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. We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO.
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 organizing this interview. It’s always good to check in before we have major events here in Brussels, so this is a wonderful opportunity to talk a little bit about, first and foremost, what happened in Washington over the last two days – I’m literally just off the plane – where I was able to accompany the secretary general for a whole series of consultations on the other side of the Atlantic. He had a good meeting with President Biden yesterday and was able to sit down with Secretary Blinken as well, and I know he was up on the Hill meeting with members of Congress as well, which is always a terrific use of time.
So the two, President Biden and Secretary General Stoltenberg, were able to sit down and, first and foremost, just reiterate and stress again that NATO, the United States will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. They then pivoted to get into some of the details of the upcoming Vilnius Summit, and there they were able to spend quite a bit of time discussing Ukraine and what NATO will be doing and saying vis-à-vis its longer-term relationship with Ukraine, which was an important discussion on the road to Vilnius. They were able to talk about the defense investment pledge, the importance of countries meeting the 2 percent target, and then some good discussion on what will follow the defense investment pledge. As you all well know, this was a pledge that was made in 2014 and will actually expire in 2024, and so in Vilnius we’re going to have something more to say about what follows the defense investment pledge and where the Alliance goes from here.
The two leaders, as you could see in the readout, also spent some time talking about Sweden, the fact that Sweden is ready for membership, and that we’re looking forward to getting a
readout of the meeting that will take place in Türkiye today in the trilateral format, where Finland will continue to be part of this group despite the fact that it is now a member of the Alliance, and of course Sweden and Türkiye will sit down and continue to talk through some of the issues that they’ve been working on over the last year to address some of the concerns that Türkiye has had.
But the message here coming both from the United States and many other Allies is that we very much hope that Sweden will become the 32nd member of the Alliance either before or by Vilnius. In our view, Sweden is ready. It’s an extremely capable ally. It has addressed the concerns that our friends in Türkiye have raised, and we would very much like to welcome them with open arms into the Alliance in the weeks ahead.
Now, moving on to what’s happening this week, of course, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will be arriving shortly, and tomorrow we will kick off another meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. As you all know, this enables 50 Allies and partners to sit around the table with their Ukrainian friends, the defense minister, Reznikov, and other commanders, to assess, first and foremost, what their real-time requirements are. We’ll be looking to hearing their insights on the counteroffensive, and obviously we’ll continue to engage in discussions about how the countries represented around the table can address the real-time requirements of our friends in Ukraine.
So looking forward to that, which will be on Thursday. And then it will follow immediately – we will kick off the defense ministerial later that same day with a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting, which will be attended by Minister Reznikov – further discussions on Russia’s war in Ukraine and how the Alliance can best support Ukraine in this moment. And then on Friday we’ll move into a couple of other sessions that will focus on different aspects of deterrence and defense, and kind of is the last stepping stone on the road to Vilnius. We just recently had a ministerial in Oslo where foreign ministers were able to tackle some of these same issues, and now the defense ministers will have their last bite at the apple before we have heads of state and government gather in Vilnius.
So very much looking forward to the defense ministerial, looking forward to welcoming both General Milley and Secretary of Defense Austin here in Brussels, and then of course we’re all looking forward to Vilnius.
So why don’t I leave it there, and I’m happy to take some of your questions.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Ambassador. We’ll go now to the question-and-answer portion. The first question we’ll take from Sofiia Nazarenko from Channel 24 in Ukraine. Sofiia asks: “There are discussions among NATO member states about providing a roadmap for Ukraine to join the Alliance during the Vilnius Summit. What is the U.S. position on this?” And then Sofiia also asks: “Yesterday, Ukraine’s defense minister and SecDef Lloyd Austin discussed the situation on the front. How does the U.S. assess the start of the counteroffensive?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you very much, Sofiia. On your second question on the counteroffensive, I think that’s really best directed at our friends in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy, of course, has acknowledged that the counteroffensive is officially underway, but I really would leave it to the Ukrainians to speak to their own military operations and I wouldn’t feel comfortable providing any sort of an assessment. And of course, that’s what allies are interested in: hearing directly from Minister Reznikov when he arrives here in Brussels.
On your first question about Ukraine and membership and Ukraine’s future longer-term relationship with the Alliance, I think a couple things are clear. First and foremost, all Allies are in agreement, and that includes the United States, that we are excited about the prospect of welcoming President Zelenskyy to the summit, and we are working on a package right now in real time of both practical support – not just practical support to assist them with their current efforts to defend their territorial integrity, but practical support tied to longer-term questions, longer-term modernization issues that they will be grappling with, questions of standardization, interoperability, and thinking about what type of force they will have in the future – not just what the requirements are now, which is our first priority. But at the summit we’ll have more to say about our longer-term practical assistance.
And then there’ll be another package of political support to our friends in Ukraine that will signal kind of I think a new set of – well, I guess I would say new deliverables in the category of enhancing our political relationship with Ukraine, and we’ll have more to say about that in Vilnius.
So I think the Allies are united in – and very interested in having a package of deliverables for Zelenskyy. Of course, our positions are clear. Bucharest holds. Russia doesn’t get a voice or a veto on NATO’s Open Door policy. We support Ukraine’s aspirations, its Euro-Atlantic aspirations to fully integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions. And a lot of this is part of the discussions that will be going on here at the DMM and well into the weeks leading up to the summit.
So again, we’re looking forward to welcoming President Zelenskyy, and we think we’ll have a nice package to deliver at the summit.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Let’s go to a live question now. Myroslava Gongadze. Myroslava, please, you have the microphone. Can you hear us Myroslava?
Let’s go to another live question, then. Mats Eriksson from Swedish Radio. Mats, please go ahead. Mats, you have the mic. Can you hear us?
Seem to have some difficulties. We’ll try one more. John Paul Rathbone. John Paul, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador. I just want to follow up from that last question about Ukraine and security guarantees and a possible roadmap to NATO membership. There’s a perception that the U.S. and perhaps Germany are less keen on giving Ukraine NATO
membership, and I wondered if you believe that is a correct perception, and if not, why not? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you for that. I think the best way to describe it is there’s a rich conversation going on across the Alliance with a whole array of views. This is not a situation where the entire Alliance has agreed language for how to describe Ukraine’s membership aspirations, and there’s one or two countries that stand outside of that group in opposition. We are having and we have had a series of conversations where Allies are looking at both an array of concrete deliverables and an array of options for describing their membership aspirations.
So I think it’s much more nuanced and complicated, and it’s encouraging in some ways because every Ally is bringing a different perspective to the table, as we always do here at NATO, and we’re working through what is the best way to proceed in a way that will help us build consensus, that the Allies can put their full weight behind whatever language they end up rolling out in the communique.
So I am – again, I’m not worried. I think we are going to have a lot to say about NATO and Ukraine, and again, we’re going to have those concrete deliverables in hand. And I think it will be a wonderful opportunity for us all to come together and reaffirm our support for Ukraine, not just now but going forward into the future as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to a submitted question from Mikael Holmström, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden. Mikael asks: “Türkiye has not yet ratified Sweden’s accession to NATO. What concrete steps is the U.S. taking to facilitate this? Is the U.S. export of F-16s part of this discussion, and will these two issues be addressed in any form during the meeting?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, again, first and foremost, we have found great utility and value in the fact that Finland, Sweden, and Türkiye have been meeting quite regularly over the past year because it’s given those three countries to sit down in a much smaller group separate from Alliance-wide discussions and talk about the specific issues that Türkiye has raised, particularly in relation to counterterrorism issues, and they’ve worked through it. They’ve worked through a lot of those concerns. Sweden and Finland have addressed the issues that Türkiye has raised. And so we’re excited about the fact that the group will be reconvening today. It’s a nice opportunity to review what’s been done. I know our friends in Sweden will want to talk about the counterterrorism legislation that they enacted on June 1st.
And then in terms of the F-16s, I mean, we are certainly – I think you’ve heard the Biden administration supportive of Türkiye’s efforts to modernize its military, including the question of F-16s. But you have also heard our friends in Congress raise concerns about Sweden’s ratification, and members of Congress – separate from the Biden administration – have noted that they are very interested in seeing Sweden become a member, and then they would like to get to the question of F-16s.
So we, the United States, will continue to encourage both Türkiye and Hungary to ratify the – all the necessary documents to ensure that Sweden can become a full-fledged member of the Alliance, and then we’ll go from there in terms of next steps. Our focus right now is on getting Sweden across the finish line.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to another submitted question from Mila Djurdjevic, RFE/RL, the Balkans Service. Mila asks: “Will the current tensions on the – in the north of Kosovo be on the agenda of the ministerial meeting, and what do you see as a viable solution or path to de-escalation?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thanks for that question. Obviously, NATO Allies have been watching events in Kosovo with great interest and with some concern, obviously. You’ve heard Allies and the secretary general, first and foremost, call on all the parties to take immediate action to de-escalate. That’s priority number one. We also – we, the United States – came out immediately, as did other Allies, to condemn the violence that occurred against NATO troops, particularly troops from both Hungary and Italy. And we believe that those responsible for those attacks should be held accountable following due process and obviously with full transparency. We’ve had USG officials travel to the region. I believe Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabe Escobar was just recently on the ground. I know we’ve encouraged Prime Minister Kurti and his government to ensure that the elected mayors carry out their transitional duties from alternative locations, and we’ve encouraged them to withdraw the police forces from the vicinity.
Simultaneously, we have noted and welcomed Serbia’s decision to take its armed forces off their highest alert levels – that was important – and to begin withdrawing their troops and equipment from the border with Kosovo. But the bottom line here is, and this is an Alliance-wide position, that it is the EU-facilitated dialogue that is the only path forward, and that message has been delivered in stereo surround sound, from NATO Allies, from NATO HQ. Here we actually have the EU and NATO working hand in glove together. We both are very focused on this region and will continue to remain focused on it. But we will both – both NATO and the EU – will push this facilitated dialogue as the proper path forward.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. I’d like to go back to a live question now. Myroslava Gongadze, we can try you again. Can you hear us? Myroslava, are you there?
We can’t get her on the line, unfortunately, so let’s go to Jared Szuba from Al-Monitor. Jared, please.
QUESTION: Madam Ambassador, thank you for doing this. I just wanted to ask: There’s been a lot of confidence expressed by the Biden administration that Sweden’s accession will be ratified by the time of the summit. Türkiye is still claiming to have demands of Sweden regarding extradition of supposed terrorist suspects. What makes the administration so confident that this will go through?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, again, I think we have seen remarkable progress on the dialogue that those three countries engaged in since last summer. This has been a steady series of engagements where they’ve been able to sit down at all different levels, from some of the highest levels of government to kind of more at the – I would say the deputy assistant secretary or assistant secretary level and work through the specific concerns that Türkiye has put on the table.
And so we have faith in that process. We believe that both Sweden and Finland have seriously considered all of the issues that are outlined in the trilateral memoranda and that they have taken concrete steps to showcase their determination to address some of those specific concerns.
So we do not have a crystal ball. It is impossible to predict exactly how this will unfold. But again, watching what Sweden in particular has done over the last year is very encouraging to us, and for that reason we believe that this process will at some point reach a conclusion quite soon, we hope. And again, our anticipation is that this is within reach by Vilnius.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll go to another submitted question from Evaldas Labanauskas from Lithuania: “At what stage are the discussions on NATO regional defense plans? Will they be approved before the summit in Vilnius?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you very much for asking this question. So NATO is about to roll out these new regional plans, and I do expect and anticipate that the regional plans will be part of what we talk about and roll out at the summit. And this is a little bit weedy and wonky at times so maybe it won’t get the love and affection it truly deserves, but for those that really dig into NATO issues, this happens to be a major development, and an important one, across the Alliance.
And I think we’ll look back at the rollout of these new regional plans as, really, a new chapter for the Alliance in terms of how it thinks about not just planning but C2 issues, its command and control, its force structure requirements, its resourcing. These regional plans that we’re about to roll out will shape future discussions on acquisition, on capability development, on defense planning and resourcing for years to come.
And what it – what they will do, first and foremost, they’re multi-domain, which is important and a new development. Secondly, they will ensure that we truly have plans in place to protect every inch of NATO territory. And lastly, it really provides clarity to each and every member of the Alliance in terms of what they are responsible for in terms of the readiness of their forces, the capabilities they need to meet those regional plan commitments.
So this will happen by Vilnius. Things are on track. We’re making good progress. And it is going to be a turning point for the Alliance and will shape our work here for many years to come.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll go to another submitted question, from Maksim Hacak from Belsat in Poland. He asks: “The NATO Summit is to take place on July 11-12 in
Vilnius, and Putin has decided to move nuclear weapons to Belarus on July 7-8. Moreover, Lukashenka says that he may use them if needed. In your opinion, is it a threat to the NATO Summit members? Shall or will NATO somehow react to the movement of nuclear weapons to Belarus?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, obviously, throughout the entire war – Russia’s war in Ukraine over the last 15 months or so, we’ve taken the nuclear saber-rattling very, very seriously. And in fact, we, the United States, we have warned the Russians very directly about the risks of using tactical nuclear weapons, any nuclear weapons in this war. And we’ve warned them about the consequences – severe consequences that they would face should they opt to do so. This is something that we’re monitoring very closely. We don’t see any indication that there’s an imminent risk to them relying on nuclear weapons, but again, we will monitor this very closely, particularly with any new developments in Belarus. We don’t see a reason right now to alter our strategic posture, but this is a live debate and an issue that, again, we take very seriously and we will continue to monitor very closely here across the Alliance.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. I think we have time for one more question. We can go to Vitaliy Syzov from UATV/Freedom TV in Ukraine. Vitaliy, you have the mic. Can you hear us? Vitaliy, can you hear us? Okay. We can hear you now.
QUESTION: I hear you. I hear you. Do you hear me now?
MODERATOR: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. I have one question. If I understand correctly, the Council of NATO is unique organization, and which unique features will be in NATO Ukrainian council maybe? I don’t know, because the structure of each council is uniqueness. Which benefits Ukraine would get? That’s it.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, yes, the – so the council is a different formulation from a commission. And I guess the simplest way to explain it is the Ukrainians right now are part of a NATO-Ukraine Commission. That allows Ukraine to sit at the table as what we describe right now as 31 plus one, which means it’s the Allies with our partner Ukraine to talk about the specifics of our support to Ukraine, our ongoing support to Ukraine, and then their path to membership and their aspirations and reforms, their work on reforms over many years.
But by shifting to a council, it changes the fundamental dynamics. If we were to proceed with shifting our relationship with Ukraine from a commission to a council, in essence it becomes a meeting at 32 and that means that Ukraine sits at the table. We all sit in alphabetical order, and we would sit at the table as a group to talk about shared security challenges. So it changes the dynamic and the format and the types of conversations you have at the table, and that is indeed one possibility that we’re looking at, as you’ve heard the secretary general talk about.
But it would be an important one if we were to go forward with it because it would signal a shift, and it would enhance NATO’s relationship – its political relationship with Ukraine, and I
think, frankly, bring benefits to both sides. I think NATO would appreciate meeting in that format and certainly our friends in Ukraine would find added benefits to shifting to a council.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Ambassador. Unfortunately that is all the time we have for today. Thanks, everyone, for joining us and thank you so much for your questions. And Ambassador Smith, thank you very much, especially since you just arrived in Brussels this morning.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Shortly we will – sorry. Shortly we will send the audio recording of the briefing to all the 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 – it’s one word – @state.gov. Thanks again for everyone’s participation, and we hope you can join us again for another press briefing in the future.