Moderator: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. Today we are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Ambassador Smith, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador Smith: Thank you, and good afternoon to everyone joining us, or good morning depending on where you’re dialing in from. I thought I would just say a couple words at the top about the foreign ministerial that will take place this week, tomorrow and Thursday. This of course – this ministerial follows the recent successful summit NATO held in person just recently, on March 24th. And so Secretary Blinken is now returning to Brussels tonight, and he will meet over the next two days with his counterparts and focus on a couple of different things. So let me just mention four things before opening up to the floor to your questions, and we can head in any direction you want.
So first and foremost, to state the obvious, the focus will remain very much on the war in Ukraine. And as you all well know, NATO Allies have come together in this moment and provided an immense amount of support, both lethal support, humanitarian assistance, economic support to Ukraine, even before the war started, and certainly since February 24th they’ve continued to do so. So we will use this moment to bring ministers together to think about what more the Alliance individually, collectively can be doing to support the people of Ukraine. Obviously in the wake of the horrific images coming out of Bucha, we now feel even more compelled to take a fresh look at additional forms of assistance, individually, collectively, any way that we can.
Secondly, I would note that in addition to the war in Ukraine and despite the fact that that is first and foremost in our minds, we also continue to remain focused here in NATO HQ on the Madrid Summit, which feels like it’s just around the corner. That of course will be taking place in late June, and there are a number of things that we need to get done by Madrid, and that work often happens at the ministers’ level. And so it’s very important that we have these engagements as we sprint towards Madrid.
The main deliverable in Madrid of course will be the Strategic Concept, this document that is usually rewritten, redrafted once a decade. And so looking at the last version of it, which actually was in 2010, it’s sorely outdated, and so Allies have been spending recent months and will spend the months ahead crafting a Strategic Concept that reflects adequately the security environment that NATO finds itself in. So that will be a key part of Madrid and a deliverable we’ll focus on. Also, the Alliance is turning its attention to future challenges, whether it’s cybersecurity or emerging and disruptive technology, and so there’s more work to be done in lots of other categories to make sure that the Alliance is equipped for tomorrow’s challenges. So that’s basket number two.
Third thing I wanted to mention is this is going to be a pretty interesting ministerial as ministerials go because for the first time, we’re actually going to have our four Asian-Pacific – Asia-Pacific partners joining us. So we’ll have the ministers or a representative from the four countries of Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand joining us here at NATO for this ministerial, and they’ll be joined by some of our other partners, including the European Union, Sweden and Finland, and I would mention that Georgia and Ukraine will also be part of this ministerial. And what that tells us is that NATO is increasingly joining forces with other democratic partners around the world; we’re looking for ways to bring some of these countries across the Pacific into our discussions first and foremost because they’ve provided very important support to Ukraine, but also because they have a lot to share when it comes to some of those future challenges that I just mentioned.
Lastly, I just want to mention that we will also have a separate session with Minister Kuleba. It’s important for us to hear directly from the Ukrainians firsthand what their assessment is of these fast-moving developments on the ground, and what more we can all do to help the Ukrainians in this moment. And anytime we have an opportunity – as you know, President Zelenskyy was able to join us via video at the summit – anytime we’re able to sit down and engage directly with either President Zelenskyy or members of his cabinet, it’s a useful exercise to help steer us in the right direction in terms of the way forward.
So a couple of comments there, and again, we’re going to be busy over the next two days. Very excited to have ministers here to continue to focus our work both on Russia-Ukraine and on the Madrid Summit. So, thanks. With that, I’ll open it up to your questions.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much, Ambassador. Our first question comes to us from Natalia Drozdiak with Bloomberg. Her question is: “There have been calls for NATO to move from a forward presence to a forward defense posture in the eastern flank. What does the U.S. believe that entails? Would Allies matching Russia’s 160,000-plus troops located in and around Ukraine at the eastern flank be an option?”
Ambassador Smith: So first I would say well before Russia went into Ukraine on February 24th, the Alliance reached the conclusion collectively that we needed to do more to reinforce the eastern flank, that this was the time to enhance deterrence and assurance measures in places like the Baltic states, Poland, Southeastern Europe, whether you’re talking about Romania, Bulgaria, or other countries. And so we saw several countries come forward in the first few weeks before the actual fighting started, come forward and move posture.
Then, after Russia went into Ukraine, those efforts continued with more and more countries coming forward, offering additional troops, ships, whatever was needed – fighter jets, enhancing air policing; various measures were taken, air, land, sea, by really just about any and every member of the Alliance, and it was remarkable to see the speed with which Allies were united and able to move out on reinforcing the eastern flank.
Then we hit a point where we were prepared to formally create four new battle groups. These are usually about 1,000 troops, personnel in size. We had four of these in the wake of Russia’s invasion of or attempted annexation of Crimea. We developed four battle groups in the three Baltic states and Poland. Now we’re prepared to announce we have four more. You heard about that at the summit. A total of eight battle groups covering the entire eastern flank from north to south, which is remarkable – again, the speed with which those steps were undertaken.
The question on the table now is – really gets to the heart of your question, and that is over the medium and long term, where does this Alliance want to actually move forward in terms of either enhancing those eight battle groups, increasing the size of those battle groups, or providing additional forms of force posture in and around that neighborhood. And that work is underway. What happened at the summit was that leaders were able to formally endorse a tasking that went to the military commanders here at NATO to begin looking at the threat environment and make an assessment about what those medium- and long-term scenarios could look like. It’s probably too soon to be talking about some of that, but we anticipate that we’ll have more news to share on NATO’s medium- and long-term posture by the time we get to the Madrid Summit, if not sooner.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question from Danila Galperovich with Voice of America. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello. Thank you very much for doing this briefing. How can the United States practically help the international investigation of war crimes related to Russian aggression in Ukraine? And what can be the mechanism for holding Russia accountable? Thank you.
Ambassador Smith: Well, thanks for that question. So first and foremost, what we want to do is ensure that we expose the truth, and in order to expose the truth and fully understand what is happening on the ground, we need to collect as much information as possible. We are now relying on firsthand accounts from Ukrainian citizens. We are seeing some international organizations, NGOs are starting to collect information as well, putting together a narrative, trying to put together some sense of what has gone on as we’ve looked again at these horrific images coming out of Bucha, but possibly in other locations as well. You’ve seen a reliance by the international community on satellite imagery as well.
So we are in the process of gathering evidence. I think it’s clear where the President and the Biden administration stands. They’ve said that we’ve seen war crimes, we’ve seen atrocities. And so what we have to do is collect the information we need to hold Putin and his team in Moscow accountable, and you can do that through multiple paths. There of course if the ICC path; there is a United Nations option; there are multiple ways to do that. And so I don’t think I could say today with any certainty exactly how this is going to move forward, but the focus right now just a few days after these images coming in over the weekend is really to gather as much evidence as possible.
Question: Thank you.
Moderator: Great, thanks very much. Picking up on what you said earlier, Ambassador, about NATO’s Pacific partners, we have a question from Giulia Pompili with Il Foglio in Italy, who asks: “In addition to the strengthening of the NATO defense in Eastern Europe, are you beginning to think of an enlargement in the Indo-Pacific countries to counter Chinese militarization in the area? Are there any steps forward on this?”
Ambassador Smith: No. The Alliance is actually not looking at formally expanding across the Pacific. What we’re doing is really two things. First, as I noted at the top, we’re bringing some of these Asia-Pacific partners into our conversations here at NATO and enhancing our partnership with these countries because we all have important experience that we can bring to bear. We have different competencies, different capabilities, different perspectives on the challenges that both Russia and China pose, and increasingly we’re able to learn from one another on how these two countries actually are coming closer to one another as we recently saw in their joint statement that they issued together just before the war in Ukraine started. So that’s one part of it.
The other part is we’re having some important conversations here at NATO Headquarters about what China is doing in and around Europe, and we’re increasingly looking at ways that China’s activities, whether it’s through investment in critical infrastructure or generally through the Belt and Road Initiative, is perhaps creating vulnerabilities or a shift in the security environment for NATO Allies that we have to think about the tools we would need to counter or to build up resilience to some of those challenges. So we’re finding that China is becoming more and more active in the Euro-Atlantic area, and so we want to heighten the awareness of some of those activities in the Alliance, and again, build out tools that will help us deal with that.
So those are all very important steps, and I think what you’re going to see in the Strategic Concept is some mention of China as it was mentioned at the summit – in the summit communique last June. But we’re also, as I noted, bringing these Asia-Pacific partners into NATO conversations because we believe that we can all learn from one another in this moment.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Mattia Bagnoli with ANSA News Agency in Italy. Please go ahead, Mattia.
Question: Hi there. Thank you for taking my question. I just wanted to know, we just received news that the Czech Republic apparently is willing to provide Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine, and this is the first tangible proof that we have that a NATO country is providing direct lethal weapon, attack – advanced attack – well, maybe not so advanced, but at least attack weapons, as the Ukrainians has asked us so many times. So my question is: Is this something that Czech Republic is doing on its will or it is something that is coordinated, or if it’s on its will, do you approve that and we can maybe see more of that in the future to come? Thank you.
Ambassador Smith: Well, we are not really commenting on specific allied contributions to Ukraine. What’s happening right now is that many Allies in the NATO Alliance – I would say over two-thirds of the Allies – are actually providing lethal assistance in one form or another. All Allies are providing humanitarian assistance, economic assistance. And so these are sovereign decisions. They are not taken by NATO. There is not a NATO push. There’s no NATO pressure. Obviously, Allies are welcome to come forward in the NATO Alliance and talk about contributions they’re making, if they’re comfortable doing that. But this is really an example of a sovereign decision by a sovereign state, and the – really the only thing I can comment on is what the United States has been doing in the assistance that we’ve been providing. Happy to say more about that to the extent that folks are interested.
But in this particular case, I’m going to leave it to our friends in the Czech Republic.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Paul Shinkman with US News. He – his question is: “Several Russian officials have denied the atrocities in Bucha. Your Russian counterpart at NATO called it a, quote, ‘false-flag attack by the Kyiv regime and its Western sponsors.’ How confident are you that the truth about any war crimes in Ukraine will become publicly known and that the perpetrators will face justice?”
Ambassador Smith: Well, I can’t make any predictions. I don’t have a crystal ball here. But I think I can say with confidence, as you’ve heard many members of the Biden administration state, that we believe that we are currently seeing the aftermath of war crimes and atrocities. We believe at this point that Russian troops are responsible, but again, we are in the middle of collecting and gathering evidence, and so it is too soon to say definitively what happened where. But I think we’re quite confident that we’re going to be able to put together – again, using firsthand accounts on the ground, using technology with that satellite imagery, intelligence, and all the rest – that we will be able to put together the evidence we need to hold Putin accountable.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. And next we have a question from Alex Raufoglu with I believe it’s the Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you, Madam Ambassador, for making yourself available for us today. NATO has invited Georgia along with Ukraine to a foreign ministerial. Can you please speak to the importance of that? And secondly, given what we have seen in Bucha over the weekend and also the news about atrocities in other parts of Ukraine, with so much at stake, can the Alliance help Ukraine establish a humanitarian no-conflict zone in Kyiv or western Ukraine which currently remains free of Russian troops? Thanks so much again.
Ambassador Smith: Sure. So on your second question, on the humanitarian zone, I mean, that is not something that the Alliance is currently looking at. Again, we are very focused on doing three things simultaneously: always thinking about what more we can do to apply pressure on Moscow – we’ve already taken unprecedented steps, but we will continue to figure out what more can be done to send a strong signal to Putin; two, finding ways to help Ukraine through lethal support, through humanitarian assistance, helping the refugees, and providing direct economic assistance to them as well; and then lastly, focused on our NATO Allies, any additional security requirements that they believe are unmet, constantly reassessing the threat environment to make sure that we’re meeting all Allies’ security needs irrespective of where they sit. So that remains the focus today, and that’s probably all I can say about the humanitarian zone.
On the question of involving Georgia and Ukraine, we’ve found it tremendously helpful to have Georgia and Ukraine with us at many of these ministerials. Again, we are able to share information with them. They give us firsthand accounts and insights, their perspectives. In Ukraine’s case, we are able to hear directly from them in terms of specific needs, particularly air-defense needs that they may have or something else that has shifted. If they’re shifting their focus to ammunition or anti-ship or whatever it may be, we get those firsthand updates by having them in the room. It’s obviously important for them to be there, to feel the support around the table, to feel the unity among 30 Allies, to feel the resolve that we have at this moment to stand with not only Ukraine, but also our partners.
And that brings me to one other point I wanted to bring up about what’s going to happen this week at the ministerial. I mean, we will spend some time talking about other NATO partners. There are countries out there like Georgia, but there are others. You could mention Bosnia or Moldova. Countries that already are partners with NATO; they have fairly close relationships, but may need additional support. Perhaps they want to talk to NATO Allies about strategic communications or lessons learned on cyber. I mean, we have a tremendous amount of expertise floating around this giant building here in Brussels, and there is no reason why we can’t offer some of that expertise to our closest partners in this moment as they face this kind of collection of hybrid tools that the Russians like to use.
So we are constantly – again, this is a conflict that’s unfolding in real time, and we’re constantly reassessing not only our support to Ukraine, but how we can support our partners.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We next have a question from Naomi O’Leary with the Irish Times. Please go ahead. Are you there, Naomi O’Leary?
Question: I’m here. Hi. Thank you very much for taking my question. So my question is about potential for preventative action. You’ve mentioned things like supporting the investigation for the apparent atrocities in Ukraine. But given that we have quite a lot of information about the intent of the Russian – the intent of the Russian regime, including from their own state media and stuff, to kill quite a broadly defined section of the Ukrainian population, are there any options for preventative action internationally for that in the areas still under Russian control? Thank you.
Ambassador Smith: Well, I think one of our strategies with this whole conflict really has been to try to get out ahead of Putin’s strategic choices. And so an example of that, you’ll remember many weeks ago the United States sharing intelligence about what we anticipated to be a false flag operation. And the idea there was if you call them out on what we believe they might be planning, maybe that alters his calculus a little bit. Now, in the case of going into Ukraine he still – sadly, Putin opted for conflict and went into Ukraine. But we’re looking for ways to call out the behavior. I mean, you’ve heard the Biden administration talk about how those images that came in this weekend from Bucha were absolutely just heart-wrenching, and I think Secretary Blinken talked about a punch in the gut – it’s just so hard to see, and painful. But also, you heard that administration officials didn’t feel it was particularly surprising in part because we were very clear in noting that we expected these acts of brutality against civilians. And sadly, this is how it’s been playing out.
So the key here, again, is to gather the evidence of the crimes and what we witnessed this weekend, and then to do everything we can to rally the international community to continue to hold Russia accountable.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador. Our final question will go to Robbie Gramer from Foreign Policy magazine. He asks: “Would the United States support Finland and Sweden joining NATO if both countries made a membership bid? What would they bring to the table for NATO in terms of added military capabilities? And would expanding NATO be a bad idea at this point because it could escalate tensions with Russia?”
Ambassador Smith: Well, let me say right off the bat – this is a good question – that the open-door policy here at NATO remains open, and as I think everybody on this call knows, Russia tried its very best in recent months to try and get NATO Allies to revisit that policy. It sent a treaty requesting that NATO basically turn off the process of NATO enlargement, and the answer that came back in stereo surround sound from all 30 Allies was: absolutely not. NATO’s door will remain open, full stop. That was non-negotiable, and we delivered that message very clearly to Russian counterparts here in Brussels, in the NATO-Russia Council, in early January of this year. So nothing is going to change that policy, full stop, and there is tremendous unity at 30 on that question.
Second piece is the question of enlargement rests with essentially two bodies, and that is the aspirant country – so in this case, Sweden and Finland – and the NATO Alliance. This is not a decision for Russia. Russia has no veto over the process. Nor is it a decision for any individual Ally to say we want this to happen and let’s make it so. Finland and Sweden will have to take their own national decision about whether or not they want to join this Alliance. You’ve heard them making some statements recently that they’re looking at this more seriously than they have in the past. And we’ll wait to see what their final decision is. I think from the U.S. perspective, we would welcome these two members. We find that they already bring tremendous value to the Alliance. They have a very close relationship. And of course as I noted, they are now joining us for some North Atlantic Council meetings here in NATO Headquarters on a regular basis, as we talk about Russia and Ukraine. They’re making important contributions to Ukraine. But more importantly, they’ve joined us in – over many years in NATO operations. We’ve exercised, we’ve trained with them. They bring very capable militaries. They are some of our closest allies in Europe, and so I can’t imagine a situation where there would be tremendous resistance to this idea. Quite the contrary, I think NATO Allies would be generally enthusiastic.
But again, this is not our decision. NATO doesn’t issue an invitation. We wait for countries to come to us and take that decision. So we’ll wait and see what Finland and Sweden decide in the weeks and months ahead.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today. Thank you for your questions, and thank you, Ambassador Smith, for joining us.
Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you have any final remarks for this group.
Ambassador Smith: No, just thank you. Always appreciate folks dialing in. Appreciate your interest in NATO, and hope we can keep doing this in the future.
Moderator: Great, thank you so much.