.
Q (Reuters): Are there any direct (inaudible) concrete activities that you plan to undertake with Russia as a direct result of signing the SOFA agreement today?
DE HOOP SCHEFFER: What is of course a possibility we have already been discussing is that the PFP-SOFA, for instance, makes a Lines of Communication Agreement, as we call it, and Russian support for the operations- ISAF operations in Afghanistan much easier. It makes it much easier to have exercises together because it also has an element in it as far as the legal status is concerned.
It concerns customs, is of course not a basing agreement let me very clear about that, I mean it's not basing troops on a permanent basis but I think Afghanistan is a very concrete example. You could also think about the ambition we both have to increase the interoperability as far as possible joint peacekeeping operations are concerned so I think it opens an array of possibilities. We have to talk about it and to discuss of course. But this PFP-SOFA I think is a very important foundation for that and that's the reason that we are very, very glad that Minister Lavrov has put his signature on this this morning.
Q (Polish National Daily): Did you talk about the Middle East and what is the Russian view on the possible NATO mission in that region?
DE HOOP SCHEFFER: We discussed indeed the Middle East. It was clear, I think, that there was a clear consensus that as far as the Middle East is concerned the coming months are of crucial importance. I mean there all 27 ministers present very much agreed.
We did not in detail discuss the situation, as you know which I consider virtual when we discuss a NATO role, because now it's up to the Quartet. NATO does not have any ambition to enter the negotiations. We have the Quartet where the Russians are a very active partner, the Americans, the UN, the EU--NATO will stay out of that.
The only thing I have publicly mentioned and it was briefly discussed is what happens, or what could happen, if--and I write this 'if' with a capital 'I' as you know--'If' there would be a sustainable and comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. I'm not talking about Gaza now, I'm talking about a long term sustainable peace agreement on the basis of the two states. And parties would ask an international presence, and parties would ask--under a UN mandate--NATO. So that is, as I say, a virtual scenario. NATO is not, I repeat, not going to intervene.
In that case, Minister Lavrov made a remark that if that scenario, again capital I, 'If' that scenario would develop it might be a good idea to also use the NATO-Russia Council. In other words, there is an interest expressed by Minister Lavrov this morning that when that scenario would unroll, let's hope that a lasting peace agreement will come soon, there is Russian interest.
Q (Le Monde): Vous avez parlé du Kosovo, le Kosovo il y a les standards et il y a le statut. Les standards, on le sait bien, n'avancent pas très vite. Reste le statut, quand on parle du statut est-ce que vous avez parlé avec M. Lavrov de la question de l'indépendance éventuelle du Kosovo? Si on parle de l'indépendance du Kosovo il y a la question de la partition, d'une partie nord de Mitrovica, est-ce que vous abordez des questions de fonds dans ce dialogue où est-ce que vous en restez à des généralités?
DE HOOP SCHEFFER: Je ne voudrais pas dire qu'on a resté à des généralités, pas du tout. Mais, tous les ministres ont souligné qu'il est maintenant d'une grande importance, d'une grande importance comme vous avez évoqué il y a un moment, que le processus de l'évaluation des standards procède et procède bien. Et tout le monde sait quelles sont les responsabilités dans ce processus et je crois le COR, le Conseil OTAN-Russie, se rend compte très bien que ce processus comme vous le savez, comme on le sait tous, précède bien sûr les discussions sur les standards.
On a bien sûr parlé de la KFOR, qu'il est nécessaire que la KFOR continueront d'avoir la capacité opérationnelle nécessaire pour son rôle au Kosovo. On n'est pas entré dans les détails sur le statut du Kosovo dans l'avenir, non.
Q: Secretary General I want to go back to Sebastian Allen's (Reuters) question. In concrete terms will the, NATO and Russia, are they thinking of any joint exercises, you mentioned the Samara element but was this actually raised- looking down at the next couple of months, in practical- real practical terms. Thank you.
DE HOOP SCHEFFER: Not in these practical terms but if you mention exercises, may I refer to the big exercise we had in Kaliningrad, around Kaliningrad not that long ago, and it's definitely in our plans when I mention interoperability and peacekeeping operations that we will certainly--I do not know when--but we'll have other examples as we saw in Kaliningrad and the fact that the SHAPE people have been in Russia shows that there is, from the military side but politicians come first, a keen interest in finding as many ways for practical cooperation between NATO and the Russian Federation as possible.
As I started my intervention- I mean these two legs of the NATO-Russia partnership are extremely important. The practical side and the political side, so that we can discuss Georgia, we can discuss the Middle East. I mean that's fairly new and that shows the progress in the way the NATO-Russia Council functions and I think we have seen, this morning, 27 ministers who are happy with the way the NATO-Russia Council is functioning.