MR TEK:  Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining our call previewing the Secretary of State’s upcoming travel to Brussels, Belgium.  Our call this morning will be on the record and is embargoed until its conclusion.  Joining us this morning is Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien.  The Assistant Secretary will open with some brief remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to your questions, and we’ll try to get to as many questions as time allows.

With that, Brad, if you can just repeat quickly the instructions for joining the question queue.

QUESTION:  Absolutely, thank you.  Again, to ask a question, please press 1 and then 0 on your telephone keypad.  And you can withdraw your question at any time by repeating that 1-0 command.

MR TEK:  Great, thanks.  AS O’Brien, we’ll turn the floor over to you, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Thanks, Nate.  But thanks, everyone, for joining today.  So I’m speaking with you from Brussels, where I’m pre-positioned for the Secretary’s arrival.  And I’ll walk through the upcoming ministerial then take a few questions.  I know you’ve had the opportunity to see some sort of written materials providing some background.  I won’t repeat everything that’s in there.

The ministerial will take place over a day and a half.  It’s three formal sessions, one of them on the Washington summit, which will take place next July.  That is the 75th anniversary of the Alliance, and provides an opportunity to speak about the future of the Alliance.  Another session we’ll discuss the Western Balkans, and the third session we’ll discuss Ukraine.

Now, what do we expect out of this day and a half?  It’s a meeting of the most successful Alliance in history; the 31 members will gather to go over these topics.  On the Washington summit, we think they will have the opportunity to begin discussing what to announce at the summit.  It’ll be a free-flowing conversation.  We don’t expect decisions to be taken at this time.  But it will be an opportunity to highlight the themes that we’ll be developing jointly as we go forward.

The Western Balkans is an opportunity to reaffirm the Alliance’s commitment.  As you know, NATO provides critical security support in northern Kosovo and support for the EU force in Bosnia.  It has long stood as the kind of backbone of the security that is necessary for the states of the Western Balkans as they move on their European pathway.  So their ministers will have an opportunity to note the recent steps on EU enlargement and the growth plan for the region.  They’ll also be able to discuss the role that security plays in creating space for the states of the Western Balkans to make their own decisions about how quickly they want to move forward.

And then in a session with Minister Kuleba from Ukraine, it’ll be the first foreign-ministerial-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council.  And in that session, they will have the opportunity to reaffirm the Alliance’s steadfast commitment to Ukraine, talk about what’s likely to come up over the next several months, and begin to make preparations for the work that we’ll be doing together over that time.

In addition to the formal program, Secretary Blinken will provide a press avail at the end of the ministerial, and that will be the occasion when we roll out any deliverables from this session and report the conclusions of the ministerial.  He’ll also have a variety of meetings on the side with key ministerial colleagues from across the Alliance, as well as a session with Secretary General Stoltenberg.  And in the press avail with Secretary General Stoltenberg, they’ll have an opportunity to review progress from the Vilnius Summit last summer to Washington next summer.  And that also will be the opportunity to go over the conclusions of the several days.

So with that, why don’t I pause, and then we can take a few questions.  And maybe, Nate, if it’s all right, we can pile up a few questions and then I’ll try to provide answers, and that’ll let us get through the most questions over the next 15, 20 minutes that we have.

MR TEK:  Okay, sure.  Could we open the line of Shaun Tandon from the AFP, please?

QUESTION:  Hey there, good morning – thanks.  Good morning from Washington.  Thanks for doing this.  Could I ask you about the Western Balkans?  The situation in Kosovo and Serbia.  I know Secretary General Stoltenberg has talked about a more permanent force increase there.  What’s the U.S. position on that?  Do you think that would be useful?  What’s your general position now about the state of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia?  Do you think that there are further steps that could be taken?

And with your indulgence, can I just ask you if you have anything to say about the election in the Netherlands?  Obviously, there’s still a caretaker government and it takes a lot to form a new government.  But the rise of the far right, how does that impact, if at all, the U.S. thinking in when dealing with the continent?  Thanks.

MR TEK:  Great.  And Brad, could we also get a question from Nike Ching from the Voice of America?

OPERATOR:  And Nike, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  Good morning.  Thank you for the phone briefing.  I would like to ask about OSCE.  Can you please comment on reports that Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov will join the OSCE ministerial in NATO member state North Macedonia later this week?  Can you comment on what will be – who will represent the U.S. delegation?  And if Secretary Blinken is attending, would there be any interaction between the two?  Thank you.

MR TEK:  Thanks.  Let’s turn it over to AS O’Brien to take those questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Sure.  Shaun, thanks for the two questions.  On the Western Balkans, we support having a robust KFOR presence in northern Kosovo.  I think having the north be secure and quiet is the key to making political progress on the roadmap and on the two countries’ paths toward Europe.  So it’s important that both sides understand that if there is any disturbance in the north that it comes at the cost of them running them up against NATO.  And that’s been a important step since May, where we’ve seen the situation calm a bit in the north.

There was the unfortunate episode in September when Serbian paramilitary forces were interrupted by Kosovo police as they tried to position very dangerous equipment.  I think we’ve seen a de-escalation since that time, and it’s our intention to see that continue, and having a very active KFOR presence is important for that to happen.

What we would like to see is both sides focus on their requirements that they have accepted as their own roadmap toward a normalization and mutual recognition, as they work their way forward over the next months.  And that should be the area that they focus on, not the kind of violent activity that we saw the Serbian groups attempt in September.

On the Netherlands elections, I think we know it’s a long way to go before they form a government.  I think that’s a process for the parties in the Netherlands to work their way through.  The Netherlands have always been an incredibly close, constructive, and robust ally, and we look forward to continuing that relationship with the new government once it takes office.

On the OSCE, Secretary Blinken is leading our delegation.  He’ll be there at the – Wednesday right after the end of this ministerial.  So we anticipate that he’ll engage in a good discussion with our OSCE colleagues about support for Ukraine.

I don’t know what Minister Lavrov’s plans are for attending on Thursday, so I won’t comment on that, or on the prospect of any kind of a meeting, should something that like happen.  Obviously, Secretary Blinken’s travel is also subject to some change, so I don’t want to offer any promise of who he’ll be meeting or not, but as of now, he’ll be there on Wednesday at the head of our delegation.

MR TEK:  Thanks so much.  Could we please go to the line of Simon Lewis from Reuters?

OPERATOR:  Simon, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yeah, hi.  Thanks for doing this.  I wonder if we could – if you could sort of speak a little bit about the – how you’re sort of feeling about the – Türkiye’s stance towards Sweden’s accession and also Hungary.  It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen in time for this meeting.  How disappointed is the U.S. and what can you do to try to make sure that there’s some positive movement on that (inaudible)?

MR TEK:  Great.  And then to take one more question, can we go to Anton La Guardia from The Economist?

QUESTION:  Hi.  Can you hear me?

MR TEK:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Hi.  You spoke about the discussion about Ukraine, over – and what would happen in the next few months.  One of the big questions is what will happen in the U.S. in terms of the further aid package that may or may not be passed in Congress.  So what will you be – what will the Secretary be telling colleagues about the state of that debate, the prospects for a new aid package?

And if I may, a second question:  Does the election of head – well, does the success of the Geert Wilders party mean that Mark Rutte’s candidacy for Secretary General of NATO is liable to be withdrawn?

MR TEK:  Thanks.  Over to the – over to AS O’Brien.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Yeah, sorry.  So Simon, in terms of Sweden’s candidacy, we think Sweden’s fully capable now of contributing to the Alliance.  We think it will be a great NATO Ally, and we expect it to be an Ally very soon.  Our point to our Turkish Allies has been that there’s no reason to delay any further, and we anticipate seeing some positive action very soon.  Hungary has always said it will not be the last to ratify Sweden’s accession to the Alliance, and so we’d expect that Hungary will move forward very soon as well.

Anton, on Ukraine, we’re optimistic about a U.S. supplemental package.  I believe the Senate is preparing to move in the next several weeks.  I think there is substantial majorities in the House that are supportive of a supplemental that will provide crucial security aid to Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine, along with potentially addressing other crucial issues, such as migration.  So we, I think, will be in a position to talk about that with our Allies here at the ministerial.  Obviously, any political process is not done until it’s done, but we do think there are substantial majorities in favor of the package – should come to a vote in the Senate and the House.

We’ve made the case that it is critical for U.S. security, for Alliance security, and for our key partners to feel secure, that we provide the assistance that’s requested.  It involves – it touches on Ukraine’s military needs, but as well its economic prosperity, which will allow it to show its people a brighter future and to begin paying for even more of its defense than it does.  Ukraine now pays 60 percent of the military costs of its war, and our European allies provide another great amount.  They’ve provided more than 100 billion euro in assistance to Ukraine, as against the U.S. 70 so far.  So this is really a coalition effort, and I think it’s important for our partners to hear that we’ll continue to do our part, even while our Congress is debating the next steps of what we’ll provide.

And then I think as far as a NATO secretary general, I’m not going to comment on any deliberations we may be having about the next secretary general.  We have a very, very good secretary general right now.  We appreciate that he had extended his term in office to get us to the Washington summit, and we’re looking forward to working with him over this period.

MR TEK:  Great.  And we’ll take two final questions.  The first, can we please open the line of Alex Raufoglu from Turan?

OPERATOR:  And Alex, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for doing this.  Ambassador, you mentioned the NATO-Ukraine first ministerial.  Can you speak to the importance of that?  What should we expect from that format moving ahead?

And you mentioned the Balkans, but will the South Caucasus be discussed at all?  I know you met with Georgia ambassador a couple of days ago.  Will Georgian foreign minister be in the room at any point?

And finally, if I may, off topic, on Azerbaijan, I also know that you met with Azerbaijan ambassador a couple of days ago.  You did make it clear that there is no business as usual with Azerbaijan.  Do you think they have clear understanding of your differences following your meeting?  Thanks so much.

MR TEK:  All right, great.  And then can we please open the line of Oskar Górzyński from the Polish Press Agency?

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?

MR TEK:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Very good.  I was wondering if you could – the assistant secretary can respond to the story, the Bild story that was published last week, that there was some sort of plan, German-American plan to push Ukraine to accept talks with Putin.  Is there anything to it?  And yeah – well, I mean – yeah, basically that.  What do you think is the – also Russian attitude towards the negotiations (inaudible)?

MR TEK:  Thank you so much.  AS O’Brien, I’ll turn it over to you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  So I’ll take the Ukraine questions initially.  So the NATO-Ukraine Council is the forum for consultation between NATO Allies and Ukraine going forward.  We think it’s a very significant step that it is meeting at the foreign ministers level for the first time, because it shows the political support for the relationship that Ukraine is building with NATO.  This is part of the process of finding its place in the Alliance, which we’ve always said is Ukraine’s future.  And so the NUC is the place that they will be able to consult and discuss political issues as they arise.

The Bild story I thought was intriguing, but no, there’s no U.S. policy.  We’ve always said that this is a matter for Ukraine to decide.  We decide nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.  And I think the other reality here is we see no indication that Russia is willing to entertain substantive, real peace negotiations.  It seems to us President Putin is talking about waiting for at least another year or more before he will contemplate an end to this war, and it would be pointless to have a discussion on Ukraine’s side – it’s not a dialogue; it’s a monologue of surrender.  So it’s nothing that is part of our policy.

Now, to the South Caucasus, I think here, as I’ve said publicly, we see a real opportunity for Azerbaijan and Armenia to make peace.  We’re encouraged that the two sides are speaking with one another directly and with mediators.  And with that, we see a real opportunity for the entire region to benefit.  For example, if trade from Central Asia is able to flow through Azerbaijan and Armenia into Türkiye, then it would be a substantial boost for all the countries on that trade route.  And we’d welcome the opportunity to be part of that.

At the same time, if the decision is made not to pursue that by peaceful means, then we would have to use whatever tools we could to avoid having that kind of trade route created.  So we’ve been very clear with the parties about what we hope to see and about the consequences of moving forward otherwise.  So we’ll look forward to seeing where the parties come out.  We know they’ve expressed an interest in concluding a peace agreement very soon, and we would love to see that happen.

MR TEK:  Great.  That does conclude our Q&A portion of this call.  AS O’Brien, do you have any concluding remarks before we close up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  No, I think I’ve said enough.

MR TEK:  Great.  Well, thank you so much, everyone, for joining us this morning.  That does conclude this – today’s call.  As a reminder, this call has been on the record, and the embargo is now lifted.  Thank you all for joining us.

U.S. Department of State

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