Antony J. Blinken U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Telephonic Press Briefing (May 11)

Moderator:  Thanks so much, and greetings everybody from the U.S. Department of State.  I would like to welcome all of you dialing in from across Europe today, and thank you for joining us in this call.

We are especially pleased to be joined from Paris by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken who, as many of you may know, has been traveling around Europe and will talk to you today a bit about his trip and some of the themes that he raised along the way over the last week.

We’re going to begin today’s call with opening remarks from Deputy Secretary Blinken and then we’re going to turn to your questions.  Today’s call is on the record and we’re going to try to get to as many of your questions as we can during the time that we have.

With that, I will turn it over to you, Deputy Secretary Blinken.

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thank you very much, and thanks to all of you for joining the call.  I very very much appreciate it.

I had a very productive set of meetings over the weekend, starting in Warsaw, then in Sofia, on to Bucharest, and finally here in Paris.  And the principal focus was the upcoming NATO Summit, but we also spent a considerable amount of time talking about energy security, about Ukraine, about the challenge posed by Daesh, and the refugee migration crisis that Europe is encountering.

I also had a lot of good meetings in most countries with civil society, the business community, a number of press engagements, as well as a speech in Warsaw.

I just want to, if I can, spend a few minutes giving you some flavor of what we talked about and how we see the upcoming NATO Summit and the challenges that we have to confront.

I think what’s very clear from all of these discussions is a recognition that the challenges confronting Europe and the Transatlantic community broadly are felt from nearly every direction.  From the south, we are haunted by the threat of violent extremism, a campaign of terror that has scarred communities from Paris to Lahore, from Brussels to Ankara.  The epicenter of this savagery thrives in the shadows of a civil war now in its fifth year, a conflict of unimaginable tragedy that’s sent many Syrians fleeing to Europe.

Joined by those migrating to escape poverty or crime, this great wave of displacement, which is the largest since World War II has affected the political, the economic, and the social fabric of everyday life in Europe.  It’s changing labor markets, it’s overwhelming local infrastructure, it’s pressuring national borders. It’s affecting a sense of security.

Most of all it’s challenging us I think to live up to our common humanity, to provide the same sanctuary that some of our own ancestors sought in time of trouble even as we recognize the challenge of maintaining security, of integration, and the burdens on host communities.

So there was some significant amount of time spent talking about that challenge.  That is on the one hand, violent extremism and especially Daesh, and the refugee migration challenge as well.

From the east, the challenge is of course primarily from Russian aggression in Ukraine which has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent democratic nation and imperiled the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace that we have labored for many decades now to make real.

The actions that Moscow has taken in Ukraine have threatened to set a new precedent on European soil whereby basic international principles are suddenly up for debate, and they shouldn’t be.  And those principles are that the borders and territorial integrity of a state cannot be changed by force.  That it is the inherent right of citizens in a democracy to decide their country’s future, not anyone else.  And that all members of the international community are bound by common rules and should pay the cost if they do not live up to the solemn commitments that they make.

These principles transcend Ukraine.  They transcend Europe.  They are the fundamental rules that underpin the international order that together we have sought to build, to sustain and if necessary, adapt.

In challenging them, Russia seeks to unravel to some extent the alliance that we’ve build to erode our unity and to pressure democracies into failure.  That’s the context in which we are looking at the challenge from the east.

I would just point out that last month, despite the ceasefire that has been in place since September in Ukraine, the OSCE reported over 30,000 ceasefire violations with 4,000 violations occurring in one day alone.  That was April 14th, last month.  Some 500 of these involved heavy weapons explicitly prohibited under the Minsk Agreement.  And the OSCE’s reporting confirms that the vast majority of ceasefire violations originate in separatist controlled territory.

So, we feel a very strong obligation to see the full implementation of the Minsk Agreement, and indeed, I think as you know, the Foreign Ministries of the so-called Normandy countries — that is France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine — are meeting in these days to look at the implementation of that agreement.

There is clarity and unity of purpose that I saw and heard in all of my visits this week that the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine must and will remain in place until the Minsk Agreement is fulfilled.

With so much at stake it is I think important that we remember the reasons why NATO, why the European Union, why the international order that they represent and help to shape are so profoundly consequential to the health, to the strength, to the security of each one of our countries.

71 years ago, out of the rubble of war and the pain of unfathomable national loss, our predecessors made one of the wisest decisions in human history.  With the gift of foresight, they resisted the temptation to concentrate power in the hands of the victors, or wall our nations off to the rest of the world.  Instead they built an international system of institutions, of rules, of norms dedicated to peace and progress.  Their purpose was, of course, to prevent for all time the return to war between and among great powers, and to create a safe, stable environment in which countries could grow and develop to the benefit of all their citizens.

Now of course this didn’t eliminate all turmoil, all trouble, all conflict, but it got the big picture right.  And over the course of those 70 years, 71 years, we’ve managed to bind age-old adversaries in Europe together through a new common architecture, trade and commerce, and build on a political/military alliance committed to peace through security and designed to protect its nations equally.  Feats that seem almost taken for granted today, but remain Herculean in the context of history.

So this brings me to the last point which is the focus that we’ve had on NATO and the upcoming NATO Summit.

There is a strong and shared commitment to the continued strength and vitality of NATO, and that’s what I heard on all the stops that I made.  It’s the most effective alliance the world has known, but its strength and effectiveness is not inevitable.  It is not simply a given to be counted on when it’s needed or neglected when it’s not.  It requires constant upkeep, significant reinvestment in the basis of its enduring power — unity, capabilities, values.  These are the things that bind us together.

The United States takes our NATO commitments very seriously.  We have the European Reassurance Initiative that all of you are familiar with, and through that, until now we’ve rotated a series of aircraft to Poland for training and exercises including the A-10, the F-15, the F-16, the C-130.  In June we will join, as we have in the past, Poland’s flagship exercise that will involve more than 25,000 participants from 24 nations including more than 12,000 Americans to train and integrate Polish national command and force structures into an allied, joint, and multinational environment.

We intend to continue our commitment with a four-fold increase in our spending on European security from just under 790 million dollars two years ago, to 3.4 billion dollars going forward.  That is what the President has requested of Congress.  This will allow us to maintain a division’s worth of equipment in Europe and a new rotational armored brigade combat team to the eastern flank of NATO which will include over 4,000 soldiers on heel-to-toe rotations furnished with the most modern equipment in the U.S. Army inventory.  This will be added to the two brigade combat teams that are already in Europe.

We also support proposals made by the Supreme Allied Commander to enhance NATO’s forward presence in the east including the rotational battalions in the Baltic States and Poland.

The Summit, I believe, will demonstrate significant progress as well on commitments made by the allies at the last summit in Wales, to invest in modernizing our defenses.  It will show an alliance that is focused on the full spectrum of challenges, from the south as well as the east, and strengthening all the tools of 21stcentury deterrence including conventional, nuclear, missile defense, cyber, and asymmetric capabilities.  It will reaffirm the open door policy by welcoming in Montenegro while deepening partnerships with Georgia and Ukraine and new partners in the Middle East and North Africa.  It will make clear our ongoing commitment to Afghanistan and above all, it will show, I believe, an alliance that is united in purpose and that’s certainly what I took away from the visit this week.

So with that, let me conclude by thanking you again for joining, and welcoming your questions.

Moderator:  Thank you so much for setting the stage for us.

We are now going to begin the question and answer portion of the call. Our first question is actually coming to us from Greece, it’s from Eleni Argyri from Greek Public TV.  Go ahead, Eleni.

Question:  Thanks for that.  I’m calling from Washington, DC.

Are you concerned about the continued Turkish provocations in the Aegean?  A few days ago the Department of State said that Greece and Turkey should work together to maintain good relations, but what we see here, actually Turkey adopted a provocative stance instead.  And also did you envision a more crucial or extended role for [inaudible]?

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thank you very much.

Look, Greece and Turkey are two close partners and NATO allies.  We’re working with both of them to help deal with the migration challenge that’s faced by both countries and by Europe more broadly.  We’re doing that both on a bilateral basis but also in the context of NATO including with the NATO mission that you’re aware of.  And on a regular basis we’re working to make sure that that mission can proceed smoothly and help deal with, in particular, ending the trafficking networks that are bringing so many desperate people to Europe’s shores and endangering their lives and the lives of their children.

So we’re working closely with both countries and if any challenges emerge in the context of that, we will deal with them directly and continue to work through any challenges through NATO mechanisms.

Moderator:  Thank you.

Our next question is coming to us from CNN International.  We have Antonia Mortensen on the line. Antonia?

Question:  Hello, hi.  This is Antonia.  Thank you very much for your time.

I had a question regarding some strong calls from the Polish government to put permanent NATO troops on the ground in that country and unconfirmed reports that in fact NATO is going to put around 4,000 troops on the ground there.  I think this especially interesting vis-à-vis the buildup of the military hardware on the Kaliningrad border.

Can you give us any more insight into that?

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Sure, I’m happy to.  Thank you.

What we are planning to do is to have a rotational presence in Eastern Europe that will include a new armored brigade combat team on the eastern flank of NATO with about 4,000 soldiers.  And it is not a permanent presence.  They will not be based there, but they will be there on a continuous rotational basis which means that soldiers will deploy for some months at a time, they’ll then come back and be replaced immediately by another group.  And that’s what’s called a heel-to-toe rotation, and they’ll be furnished with the most modern equipment.  So it is not permanent.  There won’t be permanent bases either.  But there will be an ongoing rotational deployment of forces.

Moderator:  Thank you.

Our next question is coming to us from the Associated Press.  We have Menelaos Hadijcostis.

Question:  Hi.  Two questions.  Very quickly, what is the best way to get Eastern Mediterranean gas to market?  In Europe or beyond, speaking of energy security.  And on Syria, if you can elaborate on this.  How does the United States view the possible carving up of Syria and possibly the creation of a Kurdish state of some sort in Syria?

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thanks very much.

First with regard to energy, this is actually a significant focus of the discussions that we had.  Our basic approach is diversification.  Diversification of sources, of supply, and of routes.  And this diversification is very important in order to build energy security.  It’s not directed against any one country, but what we’re trying to assure is that no single country so dominates the energy market that it can use energy as a political tool of coercion.  And there, gas, oil from different sources, as well as renewables and other forms of energy, building that diversification of sources, of supply and routes, is critically important.  And a number of countries in the Eastern Med have critical roles to play.  One of the very positive developments that we’re seeing is the creation of new interconnectors among various European countries that facilitates the movement of energy.  And in particular, while I was just in the region, we have very significant progress being made, for example, in Bulgaria with an interconnector with Greece as well as bringing in Romania.

So this increasing work toward diversification is making a very significant difference toward the goal of building true energy security in Europe.

With regard to Syria, our policy has been, is and will remain very clear.  We seek a unified Syria that keeps the country together, that keeps its institutions intact, and that has a secular government in which all of the communities and stakeholders in Syria have an appropriate voice.  That’s the objective.  And I think anything that results in the carving up of the country would simply perpetuate the problems, the great problems it’s encountering and indeed create some new ones, not solve them.  So the objective is to keep Syria whole and to have of course a political transition that brings credible governance to Syria supported by the majority of the people and its various communities.

Moderator:  Thank you.

For our next question we’re going to jump over to Turkey and we’re going to take a question from Teoman Ayabakan with NTV.

Question:  Hello, Mr. Deputy Secretary.  I have two questions.

Now the UN declared that the ceasefire is still in effect in Syria but the regime is still attacking the civilians and the moderate opposition in Aleppo with military aircraft and barrel bombs.  What will happen if and when Aleppo falls?  How will diplomacy work if the regime keeps murdering civilians?

And also, ISIS terrorist have killed 21 people in Turkish border town killings with rocket attacks from Syrian soil.  What is the United States prepared to do to combat this new and deadly threat from ISIS?  Thank you.

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thanks very much.  Let me start with the second question first and then come to your first one.

We’re deeply concerned by the attacks on Turkish soil and against Turkish civilians by Daesh coming from Syria into Kilis and other places.  We’re in very close contact and coordination with Turkey to see what we can do to help Turkey deal with this threat.

I was on the phone with my Turkish counterpart Feridun Sinirlioglu yesterday on that very question.  More important, our military leaders are in constant contact and I can assure you that the United States is looking to help Turkey deal with and defend against the threat posed by Daesh.  We have seen far too many civilians lose their lives obviously in Syria in horrific ways, but also in Turkey, both in attacks coming across the border in the manner that you just described and also terrorist attacks in Ankara and Istanbul and other places that have taken Turkish lives, and it’s something that we take very seriously and are working closely with our partner and NATO allies to help deal with.

With regard to the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian assistance and the effort in transition, Secretary Kerry has been leading the effort to renew the cessation of hostilities and the provision of humanitarian assistance that, while imperfect, did make significant progress when it was initiated, and now it is being renewed and this is critically important for two reasons.  One, even with its imperfections, the cessation of hostilities and the greater provision of humanitarian assistance is saving lives.  Second, it can create the conditions under which negotiations can move forward toward a political transition in Syria.

We have a mechanism in place with Russia to look immediately at violations of the cessation of hostilities including in Aleppo and to seek to stop them immediately once we identify them.  And that is a very active process that’s meeting on virtually a daily basis.

Thank you.

Moderator:  Out next question is coming to us from Daniel Anyz who is with the Czech Edition of Newsweek.

Question:  Hello, I’m from Prague.  Thank you.

I have a follow-up question to you concerning NATO presence on the eastern flank.  What is the main reason you are not willing, I mean NATO and USA, to have a permanent base in Poland because they ask for it?  Is it that you don’t see any need for it?  Or there is no unity within NATO because we know Germany has some concerns and Czech Republic as well.  So what’s the reason — why won’t there be a decision to put a permanent base in Poland?

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thanks very much for your question.

First, let me just repeat that there has been a significant effort undertaken by NATO generally as well as by the United States to have a regular, ongoing rotational presence by air, by land, by sea throughout Eastern Europe.  In Poland in particular, through the European Reassurance Initiative, the United States has rotated a series of aircraft for training and exercises including, as I mentioned earlier I think, the A-10, the F-15, the F-16, the C-130.  And again, as I mentioned earlier, in June we will join, as we have in the past, this very large exercise that Poland conducts that will allow more than 25,000 participants from 24 nations including more than 12,000 Americans.  That’s designed to train and integrate Polish National Command and force structures into an allied, joint, and multinational environment, and I talked earlier about the significant investment being made in the European Security Initiative by President Obama.  Again, increasing by four times the money dedicated to that effort from 790 million dollars two year ago to 3.4 billion going forward.  And that, as I mentioned, will allow us to maintain not only a division’s worth of equipment in Europe, including equipment prepositioned in Central and Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe, but also a new rotational armored brigade combat team in the east of NATO with over 4,000 soldiers on a heel-to-toe rotation.

Our military experts believe that it is both more useful, more effective, more efficient to have forces deployed on a rotational basis and their ability to move quickly and not to be stationary is actually a significant advantage, and building in that mobility and building up the practice that we have in exercising it by rotating forces is something that our military commanders believe is very beneficial to our defensive capabilities.

Thank you.

Moderator:  Our next question is coming to us from Croatia.  We have Marina Barukcic from RTL TV.

Question:  Good afternoon, Mr. Blinken.  I have two questions.

First is about there are some implications in Croatia that there is an open conflict between United States and Russia over Croatian energy resources.  How do you comment on that?

And the second question, can you be more clear today on what really happened the day that Mr. John Kerry and the Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovač had appointed meeting that did not happen in the end.  Was there some hidden message from U.S. government to Croatia behind the meeting’s cancellation?

Thank you very much.

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thanks for those questions.

Again, on the question of energy security let me be very very clear.  We welcome the provision of energy in all forms and all sources to Europe including Russian gas and Russian oil.  Our purpose is not to keep anyone out.  But what we are trying to do is to make sure that there is sufficient diversification that we can build through energy security, and by that we mean making sure that no single country has such a dominance of supply that it can use energy as a political tool and to use it coercively.  So that’s what we’re trying and working to achieve, and I think that what we’ve seen over the last couple of years is a significant effort in Europe to do just that.

In fact, European efforts at building energy security through diversification have never been greater and we’re seeing very important results.

There’s no hidden message in I think a meeting that was at one point supposed to happen and we’re, I’m sure, looking to reschedule at an appropriate time.  I think as you know, the Secretary’s schedule is a constant moving target, and I’m sure that we’ll look to engage our partners in Croatia at a near opportunity.

Thank you.

Moderator:  It looks like we have time for just one more question.  That question is going to go to Al Jazeera Turk and the name is Ece Goksedef, and apologies for messing that up.  Go ahead.

Question:  Thank you very much.  I have two questions on Syria.  To clear the area of [inaudible] images of Syria and Turkish borders from ISIL.  There are even some reports that Turkey wants to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army but the U.S. doesn’t trust them and wants to cooperate with Syrian Democratic Forces.  Is there an agreement on this?

And my second question is, will there be an operation on the Manbij area to block the supplies off to ISIL to Raqqa?  Thank you.

Deputy Secretary Blinken:  Thank you very much.

We have a very clear shared objective with Turkey to work together to close the so-called Manbij Pocket.  I think as you know, one of the significant achievements over the last year has been the taking back from Daesh of almost 90 percent of the border between Syria and Turkey, all the way to the Euphrates River.  But a gap remains, that’s the so-called Manbij Pocket.  And through that gap Daesh continues to be able to move foreign fighters, both north and south, and also to plan and plot attacks against Turkey, against Europe, against the United States.  So we are working very closely together, the United States and Turkey as well as other key partners, to try to close that gap.  And we will support local forces to do just that.  I think you’ve seen some of the efforts in the northwestern part of that pocket from the so-called Mara line to look to take it back from Daesh.

So I can tell you that we’re very focused on it and we’re working together to achieve it.  Thank you very much.

Moderator:  Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today’s call, but I would like to thank you very much, Deputy Secretary Blinken, for joining us.  And of course I would like to thank all of you for dialing in today and for your questions.