MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the U.S. Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us today for this virtual press briefing. We’re very honored to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO. Before I turn it over to the ambassador for opening remarks, I have a few comments on the procedure for asking questions. If you’re dailing by phone, you can join the questions queue by pressing *9 at any time. If you are joining us via the Zoom application or link, you may submit your questions at any time by clicking on the questions and Answers tab and typing in your question. If you see a colleague ask a question you like Ambassador Smith to cover, you can upload it in the queue by clicking the like button to the right of that question. If you’d like to ask your question live, you can click the erase hand icon at the bottom of the window. We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes that we have today. So please show your support and like the questions you most like us to cover. As always, you can notify us of any technical difficulties at theBrusselsHub@tate.gov. With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Smith, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you very much. Thanks to the Brussels Media Hub for facilitating this hub call today, this interview. Always helpful to have this check in before a Defense Ministerial and the UDCG (Ukraine Defense Contact Group). Let me first though, start by acknowledging just the unspeakable, tragic, tragic attacks, terrible events in Israel last few days. And let me echo the comments of President Biden. The United States unequivocally condemns the appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and the United States has made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the government and the people of Israel. Terrorism is never justified. But of course, as I mentioned, the reason that we’re here today is to preview both the Defense Ministerial that’s coming up very quickly as well as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group that will begin tomorrow. I want to also just say a few words about a recent trip we had with all of the NATO’s perm reps. We went to both Norfolk and Washington about two weeks ago, and I’ll say a few words about that trip maybe first.
We had a series of high level engagements across Washington with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. We were able to meet Deputy Secretary of Defense Kath Hicks, as well as a whole array of other high level officials. We also were able to spend some time in Congress, which was very important. We were able to take the group to both the House and the Senate to get perspectives on Ukraine support and also their views on the NATO alliance and the upcoming Washington summit next summer. And then, of course, we were able to go to Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk and go to Joint Forces Command, which is in Norfolk as well. I would say it was an extremely productive trip, but in relation to what’s transpired in the United States in recent days, I think it was important for the group to hear directly from members of Congress about the bipartisan support for our assistance to Ukraine. The message that came across loud and clear was that the United States will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. And I think our allies appreciated hearing that message in stereo surround sound. Similarly, I think it was also important for our friends in Europe and in Canada to ensure that all of the interlocutors had a deep appreciation for all that Europe and Canada are doing for Ukraine as individual allies. There have been unprecedented levels of economic, humanitarian assistance, security assistance. Many of them are housing refugees, some of them millions of refugees, as you all know. And European allies have increased their defense budgets over the last two years. They’ve led on training Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 planes, and they’ve transferred a whole series of critical weapons systems to Ukraine that are really making a difference on the battlefield. So we wanted to ensure that we could have a conversation with American interlocutors. Many of them are fully aware of those contributions. But for anybody who wasn’t tracking the depth of support, I think it was an important opportunity for NATO to stand together, both in Washington and Norfolk and talk about those those contributions.
Now, let’s pivot quickly to what’s happening here at NATO’s headquarters this week. We will be welcoming, obviously, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, but also the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, we’ll have General CQ Brown here to join us for the UDCG and of course the Defense Ministerial here in Brussels as well. As you all know, the UDCG is an important opportunity for over 50 countries to come together on a monthly basis, to sit down with our friends in Ukraine, hear about their current requirements and then move out on meeting those commitments. I suspect what you’re going to hear in this UDCG is a continued emphasis on both air defense and ammunition, as well as an array of other systems that they currently need. But those two categories will probably take precedence above many of the other things that they will be turning to the 50 countries for in the coming weeks and months.
On the DMM, I think this will be what’s important about this DMM is, it’s the first Defense Ministerial where we are going to be able to hold a NATO-Ukraine Council. This of course is a new development, something that was rolled out with the Vilnius Summit just a couple of months ago. Ukraine will actually sit in that meeting as an equal with NATO allies to work on a variety of issues, looking at how we can cooperate better on everything from cyber defense to combating disinformation or even Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO membership.
Now lastly, while the alliance is certainly more united than ever before on confronting a variety of shared security challenges, we had expected to be confronting these challenges as an alliance of 32 and not 31. As I have said before, we believe in the United States Sweden is ready to join the alliance, it is ready to do so today. They are already a committed partner and invitee. They are ready to be a committed, full fledged ally. They will no doubt make the alliance stronger and safer and more secure. And we believe that it is time for Hungary and Türkiye to honor their commitments and complete the ratification process in order to have Sweden join the alliance as soon as possible.
So with that, that gives you a little bit of a sense of what will be focused on here this week at NATO headquarters. And I’m looking forward to taking your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador, for those opening remarks. We will now turn to the questions and answer portion of today’s briefing. As a reminder, you may type in your question in any time in the Q&A tab, raise your hand or dial *9
if you are dialed in. Let’s, first question will go to pre submitted question from Elina Kervinen from the Helsingin Sanomat in Finland: The Hamas attack has turned all eyes to Israel. What kind of discussion do you expect on this subject in the meeting and do you expect this new escalation to have any effect when it comes to supporting Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: I guess I’ll work backwards in that regard. On the question of whether or not U.S. support for Israel could possibly come at the expense of U.S. support for Ukraine, we don’t anticipate any major challenges in that regard. The U.S. has had a long standing commitment to Israel’s security. We will continue to meet that commitment and in fact, as you heard from senior levels of the Biden administration, including from the President himself, we are going to look at additional steps we might take. You’ve no doubt heard the news that the United States is moving the USS Gerald R. Ford closer to Israel as a deterrent. He’s asked his team to look at additional measures. I suspect the United States will be able to stay focused on our partnership and commitment to Israel’s security, while also meeting our commitments and promise to continue supporting Ukraine as it defends its territory and protects and all of the values that all of us hold dear here across the NATO alliance.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Oh, was there another question, I think. Oh, so there was, sorry. There was the first question, which was the degree to which Israel will be part of the conversations here at the Defense Ministerial. I don’t have specific details to share with you. I think allies, no doubt will want to talk about what happened in Israel and express their solidarity. We’ve seen all members of the alliance issue their own national statements really in real time, almost as the attack was was ongoing, and I suspect that will be part of our conversation. Stay tuned for any additional details on that particular subject.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. And we’ll go to a live question now: Mehmet Krasniqi from RTV Dukagjini Nikki. Mehmet, your mike is open.
QUESTION: Hi Mrs Ambassador, I am Mehmet Krasniqi from Dukagjini Radio and Television. I hope you hear me. You are probably aware of reports that the terrorist group responsible for the 24th of September attacks used Serbia military bases for trainings. Are you aware of this information and what’s your comments about it? And Hezbollah? Are you waiting for a NATO official to brought this issue up with Serbian officials? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: I don’t have anything to share on that particular incident that you’re mentioning. I will say we have all been here at NATO HQ, all the allies closely monitoring the situation on the ground in the Western Balkans. We have been concerned about increasing signs of instability and some flashpoints where we’ve seen an uptick in violence, as a result KFOR took the decision in recent days to draw from some of its strategic reserve forces. We now have had a plus up of our forces of a few hundred coming primarily from the United Kingdom and Romania. We will continue to message our friends in the region that the only path forward to normalization is through the EU led facilitated dialog, which is strongly supported across the NATO alliance. We will continue to work with SACEUR to see if he believes anything additional should be required for NATO forces on the ground in Kosovo. I know he is looking at whether or not KFOR has the right level of capabilities and readiness to prepare, to handle any potential contingencies. But that is an area of focus for the alliance, and we will continue to look at that region and urge de-escalation.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll go to another pre-selected question. We had a number of questions following this line. Alexander Ward from Politico. Admiral Rob Bauer recently said NATO allies could see the “bottom of the barrel” of weapon supplies to send to Ukraine. Does the United States agree with that assessment?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: I think what we’ve seen across the alliance is a number of countries individually have really moved heaven and earth to give everything they possibly can to the Ukrainian people so that they can ensure that they have what they need to defend their territory. Situations obviously vary from one country to another. We have some countries that are prepared to give more. We have some member states that have noted that they’ve given a lot and they want to ensure that they can also maintain their own national defense. But in those cases, those countries have looked for creative ways to address some of their backfill requirements so that they could find more to give. Some countries are also purchasing assets and weapons that they might be able to donate. And we’ve seen a number of countries around the world step forward and offer backfill support to those allies that are providing security assistance. So again, they can find some additional ways to support Ukraine. So I think we will come out of the UDCG this week with additional forms of assistance. We will see allies continuing to look for ways to meet those urgent requirements that the Ukrainians are putting on the table. And most importantly, NATO here has all of the allies here at NATO have been focused on increasing production in our own countries across Europe, working in some cases multilaterally, bilaterally, to find ways to get those production lines, to produce some of the capabilities that are required at a faster clip. So this is all part of an effort here at NAITO to ensure that NATO allies have what they need for their national defense, can continue to find ways to support Ukraine, and showcase alliance solidarity as we stand with the people of Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to another submitted question, this time from Andre Popescu from Panorama. How worried is the alliance about the Russian drone attacks taking place at the border of Romania targeting Ukrainian Danube harbours, some of them violating Romanian airspace or possibly crashing in Romanian territory. Are there any precautionary measures or reactions that NATO is taking to tackle this issue?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, we’ve been in close contact with our friends in Romania to better understand what’s happening, what has happened to date, and how we might all provide additional vigilance activities that would help them protect their territory. The Alliance has undertaken a series of steps since Russia went into Ukraine last year to reinforce the eastern flank. We now have allied troops that are present inside Romania addressing their very legitimate and real security concerns. Obviously, in light of some of these drone incidents, SACEUR has been looking at ways to again enhance vigilance activities. So that we can monitor these events, better understand them and hopefully deter them. We have warned the Russians about these types of incidents and will continue to do so. But when we say that we are here to protect every inch of NATO’s territory, we mean it. And we’ve undertaken a series of steps to ensure that we can do so.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Going to a question from Reuters in Turkey, Tuvan Gumrukcu. Have Turkish officials provided you with any timeline regarding the ratification of Sweden’s NATO bid? If this process were to be delayed any further, what sort of implications would this have on U.S.-Turkey ties? Would it in any way affect Ankara’s procurement of F-16s and modernization kits from the United States?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, the timeline that was offered was really what we heard from President Erdogan himself, when we were all at the Vilnius summit last summer in July. And at that time, he said that he believed Sweden had addressed all of Türkiye’s concerns and that he personally was ready to move out and move forward with the process of ratification. That was complicated to do at the time because the parliament inside Türkiye was getting ready to head into recess. So there was an acknowledgment that this would likely happen sometime in October. I think what Türkiye has heard from all of the Allies is that we very much hope that this process now will move forward with great speed and urgency. We obviously are eager to have Sweden sit at the table as a full fledged member. This isn’t just a question of Sweden’s security, although that’s a big part of it. They obviously are interested in finalizing membership as soon as possible, but this is also a question of Alliance security. It won’t surprise you to hear that many of our friends in the Baltic States and in that particular region, the Nordic Baltic region, are also very interested in ensuring that Sweden become a member as soon as possible. So this is a matter for all of us. It would mean a great deal to get this done as soon as possible because we are in the process of implementing and executing NATO’s new regional plans, that were just rolled out at the Vilnius summit. So I think we anticipate that this will happen sooner rather than later. We have worked closely with our friends in Hungary and Türkiye to make sure that they understand the urgency, and we very much hope that President Erdogan will deliver on the pledge that he made in Vilnius.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Question from Paul McLeary, Politico. Is NATO’s taking a new look at Black Sea security, particularly boosting the naval or air defense capabilities of allies who border the Black Sea?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Right now, we are for all the obvious reasons. Clearly, the Black Sea is an area that we’re monitoring quite closely, in particular because of what we mentioned earlier, some of these incidents with drones landing or breaking up over Romanian territory. So this has been a focus for the alliance. We’ve looked at it closely. There are air policing missions close to that particular neighborhood, and we are looking to fill any existing gaps that exist in NATO’s air policing missions in the neighborhood. It will continue to be an area that we monitor quite closely, and all of us are very focused on trying to find ways to get the grain out of Ukraine now that Russia has decided to kill the Black Sea Grain Initiative. We’re looking at additional routes down through the Danube and overland. Unfortunately, those routes are not so well developed as to replicate exactly what we were able to get out through the Black Sea itself. But we’re looking to expand those routes as fast as possible. And lastly, I’ll say we really salute our friends in Türkiye and for the efforts that they have undertaken not only to establish the Black Sea Grain Initiative when it was first created last year, but their recent efforts to try and get it back online.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. I think we have time for one more question, going to Zoriana Stepanenko, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. The Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, what will they be focused on tomorrow, given the most urgent needs of Ukraine? What kind of military aid can be expected, given also the current capacities of Allies and partners united in a so-called Rammstein format?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, as I said at the top, I anticipate that the emphasis will be mostly on air defense and ammunition, although no doubt the Ukrainians will come in with a variety of other requests. I can’t say with certainty what will come out of the actual meeting. It always is an organic meeting where ministers step forward and offer assistance in real time, and in some cases we hear about that for the first time in the UDCG. So we cannot predict exactly what will happen. But I say air defense and ammunition really for two reasons. One, because those sets of capabilities are still very important for the battles that the Ukrainians are fighting today, but also air defense in particular is going to be critical during those winter months where we have seen the Russians rely on indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure, critical infrastructure to try and plunge the Ukrainian people into cold and darkness. We want to make sure that the Ukrainians this winter have the air defense assets they need to harden those critical infrastructure nodes and ensure that Russian efforts to leave Ukrainians in the dark and cold are ultimately unsuccessful. So that air defense component, very, very important for now and later. And that’s why I suspect you’ll see a special emphasis placed on air defense when all the ministers meet tomorrow.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks everyone, for your questions, and thank you, Ambassador Smith, for taking the time to join us. Before we close the call, I turn it back to you quickly for any final thoughts.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, just thanks again for everybody’s interest in checking in before the DMM and the UDCG. We’re looking forward to this meeting. I think it comes at a wonderful time to signal to the Russians in particular, but also the people of Ukraine that our support collectively remains unwavering. And we will continue to find important ways to support Ukraine in the months ahead.
MODERATOR: Thank you.