SPECIAL ONLINE BRIEFING
Ambassador Julianne Smith
U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
The Brussels Hub
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 again be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, the 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 opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you, John, for that introduction, and thanks again for hosting this Brussels Hub session on the NATO Foreign Ministerial. I landed just a little while ago here in Bucharest, Romania, where the ministerial will take place, and wanted to just take a few minutes and offer you all a short overview of what’s really on the docket for the next two days or so.
So on Tuesday we are going to be starting – obviously all the ministers will be arriving either today, into tomorrow – and we will begin in the afternoon with a session, unsurprisingly, on Russia-Ukraine. There you will hear some of the same messages that you’ve heard from prior ministerials in terms of how united the ministers in the Alliance continue to be. I personally see no cracks in Alliance unity. We continue to see Allies standing steady alongside of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian forces.
We will spend some time, as you might imagine, talking about the attacks and the uptick in attacks that we’ve seen on critical infrastructure inside Ukraine. Obviously this is a tactic designed by the Russians to leave the Ukrainian people in the cold and in the dark as winter sets in inside Ukraine. And we will be talking about ways in which we can continue to provide support, whether it’s humanitarian or economic support or security assistance, again, to the people of Ukraine as they try and cope with these horrific attacks throughout the country, but especially those that are designed to in essence turn off the lights inside Ukraine.
We will then move on Tuesday evening to a working dinner with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Minister Kuleba. He will be joining us, and that will be another opportunity for the ministers to sit around the table and hear firsthand from Minister Kuleba about what needs the Ukrainians continue to have. We are in constant contact with our friends in Kyiv trying to determine the best ways in which we might support them.
One area to note is that in recent months, since Madrid, the Alliance has been providing nonlethal support to Ukraine, and some of those items – particularly the winter gear, the generators, the fuel – are especially important right now given the attacks that we’re seeing on critical infrastructure across many cities inside Ukraine.
On Wednesday the subjects turn to a wider set of issues associated with NATO’s Strategic Concept that was agreed at the Madrid Summit earlier this summer. We came together as an Alliance, as you will recall, and talked about China, the PRC, as a challenge to the Alliance. And what we have begun doing across the NATO Alliance is to think about ways in which the Alliance can address that challenge in concrete terms. And so in that session on the Strategic Concept, you’ll hear ministers covering not only the subject of the PRC and associated challenges, but you’ll hear Allies talking about things like energy security and also resilience and critical infrastructure. So those themes will all be part of that session on the Strategic Concept as Allies look to implement what they signed up to earlier this summer.
There will also be a session with some NATO partners. NATO has dozens of partners, but three have been invited to this foreign ministerial. We have Bosnia and Herzegovina; we have Georgia that will be at the table; and of course Moldova as well. And Moldova is a country, I think, where we are increasingly looking for ways to enhance our cooperation and partnership with Moldova – in fact, all three countries that are going to be present here at the ministerial – because these are NATO partners that are experiencing firsthand the direct impact of what Putin is doing by taking out critical infrastructure inside Ukraine. For a country like Moldova, for example, that can actually lead to severe consequences for them in their electrical sector because of the ways in which they’re connected to the Ukrainian grid. So it’ll be a pleasure to welcome them, those three ministers, here in Bucharest.
Lastly, let me just make two points, one on deterrence and defense, and that will obviously be a theme that runs through this ministerial as well. Romania, as you all know, hosts one of the new multinational battle groups that were created in the days following February 24th. After 2014 the Alliance, you’ll recall, had created four multinational battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland, and afterwards the Alliance added four more on the eastern flank, and of course Romania hosts one of those important battle groups right here on its own soil. So that theme of deterrence and defense will be front and center of the discussions here.
Lastly, let me just say, as I did at the top, I really see no signs that there is any disunity across the Alliance right now. Allies understand fundamentally what’s at stake in Ukraine. This is obviously about Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, but it’s also about the values that we hold dear. And I think ministers and certainly heads of state represented across this Alliance understand what’s at stake and are determined to continue supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes.
So I’ll leave it at that. Happy to answer any questions you have. And again, thanks to all of you for joining us this afternoon, or this morning if you find yourself on the other side of the Atlantic. Back to you, John.
MODERATOR: Thanks so much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. The first question we’ll take from the submitted questions on the
site, from Robbie Gramer from Foreign Policy. “Turkey has provided military support to Ukraine, brokered an important grain shipment deal, and helped arrange prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine. But at the same time, Turkey has expanded its economic ties with Russia, flouted Western sanctions on Moscow, and continues blocking Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. Do you actually consider Turkey to be a reliable NATO Ally? Has some of Turkey’s actions in this conflict broken or undermined U.S. trust in it as a NATO Ally?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, thank you, Robbie, for that question. I wish I could see you on the screen. I miss running into you in D.C. But in any case, appreciate you sending that question over. You’ve hit many points that I think are quite clear in terms of how much the Alliance really fundamentally appreciates what Turkey has been able to do, particularly as it relates to the transit of grain out of Ukraine to get to various ports around the globe. And the role that Turkey has played in relation to the grain deal really has been indispensable and one that we are all tremendously grateful for.
Similarly, Turkey has also provided a considerable amount of humanitarian and economic assistance, security assistance, to the people of Ukraine, which is important as well and something that we also have expressed our appreciation for over many, many months.
In regards to other subjects, there were and there have been some discussions, as you well know, between Turkey and Sweden and Finland about some of the direct and legitimate security concerns that Turkey has had. Those meetings that have taken place between the three countries we believe – and we’ve heard directly from the three countries in question – have been constructive. We are still hoping that in terms of enlargement – Sweden and Finland – we’re quite confident that they will become full-fledged members of the Alliance in the not-too-distant future, and we will leave it in the hands of Sweden, Finland, and Turkey to continue on with the dialogue that’s taken place.
In terms of some of the operations that have taken place recently, I think you’ve heard the message from Washington. My colleagues back on the other side of the Atlantic have called for de-escalation. We recognize the concerns that Turkey has, but we really want to see this situation de-escalate and see tensions cool and calm down so that we can ensure that there is no negative impacts on some of the counter-ISIL efforts that are underway.
But in terms of the direct answer to your question, yes, Turkey is an important member of the NATO Alliance and we do appreciate what they’re doing for Ukraine across multiple sectors.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll go to someone who wishes to ask a question live. Yaroslav Dovgopol from Ukrinform. Yaroslav, you have the mic.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for having my question. Well, my question is obviously about Ukraine. Could you please give us more details about the discussions on Ukraine and Russia in Bucharest? Are the United States and its Allies
considering new sanctions against Russia due to its missile attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure? And also, is the cap price on Russian oil also on the table during discussions in Bucharest? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yaroslav, thank you for that question. Appreciate you joining us today. On the question of sanctions and the price cap on oil, those are actually two issues that are regularly handled in other multilateral forums. So we’ve found that most of the work on sanctions has occurred in channels between the European Union and the United States as well as other countries that are not members of the EU, so plenty of conversations with our friends in Canada, the UK, other countries that have decided to join the sanctions regime to apply pressure on Moscow.
So really, I’m not the best person positioned to answer questions on sanctions. And I suspect because of the good work that’s ongoing in that EU channel spreading out to other countries around the world, that will not be a key feature of the discussion here. There will be another meeting on the side where G7 ministers will convene and perhaps they will be looking at additional measures that collectively their countries can take to apply pressure on Moscow to alter Putin’s strategic calculus.
But on your other question about the price cap, again, that is something that has not been regularly handled in NATO channels. So I think I’d better leave that to other corners of the international system that are really taking that on.
For us, the focus is continuing to share a common assessment of what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine among Allies, working with our friends in Ukraine. For us, it’s about reaffirming our unity for the Ukrainian people right now and ensuring that individually we are getting the security assistance out to the Ukrainian forces that are fighting tirelessly to defend their sovereignty and their territory, and finding ways that NATO proper can come together to offer some of that nonlethal support that’s so critical right now in these winter months as the Russians continue to attack critical infrastructure inside Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go back now to a submitted question from Mattia Bernardo from ANSA, the Italian News Agency. “One topic of this meeting is providing long-term support to Ukraine, including in major integration in the Euro-Atlantic bloc. My question is such a strategy would not be – or would such a strategy be perceived by Moscow as a de facto accession to NATO? Secondly, would this not reduce the scope of possible negotiations?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: So on the question of NATO enlargement and Ukraine’s candidacy, I think the message both coming from the United States and from across the NATO Alliance has been pretty clear – a message that, in fact, we delivered face to face to the Russians on January 12th in the NATO-Russia Council – and that is that NATO’s door remains open, number one. Number two is the question of enlargement rests with the aspirant country and the NATO members. And number three, Russia in no way, shape, or form gets a voice or a veto in those types of decisions.
So that remains our policy. Allies are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to what happened in this city in 2008, where the Alliance committed to have Georgia and Ukraine join the Alliance. And so while we make all of those statements and we reaffirm our commitment to the 2008 Bucharest Summit, we also have said many times that our focus collectively right now is on practical support to Ukrainian military forces and to the Ukrainian people. That is our top priority, and while the war is ongoing that’s where we’re going to channel our energy.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to a journalist live now. Noureddine Fridhi, you have the mic.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thank you very much for the opportunity. Do you hear me?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yes. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Ambassador. My question: Will you discuss tomorrow the support that Russia is getting from Iran, and what would be the council message toward Iran on this? And do it expect, Madam Ambassador, that this conflict is going for a long time? And maybe will the discussion these two days – will do – will you talk also about the conditions to – for both parties to get into – kind of around the table to negotiate a ceasefire or a peace settlement anytime later in the war? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Sure. Well, thank you for those two questions. On Iran’s support to Russia in providing some military capabilities, particularly the drones, you’ve seen press reporting on this; you’ve heard the U.S. government talk about our concern about the fact that the Iranians have been providing assistance to Russia that is then being used in the war. That is a topic of conversation that has come up in NATO channels in the past, and I think that will continue to be an issue that we will track collectively and is an ongoing part of the conversation across the NATO Alliance.
On your question about negotiations, I mean, I think our messaging on this particular question has been quite clear. We have stated repeatedly, even before February 24th when Russia went into Ukraine, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. And by that we mean we really will leave the question of negotiations in the hands of President Zelenskyy. We will allow him to determine the conditions under which he is willing to come to the table and when he is willing to come to the table.
Our position in the United States – and I think is replicated across the Alliance, I can say with some confidence – is to ensure that we put President Zelenskyy and Ukraine in the strongest position possible for when those negotiations come. We do not know when Russia will be willing to come to the table and take negotiations seriously. We’ve seen no indication of that so far. But again, we want to leave this decision in the hands of the Ukrainians and we are not nudging them or encouraging them towards any particular date or timeline. This is really a decision best left in the hands of President Zelenskyy.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. I’d like to go to a submitted question from Philippe Jacque from Le Monde. “Where are we in the China challenge? What are the first operational measures to be taken? Do you expect any concrete conclusion at this ministerial meeting?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: So on the China challenge, the way the Alliance often gets to work in new areas is, first and foremost, Allies have to come together and have some sort of shared assessment of the nature of the challenge. And so since 2019 we’ve had a situation where the Alliance conducted its first-ever China review, and then slowly, over a series of briefings and conversations at multiple levels across the Alliance, the Alliance collectively was able to move forward just this summer and insert the word “China” and the PRC into the Strategic Concept to talk about the associated challenges, in part because China is already operating in the Euro-Atlantic area in a way that could pose risk, security risk, or create some added security vulnerabilities for Allies and for NATO. And for that reason, we are now taking the language in the Strategic Concept and running it through the Alliance to determine the best way to move from what we call assessing the problem to addressing the problem or the challenge.
And that takes us to a lot of different streams of work. First and foremost, it brings us to the question of resilience. How can our societies, individually and collectively, build resilience against PRC or even Russian efforts to use disinformation or malign influence tactics to divide us or to create chaos or disrupt any of our democratic systems? It raises questions about how do we protect our supply chains and critical infrastructure against any potential investments that, again, could create potential vulnerabilities for us down the road. And it also raises the question about the degree to which the NATO Alliance can operate in cyberspace to protect its networks and to protect its technological edge, which it no doubt cherishes.
So there will be, going forward, different strands of work across the Alliance as it relates to challenges associated with the PRC. But this is an ongoing process. We will continue to assess the nature of the problem. But I think in the weeks and months ahead, we’ll have more to say about that in terms of how the Alliance is again implementing the Strategic Concept.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. I’d like to go to a live question now. Alex Raufoglu. Alex, you have the mic.
QUESTION: Yes. Good morning from D.C. Thank you, Ambassador, for your time and for taking our questions. Two quick questions here. NATO Parliamentary Assembly has adopted a resolution last week urging the member states to designate Russia under Putin’s regime as a terrorist state. Now, I know about the U.S. opinion on this. But I’m just wondering how much this is, like, the general sentiment amongst the member states and what does it look like from Brussels?
You also mentioned Georgia as one of the countries that will be discussed at the ministerial. Generally speaking, what is your assessment on the current level of Russia’s threat in the South Caucasus? I’m talking about all three countries: Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Is it increasing because Russia is emboldened in Ukraine, or is it declining because Russia (inaudible) Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Great. Thank you. On the question of whether or not NATO is debating or discussing the possibility of designating Russia as a terrorist state, I think probably the best thing for me to do would be just to talk about my own country’s policy on that front. You may want to ask other NATO member states where they are on this. But certainly from the U.S. perspective, I think you’ve heard President Biden and others across the administration
comment on this. And the feeling in Washington is that this really isn’t necessary at the moment, and in fact could be perhaps counterproductive in the sense that it could inhibit or hinder our ability, for example, to either get humanitarian assistance into Ukraine or some of the grain out of Ukraine.
For that reason, the focus of the United States, in working closely with many partners and allies around the world, has been to turn to sanctions and to identify ways in which we can layer on additional sanctions to put that added pressure on Putin and his wider government, the regime in Moscow; but also to look for ways to really apply pressure on their economy and, in fact, prohibit the Russian military from advancing or building new capabilities in the wake of this war. So the focus there has been a combination of sanctions, export controls, et cetera. But I really don’t see any movement, certainly in the United States, towards that particular outcome.
On the question of Georgia, I mean, obviously this continues to be an issue for Georgia as a strong NATO – very strong NATO partner, and we are increasingly thinking about ways that we can offer our support to the people of Georgia. We’ve been focused on Georgia and Russia’s activities and actions there ever since 2008 when Russia went into Georgia. They still have a presence, as you well know, in Georgia. And in terms of grading whether or not it’s more or less, I mean, I would really leave it to the people of Georgia to give you their firsthand impressions.
But what I will say is that the Alliance was all in full agreement that these three countries needed to be present at this ministerial because we want to find ways to strengthen our support to these countries in terms of how they’re feeling the very real impacts of the war in Ukraine and look for ways to enhance those important partnerships.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We have time for one last quick question from Oskar Gorzynski from the Polish press. “What is the U.S. position on (inaudible) of German Patriot deployment in Poland and/or Ukraine? I assume Secretary Austin has discussed this with Minister Lambrecht in their recent call, but have you reached any conclusions?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: I really don’t have anything to share on that front, no breaking news. What I will say is what you’ve heard me say in the past, and that is we are constantly evaluating what the Ukrainian military – what the Ukrainian forces need in real time. We are in a constant back-and-forth conversation with them and we have been engaged in those types of conversations ever since the war began. We started, as you’ll remember, with a heavy focus on munition, ammunition, air defense. We at one point shifted to coastal defense. We’re back to – as you’ve heard Secretary Austin and other defense ministers and the secretary general mention, the focus again is very much on air defense, in part because of these indiscriminate attacks on civilians and very direct hits on Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
So we are focused – the last defense ministerial was heavily focused on air defense. I suspect it’s a topic that will even come up here in the foreign ministerial as we engage with Minister Kuleba. But you’ll have to stand by for any additional news that we have specifically on Patriots, but I don’t have anything to share on that front today. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today. (Inaudible) 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 other further or final thoughts for the group.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: No final thoughts. Just, as always, appreciate folks taking the time, and look forward to engaging with some of you in the future one on one.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Shortly we will send the video and 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, one word, @state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This ends this press briefing.