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  • Ambassador Julianne Smith discusses Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting and NATO Defense Ministerial to take place at NATO headquarters this week and answers questions.   

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I would like to welcome everyone joining us today for the virtual press briefing.  We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith from the U.S. Mission to NATO.   

As a reminder, today’s session is on the record.  You can notify us of any technical difficulties you might have at TheBrusselsHub – one word – 

And 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 everybody who’s joining us.  Either good afternoon to those in Europe or good morning to those sitting on the other side of the Atlantic.  Pleased to speak with all of you today here from NATO headquarters where, of course, we’re going to be hosting two big engagements this week.  We’ve got the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting, which will take place tomorrow on the 14th, and we have a NATO Defense Ministerial here at NATO headquarters as well, and that will split between Tuesday and Wednesday.   

Apologies in advance at the top.  I have a little bit of a head cold, so I’m sorry if I end up coughing throughout any of this, but I’ll try to avoid that.   

First, let me start with just a quick overview of the UDCG, the U.S.-hosted Ukraine Defense Contact Group, often referred to as the Ramstein Group.  Again, that will take place tomorrow on Tuesday and will be chaired both by Secretary Austin and General Milley.  We will have ministers of defense and chiefs of defense from over 50 countries in attendance.  This is the ninth iteration of this type of meeting, where we sit down and assess, with our Ukrainian friends, how we can identify more assistance, more security assistance, and move things as fast as possible into their hands as they continue to defend their territory.  We will have, as is often the case, the Ukrainian defense minister, Minister Reznikov, joining us in person for the UDCG, and we’ll look forward to welcoming him back here to Brussels.  

As you heard President Biden say last week, we are committed to getting Ukraine everything that it needs to defend itself from Russia’s brutal and barbaric war for as long as it takes.  But I just want to stress again that this is not just the United States staying – saying that and coming together to pledge that kind of support.  It’s important to stress again that this is a group of over 50 different countries that come together on a regular basis to first understand the current requirements on the part of the Ukrainians and then match those requirements with new and additional pledges of assistance.  

Second, let me just say a few words about the defense ministerial that will follow.  This is the first defense ministerial we’ve had since October, the first of 2023.  This ministerial in particular will have a couple of issues on which ministers will focus.  We will carry on with our discussions about modernizing the alliance, particularly as it relates to defense resources and capabilities, and I’ll say more about that in a minute.  We’re going to take a closer look at how we can strengthen and broaden NATO’s partnerships, which has been a key focus for the alliance for some time, but especially since the Strategic Concept was rolled out last summer with its added emphasis on strengthening partnerships.  And then we’re obviously in the process of operationalizing the Strategic Concept that was rolled out just last summer and ensuring that the alliance is fit for the future on a variety of challenges, whether you’re talking about emerging and disruptive technologies or cyber defense or climate and energy security.  

Now, the ministers are also going to spend some time focused on how to increase our collective defense industrial capacity and replenish the stockpiles that we’ve seen decreasing because of so many individual Allies’ strong support for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself.  As you know, the war in Ukraine is consuming just an enormous amount of munitions, and I think Allies have been quite honest and open about the fact that it has depleted some of their stockpiles.  At the same time, defense industries are under strain, and as an alliance, we really believe that we have to work together and hand-in-glove with industry to ramp up production and certainly ramp up production timelines.  This is absolutely essential to ensure that we can keep supporting Ukraine while also ensuring that we collectively can protect every inch of allied territory.   

Now, on the question of resourcing, here I’ll just remind you that in Madrid at the summit last summer, Allies did recommit to investing at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, but the final targets and deliverables for this year’s summit, which will be in Vilnius, in Lithuania, are still taking shape.  And so this will be part of the discussion that unfolds this week here at NATO HQ.  The last year has demonstrated that allied defense capabilities need strong and consistent funding, and we’ve seen NATO Allies step up investments quite significantly in defense.  And we believe that U.S. support to and leadership within the alliance remains absolutely unwavering.   

Now, lastly on the question of unity, I’ll just state what some of you have heard me say before, and that is that we meet each and every day here as NATO ambassadors, and I can just assure you that as we approach the one-year mark since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the mood at NATO remains entirely unchanged.  We continue to be united as Allies in our full support for Ukraine.  We continue to be united in defending every inch of NATO territory, and certainly we continue to be united in ensuring that we all hold the Kremlin to account.   

So we have a very busy agenda this week as we continue NATO’s important work across multiple issue sets, and I think what’s best for me to do right now is just to stop there and I’m happy to take some questions.  Thanks again for taking time out of your schedule to join us today.  

MODERATOR:  Thanks so much for that, Ambassador.  We will now turn to the questions-and-answer portion of today’s briefing.   

Our first question, why don’t we go to a live question from Tomas Miglierina.  Tomas, you have the mike.  Tomas, can you hear us?   

Okay, why don’t we go to another question, then, from Robbie Gramer that was pre-submitted.  “Do Iran and Russia’s deepening military ties since the war in Ukraine began pose a danger to NATO countries, even beyond Ukraine?  Is there anything Allies are doing to try and hamper this cooperation at the NATO level beyond statements of condemnation and sanctions on already heavily sanctioned countries?” 

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, thanks for that question, Robbie.  What – NATO Allies first and foremost, obviously, are tracking quite closely and monitoring the fact that Iranian drones are increasingly being utilized by Russia in its attacks on civilian infrastructure in particular.  And I think allies obviously not only find that development extremely worrying, but I think it says a lot to all of us and to the world about Russia’s increasing isolation and the fact that it feels compelled and it is forced to turn to just a very small list of countries, Iran included, to fill some of the gaps that it has in its military capabilities.   

So this is a situation that obviously troubles all of us a great deal.  It is a topic of conversation inside the alliance, and we will continue to send signals to Iran about the dangers of supporting Russia with material support in its attacks and war inside Ukraine.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, ma’am.  We’ll go to a question now from Mikael Holmström from Dagens Nyheter in Sweden.  “What contributions will Finland and Sweden bring to the alliance once they are accepted as full-fledged member states?  What is the U.S. doing to help achieve this in time for the Vilnius Summit?”   

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, first of all, I would say not just the United States, but what I hear each and every day here across the alliance is full and deep support for Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.  I personally have been very impressed, and I think the secretary general has said the same, about the speed with which the ratification process has nearly been completed.  We’re facing a situation now where 28 of the 30 Allies have completed the ratification process.  That is warp speed for the NATO alliance and very different from the process that we’ve seen with some prior new members of the alliance.   

We do want to work closely with the remaining countries.  Both Hungary and Türkiye have yet to complete the ratification process.  We have all – many of us – spoken up about our interests.  Certainly the U.S. hopes to see Finland and Sweden and expects Finland and Sweden to join the alliance soon.  Many Allies would like to see that, including the United States, occur by the Vilnius Summit. 

In terms of what the two allies potentially could bring, I mean, let me just step back and say, as NATO partners, these were already two countries that were making a series of important contributions to the alliance.  These two countries were exercising and training with NATO allies and they were also participating in NATO missions in recent years, and we’ve welcomed that participation.  They’ve made important, concrete contributions too to our collective security.  

When they join, when they become full-fledged members, certainly these are two democracies that mirror and share the values that we all hold dear and that we protect here at the NATO alliance.  And they will bring real capacity.  These countries bring a tremendous amount of experience.  They have important regional relationships.  I know that the Nordic and Baltic nations in their immediate neighborhood will certainly welcome both of them joining the alliance.  

What’s also interesting about these two countries is they’re members of the European Union.  They believe, as we do, in strong ties between NATO and the European Union.  And so I think ultimately, when this comes to pass in the hopefully not too distant future, they will find a warm welcome on the part of all allies, and that I expect their transition to full-fledged membership to be essentially seamless.  And I have no doubt that they will bring enormous capacity to this alliance.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  The next question is from Teri Schultz from Deutsche Welle.  She asks, “Would the U.S. like to see a new defense investment pledge to include more binding requirements more binding requirements for defense spending rather than just the Wales aspirational language?  Is that going to be possible?  What percentage of GDP would the U.S. find sufficient?”  

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, I think what Tori has – Teri has in essence done with her question is she’s outlined a variety of options in terms of the way forward, and I don’t have the final word on that to date.  As I noted at the top, we are in the process of discussing what comes after the Defense Investment Pledge.  This was a pledge that was made in 2014.   It has a 10-year cap on it, so it was meant to be a pledge in existence from 2014 to 2024.  What allies would like to do is to announce at this year’s summit what would come after the Defense Investment Pledge, and there, there are a whole array of options.  

As Teri noted, one option would be to repeat the Defense Investment Pledge of some size or shape.  You could make it a more enduring commitment; that is one possibility.  You could change the metrics that you use for the Defense Investment Pledge.  There’s a whole array of options here, all to say that these are some of the suggestions and ideas among many others that defense ministers will discuss.  Also, foreign ministers at the next foreign ministerial, I suspect, will also want to discuss this.  This is kind of the path that we’re on right now to the Vilnius Summit and will certainly be one of the main areas of focus for the alliance between now and July 11 and 12th, which is when the summit will take place in Lithuania.  

So stay tuned, Teri.  More to come on that front, but nothing specific to share today.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you, ma’am.  Speaking of Lithuania, we have a question from Evaldas Labanauskas from Magazine IQ.  He asks, “Ambassador, you have already visited Vilnius, where the NATO summit will be.  How is the preparation going, and what would be the main topics of the summit?  Can we expect a new NATO general secretary at the summit?”  

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, thank you very much for that question.  I had a terrific trip to Vilnius just a couple of weeks ago, and I can assure you that preparations are underway.  I was so impressed with the way in which the government in Vilnius has embraced this summit, how excited they are to host all the NATO leaders and some NATO partners, hopefully, at the summit as well.  

This really comes at a remarkable moment for the alliance.  I think it will be important to have this summit in Lithuania, given all of the important contributions that they make to this alliance each and every day, and also because of their leadership when it comes to what’s happening inside Ukraine.  So I know many allies – I think all the allies – are excited and looking forward to joining the summit in Vilnius later this summit – summer.  

In terms of specific deliverables, as I just mentioned, I suspect that we will have something to say about the Defense Investment Pledge.  I suspect that we will no doubt have more to say about Ukraine and our continued determination and resolve to support Ukraine as it defends its territory, assuming that the war is still ongoing at that juncture.  I think we’ll have more to say most likely in terms of implementing some of the force posture decisions that were taken at the summit last summer.  There’s a whole slew of additional decisions tied to that that relate to both plans and C2, command and control, that we’ll be talking about in the summit.  

And then we’ll have to see where we are on the secretary general.  You all know that last year the allies took the decision to extend Jens Stoltenberg’s term by one year.  We will now have to reach a decision on who will succeed him, and I suspect allies will have something to say about that when they get to the summit as well.  

So those are some of the main themes.  But of course, partnerships will no doubt be a key part of it, all of the good work that we continue to do in the space of cyber or EDTs or climate security.  There will be a long list of deliverables in Vilnius, and I have no doubt that our hosts are going to put on a very, very successful summit this July.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you, ma’am.  We’ll go to a live question now.  Alex Raufoglu, you have the mike.  

QUESTION:  Yes.  Good morning.  Thank you so much for doing this.  Ambassador, back to Ukraine discussion.  Very quickly, as you know, the President Biden, he ruled out sending American F-16s to Ukraine.  If other countries that possess those jets decide to send on their own, do they have your permission?  Is that being discussed?  

And also very quickly on the news of the day, in light of the last weekend’s events involving unknown objects that were shot down in the U.S., I was wondering if – where you are at in terms of potentially imposing Article 5.  Is that being discussed at all?  Thanks so much. 

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, I can give you a quick answer on your second question, and that is we are not discussing Article 5 at the moment as it relates to any of the incidents in regards to UFOs that have been shot down in recent days.  So, no action here at NATO headquarters. 

On the question of F-16s, I think you’ve heard President Biden say now multiple times that the United States remains committed to getting Ukraine what they need as they defend themselves from this brutal war for as long as it takes.  And in terms of individual countries’ contributions, we leave that to each sovereign nation to determine how they want to provide assistance and what type of assistance to Ukraine; that is left in the hands of each individual capital.   

But what’s important is that we all come together in the form of this contact group, and the meeting that we will have tomorrow will be another important opportunity, again, to hear directly from the Ukrainians about what their security requirements are and how allies are willing and able to step forward and address those particular requirements. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  We’ll go to another pre-submitted question at this time.  Andrei Luca Popescu from Panorama in Romania asks:  “How do you assess the current balance of power on the battlefield in Ukraine?  Is Russia’s offensive in the east credible or do you think they are still stuck?  Recently a Russian missile went through Moldova’s airspace before hitting a target in Ukraine and it was initially alleged that it also passed through Romanian airspace.  What would be NATO’s response if it comes to a Russian airstrike breaching NATO’s airspace?” 

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, let me just say we’ve heard and seen the reports coming out of Moldova.  The government has acknowledged that this particular missile traversed their airspace.  I will say, however, we do not see any threats to NATO territory right now.  However, allies have been crystal-clear in messaging to Russia that we will defend every inch of NATO territory, and that’s why many NATO members sent additional troops into Central and Eastern Europe right after the war started to ensure that we were meeting the very real security requirements of our allies on the eastern flank. 

In terms of the balance of power on the ground, we’ve just been incredibly impressed by the performance of the Ukrainian military forces each and every day that this war has taken place.  We’ve been impressed by the victories that they’ve had to retake territory that the Russians have tried to seize.  We were very impressed with their ability to oust the Russian troops that were headed for Kyiv in the early days and weeks of the war.  And we believe that ultimately the Ukrainians will prevail. 

All that said, nothing in war is linear.  We see periods during this war – we have seen – when Ukrainians have had more success, some days the Russians have more success.  We will continue most importantly to get the Ukrainians the support that they need so that they can prevail on the ground. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  I think we have time for one more question.  We’ll go to Tomas Miglierina from Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.  He says the first anniversary of the Russian invasion is approaching soon; he would like your comments on what the first year of war has done to NATO.  And he also asks, “Do you think that the issue of Swiss ammunition that cannot be re-exported to Ukraine due to Swiss neutrality may surface in the discussion tomorrow?” 

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Well, let me start by reflecting a little bit for a minute on what this past year has really meant for the NATO alliance.  I mean, for me, some of the observations I’ve made is just the remarkable level of unity that you see across this alliance as it relates to Ukraine.  Many have predicted, including President Putin himself, that that unity wouldn’t hold.  I think some folks were questioning whether or not NATO allies would maintain this level of support for as long as they have.  I’ve been impressed by the level of unity that allies have showcased.  I see no signs of any country shifting their support for Ukraine.  No one is headed for the exits.  I see strong, unanimous support across this alliance for Ukraine’s right to defend itself, and a deep appreciation for what Ukraine is fighting for. 

Allies here fundamentally understand that this war isn’t just about Ukrainians defending Ukrainian sovereignty and Ukrainian territory.  It’s about defending the values that we all cherish and want to protect.   

So that would be lesson number one.  Lesson number two is – or just observation – has been watching this alliance experience a bit of a coming home.  And by that I mean this alliance has returned to its core mission set of deterrence and defense in ways that many of us didn’t anticipate.  I think years ago this alliance was focused, rightly, on things like expeditionary operations and operating in some faraway places.  And now the alliance is focused like a laser on defending every inch of NATO territory and getting deterrence and defense right.  We’ve made several changes to our posture over the last year to reinforce that eastern flank.  Those are lasting changes, significant changes I think, again, that come as a direct result of Russia’s actions inside Ukraine. 

So it has been a remarkable year for the alliance in terms of returning to its core mission and maintaining and increasing its support for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian military forces.  Tragically, we have not yet seen the end to this war.  We hope that the one person that started this war, President Putin, will end it as soon as possible.  And allies will continue to come together to exert as much pressure as they can on President Putin to try and alter his strategic calculus so that he will ultimately end this war. 

On questions of Swiss policy, I mean, I’m going to leave that to, first of all, the government in Bern and the Swiss government to make its own determination.  But it is important that the Swiss can join us for contact group meetings, and we’re glad that we’re going to have another opportunity tomorrow to sit down again with the 50-plus countries that join us for these types of meetings.  And we’ll see what comes out of tomorrow’s session. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today.  Thank you all 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 the group. 

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  No, thank you.  Thank you very much for joining us. 

MODERATOR:  Appreciate that, ma’am.  Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available.  We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub – one word – 

Thank you again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon.

U.S. Department of State

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