Online Press Briefing with Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

AMBASSADOR JULIANNE SMITH, U.S. PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE TO THE NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION (NATO)

Moderator:  Good afternoon.  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.

With that, let’s get started.  Ambassador Smith, thank you so much for joining us today.  I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.

Ambassador Smith:  Great, thank you so much, and good afternoon to everybody.  Good morning to anybody who’s on the other side of the Atlantic.  It’s a pleasure to be here doing this today.  As I think all of you know, I’m pretty new to my position here in Brussels still, so I’ll just take a minute to offer a couple of quick impressions from my first few months on the job.

First let me say I’ve been profoundly impressed by the unity that we’ve seen inside this Alliance in recent weeks.  Of course, every member of the Alliance always brings a different perspective to NATO by virtue of their history, their geography.  But I think what’s been very clear to me is that we all are united in our purpose at this moment and our commitment to collective self-defense.  And when I sat in the NATO-Russia Council a couple of weeks ago, what was very clear to me was that every Ally was intent on delivering a crystal-clear message to Russia in that meeting, and the message essentially remains the same, and that is that we remain open to dialogue with Russia.  We are urging Russia to de-escalate through diplomacy and dialogue, but we’ve also been clear that Allies are ready to impose serious consequences should Russia further invade Ukraine.

So with that, why don’t we jump into your questions.  I’m happy to answer whatever is on your mind.

Moderator:  Great.  Well, we have a question here that was emailed to us in advance from Martin Burcharth with Information, a national daily in Denmark.  The question is:  “The United States is deploying thousands of more soldiers to the European theater.  Some NATO countries have committed to rotating more forces in and out of the Baltics as well as some fighter jets and warships.  Would the U.S. like to see a stronger European commitment to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank?”

Ambassador Smith:  I think it’s been pretty impressive in recent weeks to see how many different NATO Allies have made the decision to reinforce our Allies in Central and Eastern Europe.  Of course, as you mentioned, the United States has moved some of its own force posture both from Germany to Central and Eastern Europe – we moved forces from Germany to Romania – but we’ve also moved some troops from the United States to Central and Eastern Europe, including in Poland, as you’ve seen in the headlines.

But if you can bear with me for a minute, I think it’s worth mentioning how many other Allies have taken similar decisions.  You mentioned Denmark.  I believe the question came from Denmark.  Denmark decided to send a frigate to the Baltic Sea and is deploying F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania.  In the Baltic states we’ve seen the UK deploy additional troops to Poland.  Germany has deployed additional troops to NATO’s multinational battle group in Lithuania.  France has expressed readiness to send troops to the eastern part of the Alliance under NATO command.  Spain is sending ships to NATO Naval Forces.  And the Netherlands is sending F-35 fighter jets to Bulgaria.

So, “Is this all?” I guess is the question, and we don’t know the answer to that.  I think defense ministers will be meeting here in Brussels over the next two days, and they’ll no doubt be assessing the situation in and around Ukraine and looking at any additional requirements that might need to be met on NATO territory, and they’ll look at whether or not additional enhancements might be necessary.  But we’ll have to stand by and see where those discussions go in the next few days.

Moderator:  Great, thanks very much.  We have a question – a questioner who will be speaking to you live.  We have Nick Schifrin from PBS.  Please go ahead, Nick.

Question:  Hi, Ambassador.  Thank you very much.  One of the obvious questions that we all have is, what is your response to the Russian claim this morning that they are moving some troops back?  Some of the independent analysts I speak to believe that some of those troops were on the southern coast of Crimea, and wondering if you’ve seen that.  And overall, obviously, one of the messages that you and others have been sending is reassurance to the eastern flank and almost like a warning to Russia of how serious you take Article 5.  Just wondering if you think at this point Russia has received the message from the U.S. and the West that NATO will defend itself should any conflict in Ukraine spread.  Thanks.

Ambassador Smith:  Thanks so much, Nick.  I think I’ll take your second question first.  So I hope that Russia has heard the message loud and clear that the Alliance is prepared to undertake all necessary measures to protect NATO territory.  That message has come through multiple channels, notably the NATO-Russia Council that I mentioned at the top, but also, as you’ve noticed, several leaders have been visiting Moscow in recent days and weeks, and I think they’ve heard that message coming from the United States and other NATO Allies.

One of the really interesting things that we’ve tried to help the Russians understand is that they have spent many years complaining about NATO troops coming closer to their border, and unfortunately it is their actions – Russian actions, Russian aggression – that has resulted in more posture moving into Central and Eastern Europe.  As you know, we enhanced NATO’s presence in Poland and the Baltic states in the wake of 2014, when Russia went into Crimea, and now, in light of what we’re seeing Russia do on the border of Ukraine and in Belarus, individual members of the Alliance have already taken steps to reinforce Central and Eastern Europe.

So hopefully they’re getting the message and understanding how seriously both the United States and all NATO members take their commitments to Article 5 and understand that those commitments are ironclad.

And then on your second question about the reports that the Russians are putting out, their claims that they’re now de-escalating, all I can say is that we’ll have to verify that and take a look.  You may remember in late December there were some similar claims that came out of Moscow that they were de-escalating, and in fact, facts on the ground did not support that claim.  So we want to make sure we understand what they’re talking about when they say de-escalation, and we want to verify that that is in fact what’s happening.  So stand by.  We’ll obviously take a look at that.  It just kind of hit us today.  And we’ll know more, I hope, in the next day or two.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that.  Our next question comes to us from Vasco Cotovio with CNN in the UK.  The question is:  “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has told President Putin that he recommends diplomatic dialogue continue to be pursued.  Is the U.S. assessment that invasion could be imminent?”

Ambassador Smith:  We do not understand — fundamentally none of us do – what is inside President Putin’s head, and so we cannot make any guess about where all of this is headed.  But we have done our very best to message to them in very clear terms that, number one, we believe the best path is through dialogue and de-escalation, and we have urged them at every turn to come back to the table.  We could have another NATO-Russia Council.  We could meet at the OSCE in Vienna.  We could meet in another city in the framework of the SSD.

So that message has been crystal-clear and repeated over and over in recent weeks, but at the same time we have had to message them with another message, and that is that we are prepared to respond if Russia chooses to go in and further invade Ukraine, that they will face severe economic consequences and that NATO will also be looking at ways they can move additional posture into Central and Eastern Europe – again, something they claim they don’t want.  So when Lavrov talks about another round of dialogue, of course we are open to that and prepared to sit down.  So I hope – I think we all hope it’s genuine, and we hope that that is what President Putin is opting to do in this moment.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that, Ambassador.  Our next question comes to us from – and he’ll be asking this live – question comes from Oskar Gorzynski with the Polish Press Agency.

Question:  Hi, thank you for the opportunity.  I wanted to ask about the Russian forces in Belarus.  There is – there has been widespread concern that they might remain there.  And would that – do you think if that happens, would – should that mean shifting NATO’s posture on the eastern flank accordingly and permanently?

Ambassador Smith:  It’s hard to get into hypotheticals.  Again, we don’t know where this is headed.  We’ve been troubled by the forces moving into Belarus at a pretty rapid clip – upwards of 30,000 troops.  We’ve noted how close they are to Kyiv – about two hours away from Kyiv, in fact – and NATO has monitored this situation closely.  We discuss it regularly, not just the forces in Belarus but obviously all of the forces that they’re amassing in and around Ukraine or close to Ukraine’s borders.

In terms of what would happen in the future, again, you can’t really answer hypothetical situations, but I will note that per my last comment, the last question I was answering, NATO is preparing for a variety of contingencies, and we do meet regularly here at 30, here in NATO Headquarters, and think through what those contingencies could be.  What will be the security requirements of Allies like Poland and the Baltic states, really across the entire eastern flank?  So that’s something we’ll continue to examine and spend a great deal of time on, no doubt, during the next two days with defense ministers.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Our next question comes to us from Andrew Rettman with the EU Observer.  Your mic is open, Andrew.  Andrew, are you there?  Please unmute.

Well, let’s see.  It looks like he did email his question.

Question:  I’ve unmuted.

Moderator:  Okay.

Question:  I think I’ve unmuted.  Can you hear me?

Ambassador Smith:  Yes.

Question:  Sorry for that – thank-you, but my question regards the future of the LPR and DPR, because there was a Russian parliamentary call today for Russia to recognize those republics.  Do you think that one realistic scenario is this kind of Georgia scenario, where they recognize LPR/DPR and move their regular forces into there under some defense pact?

Ambassador Smith:  Well, we have noted the movement through the Duma and this desire to recognize these, quote, “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the secretary general actually just spoke to this recently in his press conference, and really it’s worth repeating because I think that’s where all NATO Allies are right now, and that is that if they proceed with this, then I think it’s a clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty, and it’s also a violation of the Minsk Agreement.  And so that would obviously be a new shift in the escalation, and I think we would monitor that very closely and try to determine what we would need to do in terms of additional messaging towards the Russians on how concerned we are about that type of recognition.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that.  Let’s see, we have a question that was emailed to us by Dan Michaels from The Wall Street Journal.  His question is:  “While the U.S. and NATO have said combat troops won’t be sent to Ukraine and NATO won’t fight in or for Ukraine against Russia, are you concerned that potential hostilities near NATO’s borders raises the prospect of engagement between NATO and Russia?”

Ambassador Smith:  I think what we’re concerned about is, first and foremost, the buildup of Russian troops close to Ukraine’s border and all of those troops moving into Belarus and then on the eastern side of Ukraine.  We’re obviously working very closely with each member of the Alliance to determine if they have additional security requirements that need to be met.  And as I mentioned at the top, individual Allies have already taken steps to assure and deter by moving additional posture into NATO’s eastern flank.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming days and weeks.  We don’t know if Russia is going to go into Ukraine.  But what we do know is if they opted to do that, obviously NATO would have to then consider what possible adjustments it would make in response to that.  So we will take it day by day and watch and see what decision President Putin ultimately takes.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that response.  We have a question that was emailed to us by Andy Bounds with The Financial Times.  The question is:  “Has there been any response by Russia to the letter offering mutual inspections of missile sites or any other points?”

Ambassador Smith:  Well, both NATO and the United States originally received these two treaties from Russia with a long list of demands, and as I think everyone knows, both the United States and NATO then sent back their own letters outlining some of the things they were not willing to discuss, and then opening the door to dialogue in other categories, including on things like transparency or arms control or risk reduction.  We have not had a formal response to what we raised specifically in those letters, and we will wait to see if a letter will be forthcoming.

But most importantly, what we need to be saying and what we say regularly to Moscow is that, look, we can spend the rest of the year going back and forth exchanging letters, but really what’s important is the best way to proceed would be for us to sit down at the table again.  We had the four-hour NATO-Russia Council here at NATO Headquarters, and NATO is open to doing that again.  And so let’s come back to the table and go back through where both sides believe there could be some areas where we could collectively focus on reciprocal commitments to European security.  And we have stated that both in bilateral channels and in multilateral channels, and that, I think, is the best way to proceed.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  We have a question from Bulgaria.  Momchil Indjov, your line is open.  Please go ahead.

Question:  Good afternoon.  Do you hear me?

Ambassador Smith:  Yes.

Question:  Ambassador Smith, recently the United States announced that they are sending additional troops to Romania.  Can we expect more U.S. or NATO troops to Bulgaria, which also lies on the southeastern flank of NATO and is also part of the Black Sea region?  And if so, how much and when?

Ambassador Smith:  Well, you’re right: the U.S. just recently took a decision to take about 1,000 personnel from a Stryker squadron in Germany and move them into Romania under the rubric of assure and deter.  That is a multi-mission force that can address some of the security needs that Romania has at the moment, and it supplements existing forces, U.S. forces that are already there.

In terms of future decisions, I don’t have anything to share today.  I think what I can say is that we are continually evaluating and assessing the situation.  It’s important that defense ministers are meeting here tomorrow and Thursday – very timely meeting – and I think NATO will continue to determine whether or not additional enhancements might be necessary.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that.  We have a question that was emailed to us by Steve Erlanger from The New York Times.  The question is:  “Just to be explicit, what is the U.S. reaction to Russian announcements that some troops are being pulled back from the Ukrainian border?  Is this real, a feint, or something else?”

Ambassador Smith:  [Laughter.]  I wish I knew, Steve.  We just heard the claim today, so, as I noted, what’s important is that we try to verify based on the fact that we’ve seen other instances in the past where Russia has claimed to be de-escalating and in fact, facts on the ground didn’t prove that to be true.  So I can’t say yes or no; I can’t say really anything about it at this moment because this is something that we’ll have to look at closely and verify in the days ahead.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  We have a question emailed to us from Evaldas Labanauskas.  The question is:  “There are plenty of calls from Baltic leaders for the U.S. to deploy additional U.S. forces in the Baltics.  Does Washington consider such action and what type of forces it could be?”

Ambassador Smith:  Again, the United States has sent about a total of 5,000 personnel to Central and Eastern Europe over the last couple of weeks, both from Germany to Romania and then from the United States to Poland and Germany.  We also have 8,500 troops in the United States that are assigned to the NATO Response Force that are now in a heightened alert posture.

Whether or not the United States is going to be taking additional steps is not something that I have any details on.  But again, I don’t think that at the moment anyone believes that this is stagnant.  I think we’ll continue to assess, we’ll continue to look at what Russia is doing around Ukraine’s borders, and we’ll have to determine if additional steps might be necessary.

Moderator:  Let’s see.  And it looks like the last question we have time for will be from David Alandete with ABC in Spain.  Please go ahead, your line is open.

Question:  Hi, thank you so much for taking my call.  I wanted to ask you, Ambassador, how concerned are you about this information?  Today we learned that the White House has alerted that some websites in – here in the United States but also in Europe are spreading misinformation.  And I’m asking because some parties, politicians, even members of government – like in Spain, where I am from – have been advancing ideas about, like, neo-Nazis being in the Government of Ukraine, about how this doesn’t have to do with democracy but a strategy, and even, like, again, one of the coalition members in Spain opposed the government’s decision that you referred at the beginning of this briefing about sending a ship to territorial waters in the area of Ukraine and Russia.  And I wanted to ask you: Is this a point of concern?  Is this – is there a concern within NATO of this type of arguments, this type of ideas getting into the public sphere within the NATO countries?  Thank you so much.

Ambassador Smith:  Well, the good news is that over the last couple of years, we’ve all become deeply familiar with the Russian playbook.  And the Russian playbook can often involve conventional military forces and the movement of those forces, as we saw in the Donbas and Crimea, but we’ve also seen in Georgia, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  But Russians also rely on other – what we call hybrid or gray-zone tactics, and that includes disinformation.  And so as an Alliance working both with the 30 Allies represented at NATO and with other institutions, including the European Union, I think all of us are much smarter about, first and foremost, identifying when Russia or other countries rely on disinformation.  We’ve gotten smarted about how to deter or detect the use of disinformation, and hopefully we’ve gotten smarter about preventing it.

One of the ways that we can address it is by sharing information and sharing lessons learned in countering it and coping with it.  And there, I mean, it’s hard to name a country that hasn’t experienced this particular tool in one form or another.

So in the case of what’s happening between Russia and Ukraine, certainly here at NATO we’ve talked about the use of disinformation.  We’ve all shared what we’re seeing and hearing.  We’ve spoken with our friends in Kyiv about the threat of disinformation.  And I think to answer your question about are we concerned, yes, we are concerned about how Russia uses this tactic, and again, are doing our very best to try and counter it.

Moderator:  Well, thank you very much for that, Ambassador.  Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for questions for today.  Before we go, I’d like to see if Ambassador Smith has any closing remarks for us.

Ambassador Smith:  No, just thank you very much for everybody joining.  I hope you’ll tune in and watch events unfolding in the next 48 hours with defense ministers here.  This is an important gathering not just because they’ll be talking about Russia-Ukraine, but we’ll also be focused on a lot of other things that NATO’s doing right now to enhance its defense and deterrence posture, and it’s having a lot of important partners meetings with Ukraine and Georgia; it’ll be engaging other partners like Finland and Sweden and even the European Union.  So this will be a busy couple of days, so do tune in and, again, come back to us at any time with any questions you might have.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Well, thank you so much, Ambassador Smith, for joining us today, and thanks so much to the reporters on the line for your questions.  Very shortly we will send the audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it becomes available.  We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov.  Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us again for another press briefing soon.  This concludes the call.