MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, the United States Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, who will discuss NATO’s partnerships in Africa and the global security implications of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Ambassador Smith joins us from Brussels, Belgium.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Smith, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have.
As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Julianne Smith for her opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you so much, and thanks to everybody who is joining us today. I want to specifically thank the Johannesburg Media Hub for putting this briefing together.
And I thought it would be useful to really give folks a firsthand readout of the NATO Summit that took place in Lithuania just two weeks ago. Many of you probably saw some headlines from that event, but I’m happy to get into some of the details should you have specific questions about the summit.
But as many of you – I’m sure you were tracking a couple of the big headline grabbers. First and foremost, we were able to welcome President Zelenskyy in person to the summit in Lithuania. That’s something we haven’t had the chance to do before. NATO did hold three summits last year, but President Zelenskyy just joined us virtually. So it was wonderful to have him there in person at the summit, and we were able to announce a new package of political and practical support for Ukraine at the summit.
We also had a breakthrough the day before the summit started in that we were able to advance, working with our friends in Türkiye, Sweden’s accession into the Alliance. So, some major breaking news there, and we’re looking forward to welcoming Sweden in the weeks and months ahead into the Alliance as our 32nd member.
What got perhaps less coverage at the summit was the Alliance’s focus on strengthening its partnerships with a variety of countries around the world to tackle global security challenges including cyber security, hybrid threats, counterterrorism, and climate security.
The Alliance has over 40 countries that it has one of these special partnerships with, and increasingly, the Alliance has been looking for ways to strengthen and deepen those partnerships with many of those countries. The network includes countries across Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, and the idea here is to find opportunities to share best practices, to consult on shared security challenges, build defense capacity, develop and improve interoperability, and obviously manage crises as well.
Now, as you all know, the impact of Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine on global security is absolutely undeniable. Russia has violated the foundational principles of the UN Charter itself. The Wagner Group behind the recent coup attempt against Putin’s regime remains a destabilizing presence and a threat to the African continent more specifically. And of course Russia’s refusal just recently to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative and its threat to attack commercial vessels carrying grain have led to increased food insecurity across the globe.
Russia has been ramping up its disinformation campaigns that seek to blame NATO for the conflict, including through information manipulation aimed at fueling anti-NATO sentiment in and across Africa.
If there’s one thing I really want to make clear today, it’s that NATO is a defensive Alliance, and this Alliance has never sought conflict with Russia. In fact, our history is one of trying to prevent conflict with Russia. And I would note that in January of last year, we actually convened the NATO-Russia Council here in Brussels with the Russians to try and encourage them to take some sort of diplomatic offramp and not pursue aggression in Ukraine. But tragically, that did not come to pass and on February 24th we all know what happened.
Also, I would want to just remind folks that despite the disinformation that’s floating around out there, NATO has no direct role in the war in Ukraine. NATO itself is not providing lethal assistance to Ukraine nor is it training Ukrainian soldiers.
Now, we support the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, including a nation’s right to sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination. So obviously, if a country wants to join NATO to ensure its own defense and security, that’s up to the aspiring country itself and NATO alone – and not Russia. Russia does not have a voice or a veto in these types of questions.
So just in closing, I will say we will continue to support the people of Ukraine as they defend their country against Russia’s brutal invasion, and we will continue to work with our partners to mitigate the very negative effects that this war is truly having on all of us, not just on the people of Ukraine.
So with those few opening remarks, I’m happy to take your questions and I look forward to talking about the summit or any other aspect of NATO business as it relates to events in and around Ukraine. So thanks again.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Smith. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: NATO’s partnerships in Africa and the global security implications of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
We will start with a question that was submitted in advance by Yusuf Akínpẹ̀lú of BBC, Nigeria, who asks: “Is NATO intending to broker some deal with Ukraine on how to create a new grain trade route? If so, how soon?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thanks for that question. Actually, what’s interesting – that’s a timely question, because in a little more than an hour, NATO’s going to be holding something called a NATO-Ukraine Council meeting. It goes by NUC by short, N-U-C, and that NUC is actually a new creation here inside the NATO Alliance, something that we just recently created with our friends in Ukraine so that they would have a way to consult with NATO Allies on any pressing security matter.
They therefore requested that we hold this NUC session today, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to hear from the Ukrainians themselves about the current – their current assessment of how they intend or wish to continue to get grain out of Ukraine in light of Russia’s announcement about its withdrawal. We want to hear from individual members, particularly those on the Black Sea, about anything they’re considering doing to enhance their support for Ukrainian efforts to get grain out to the rest of the world. We’re going to think through whether or not individual Allies should take additional steps or how NATO could work with the European Union that also plays a role here.
And, of course, we want to salute the efforts of our friends in Türkiye for everything they’ve done to broker a deal on grain. This has been ongoing since about April of last year, and they continue to make efforts to persuade the Russians to come back to the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
In terms of U.S. policy, we continue to work with the international community to address global food insecurity more broadly. We hosted or cohosted a Global Food Security Summit during UNGA last year. We established a roadmap on global food security endorsed by over a hundred countries, and we’ve galvanized over $4.5 billion in G7 collective support for both acute and medium- to long-term food security assistance.
So the U.S. stands at the ready to continue to work with other countries and also multilateral organizations like the United Nations and the EU, and so I suspect this will continue to be at the top of our list in the days ahead. Obviously, our priority is to get that grain out of Ukraine and into the hands of those that rely on that grain in many, many corners around the world – particularly in Africa, but not just Africa – and that will remain our priority.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take a live question now from Pearl Matibe, who is writing for Defence Web. Pearl, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Ambassador – Tiffany and Ambassador Smith, for your availability and for taking my question. Ambassador Smith, please, could you spell out a few things for our audiences who may wonder about why you might want to talk or have African audiences know more about NATO – why now and not perhaps previously? Why should Sub-Saharan African countries care about the Lithuanian summit?
And also could you talk about what – from your website, the vision and the mission of NATO is about your collective defense in Europe, which states that it’s inextricably linked to North America. So where have you faced threats on your southern flank coming or emanating from Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, or from any of its maritime waters? Could you address that and specifically why should Sub-Saharan Africa care?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Sure, happy to answer that question. So you’re right, the NATO Alliance is a Euro-Atlantic alliance. It is not a global alliance. But it fundamentally is there and has been established almost 75 years ago to protect our values, and when you get to values, that takes us first and foremost to the principles that one finds in the UN Charter – fairly simplistic values that I think collectively all of the signatories to the UN Charter support – and that is territorial integrity, that’s sovereignty, human rights. I could go on and on. And I think as the NATO Alliance works with its partners around the world, including its close partners in Africa, it wants to seek out additional ways to strengthen those partnerships so that we can trade experiences and expertise, first and foremost, on how to best protect those values.
Secondly, there are two main threats facing the NATO Alliance, terrorism and Russia, and I think those are topics of interest to our partners across Africa as it relates both to Russia’s activities on the African continent and what Africa – what Russia is doing in Ukraine as it relates to this grain deal. And then, of course, on the subject of terrorism, terrorism is something that all of us are grappling with – our friends in Africa, but also NATO member states are increasingly looking for ways to deter terrorist attacks, prevent terrorist attacks, respond to terrorist attacks, and we can build off of shared experiences and tools that all of us have created at the national level and share them through these partnerships.
So in terms of why Africa would be interested in expanding or deepening any of the existing relationships that individual countries or the African Union has with the NATO Alliance, I think fundamentally it’s quite simple. It takes us to shared security challenges and it takes us to the values that we all treasure and hold dear as outlined in the UN Charter.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have a question submitted in advance by Christopher Erasmus of Nation Media Group Nairobi. It is quite similar to what has been asked in the chat by Amarachi Okeh from PUNCH newspapers. Christopher asks, “What steps, if any, are being undertaken to counter the growing unintended further spread of Wagner Group operations and influence in Africa post the failed coup attempt by the group and as subsequently laid out by its leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin?”
The PUNCH reporter also asks for your interpretation on the impact of the coup by Wagner on the continent, so I’d like you to address those, please.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yeah, sure. Well, I think you’ve heard our Secretary of State, Secretary Blinken, talk about the fact that essentially wherever the Wagner Group shows up, death and destruction often follow. This is a destabilizing force. It has tried to intervene in the internal affairs of multiple countries in Africa. It has stoked conflict in multiple destinations. We’ve seen human rights abuses on behalf of or perpetrated by these forces. We’ve seen the Wagner Group also obstruct UN peacekeeping missions. And so, the United States is quite concerned, as you might imagine, as are I know many nations around the world, about the presence of Wagner forces.
We have already moved out with sanctions on this network of actors. We’ve designated them as a transnational criminal organization. And the sad reality is that the Kremlin has almost no control over these forces. And so this is a challenge for all of us. I know that NATO Allies are keeping a very close watch on the Wagner forces that are now moving into Belarus. But we are also interested in their activities and very concerned about their activities on the African continent.
So this is a very important subject for NATO Allies to discuss with our partners in Africa. Our observations about how this group active – operates, and also the ways in which we believe we can counter this negative force and prevent it from continuing to destabilize various regions throughout the continent.
In terms of the impact that it has had, I mean, I think we’re still monitoring the situation post this Prigozhin drive towards Moscow. We’re watching closely to see exactly where the specific forces will land, if they will remain on the border of Ukraine, inside Ukraine, or all of them will end up in Belarus. What’s clear is, again, a point I made earlier, that the Kremlin has very, very little control over these forces. You’ve seen attempts by Moscow to try and pull these forces under the command of the ministry of defense. That’s something many of these forces I believe have resisted.
And so we’ll have to wait and see kind of what this new chapter brings in terms of where Prigozhin and the commanders associated with the Wagner Group really want to take this movement. And again, we remain concerned about their activities in Africa as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to a live question, from Julian Pecquet of The Africa Report. Julian, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi there. Can you hear me?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my call. I have a quick question. One is you mentioned the special partnerships with NATO, 40-plus countries. When you get a chance, if you could tell us which African countries have those partnerships, that’d be great. If you don’t have it in front of you; I’m sure we’d all love to know.
My general question is about Prime Minister Meloni. She’s visiting the White House, as you know, tomorrow, the Italian prime minister. She’s talked a lot about expanding NATO’s role in Africa, notably to curtail immigration. She’s talked about playing a bigger role in confronting China and Russia on the continent. I’d love to get your thoughts on that, if that is something that NATO is interested in doing, in playing that bigger role, especially on immigration front. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Sure. Thank you very much. I don’t think I have the specific list with me today in terms of each individual country and its partnership. We have just recently announced a partnership with Mauritania that was announced last summer, I believe at the Madrid summit.
But really what I would turn your attention to is NATO’s collaboration more specifically with the Africa Union. This is a relationship that really goes back many years, all the way back to 2005, in fact. And this was a relationship that started quite modestly where we – the Alliance was looking at specific AU requests for logistics and airlift support as it related to its mission in Sudan. And since then, the relationship has really evolved, and of course is based first and foremost on mutual respect and reciprocity. And over the years, NATO and the AU, we’ve expressed an interest in looking for other ways to tackle shared security challenges.
Fundamentally, there are kind of three areas where we’re offering a partnership, and those are operational support, and that’s back to requests for air and sea lift in particular. There’s the training piece, where we’ve invited AU officers to attend courses at NATO training seminars, and then there’s more specifically structural assistance, which is – would take the form of support to the Africans’ standby force concept. And then we also have a liaison office – NATO does – at AU headquarters, which is staffed by a handful of people. I believe we have a senior military liaison office there – officer there, a deputy, and support staff.
So that gives you a sense of kind of how we’re focused more specifically on NATO’s relationship with the AU.
Now, on the visit – Meloni’s visit to Washington, D.C., this is obviously a visit we’ve been looking forward to. Italy is a very strong bilateral partner and ally to the United States, a longstanding ally, a very capable ally, that has made many, many important contributions to our bilateral relationship and transatlantic relations more broadly. They’ve been extremely supportive to Ukraine, but they’ve also been very active in NATO missions in places like the Balkans, the Western Balkans, and Iraq as well.
Now, Meloni – the Italian Government has expressed – as have many other countries in the south, the southern part of Europe – expressed an interest in the Alliance doing more in the south. And by the south, that takes us to the African continent, but also some corners of the Gulf. And as we move towards the summit next year in Washington, D.C., we’ll be working with our friends in Italy as well as a whole host of nations across the Alliance to try and look at ways to strengthen those partnerships in Africa and across the Middle East. And it takes us to a variety of questions, again, whether you’re talking about climate security, whether we’re talking about how we grapple with the Wagner Group or some of other shared challenges as it relates specifically to counterterrorism. So this is a longstanding area of work for the Alliance, but we have heard our friends in Italy loud and clear that they’re interested in doing more in this space.
And I think the receptivity across the Alliance has been quite strong. You might imagine that many of the countries in Eastern Europe are deeply appreciative of what Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Türkiye, all of our friends in the Western Balkans have done to reinforce the eastern flank. And in the name of NATO’s 360 degree approach, those countries in Eastern Europe are similarly interested in working with the countries in the South on a variety of challenges in that particular corner of the Euro-Atlantic area. So, I see a lot of receptivity here across the Alliance and suspect that we’ll be doing more in this space this Fall.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I’d like to take a live question from Desta Gebrehiwot of the Ethiopian Herald. Can you open the line, please, for Desta?
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, I’d like to thank the ambassador for the interview. I would like to have a question about specifically the Horn of Africa and NATO relations. As you know, the Horn of Africa has been facing different security threats from some elements like the al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups. And I’d like to know how NATO would actually support the anti-terrorism effort in the Horn of Africa. And secondly, as you know, like, the Horn of Africa is a very important location or strategic place in the world. And there have been many movements of transaction along the location. So how important do you think is the Horn of Africa for the NATO and how do you think Ethiopia should work with the NATO to have a stable and a very peaceful location or geographic place in the Horn of Africa? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Sure. Well, thank you very much for that question. Of course, as you well know, Ethiopia and the United States outside of NATO channels, of course, have been working closely together on a variety of terrorism-related challenges and threats in the Horn of Africa and that, of course, includes Somalia. And on the subject of Somalia, I did want to mention some important work through NATO’s relationship with the AU, again, coming back to that theme.
So as many of you might recall, NATO did offer support to the AU mission in Sudan in 2005. And following that support, the AU came back and made another general request in January of ’07 to all of its partners, which includes the NATO Alliance, for both financial and logistical support for its mission in Somalia, AMISOM. Now, it came back and made a very specific request in NATO a few months later in the Spring of 2007, and there it specifically requested strategic air lift support for AU members that were willing to deploy in Somalia under that mission. So, about a month later in June, the North Atlantic Council – the NAC – agreed to support this request, and NATO support was authorized by late summer that year in August of 2007. Strategic sea lift support was requested then at a later stage and then agreed again in the Fall of 2009.
So all to say that NATO has been hearing directly from the AU and individual countries about specific requests for support as it relates to this mission in Somalia. And these specific air lift and sea lift support requests for AMISOM have been renewed on an annual basis. So this is ongoing, this continues to be a key part of our relationship, and no doubt will continue to be a part of it going forward.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the end of our time. Ambassador Smith, do you have any final words for our journalists?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: No. I guess all I would say is thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule, appreciate the chance to hear some of your concerns and questions. Do let us know if you find yourself up in Brussels and we can be helpful in any way. And many thanks to you, Tiffany, for convening us and moderating this discussion – really appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Thank you for coming. And with that, it concludes our briefing today. I would like to thank Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for speaking to us today and to all our journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
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