Ambassador Douglas Lute
U.S. Ambassador to NATO
Pre-Ministerial Press Briefing
November 30, 2015
Ambassador Lute: — of the Warsaw Summit, so it’s four Ministerials until Warsaw as we sort of take the stepping stones towards the Summit in July.
The themes that will organize the agenda over the next two days will also trail all the way to Warsaw.
The first theme is that we will check in on progress on delivering what leaders agreed at the Wales Summit, and I’ll outline in which areas. So it’s sort of implement Wales. And the second theme is to continue to adapt to what’s changing around us, and in particular on NATO’s periphery. And by this, I mean most important the periphery on the east and the periphery in the south. So those will be the major themes over five sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.
For Secretary Kerry, this is part of a longer European trip. He will come from the Climate Summit in Paris. From here he’ll go to the OSCE Ministerial and as he is always likely to do there will be numerous stops in between Paris, Brussels and the OSCE.
So let me go through the agenda for the next couple of days and then get your questions.
The first meeting is in Resolute Support format. This is therefore obviously a meeting on Afghanistan. Here the 42 countries of the NATO-led coalition will join Foreign Minister Rabbani who will give us an update on political progress after what has been admittedly a tough year on the security front.
We expect two key decisions coming out of the first meeting tomorrow afternoon. The first is that we expect NATO will parallel the U.S. decision to sustain its current mission and its current force posture through 2016. This is, of course, the decision that President Obama announced, the national decision, the national U.S. decision that President Obama announced some weeks ago, and in the intervening weeks NATO has gone through its own decision process and now I think will join the U.S. in sustaining Resolute Support next year. And just last week NATO successfully generated the forces it needs to continue that mission in Afghanistan.
The second decision has to do with the longer term and this has to do with beginning a process which will culminate at Warsaw where allies and others will make political commitments to sustain the substantial international funding which essentially sponsors, makes possible the Afghan Army and Police. If you follow Afghanistan carefully you’ll appreciate that the last time we did this was at the Chicago Summit in 2012 when internationally we committed to $4 billion a year for years ’15, 2016 and 2017. So we’re really at the first year of that three-year commitment, and so by Warsaw we want to add an additional three years onto that international commitment. So that will be $4 billion for 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Now look, this is going to be a lot different than Chicago because if you imagine the political setting there are a lot more competing priorities today, much closer to Europe’s home than there were in 2012. But nonetheless, the long term key to success in Afghanistan is sustaining international support for the Afghan Security Forces. So that process we think will begin on tomorrow’s meeting.
The bottom line I think is that for NATO, Afghanistan remains unfinished business. And despite these competing challenges closer to home we have to follow through on those commitments. It’s going to require a long-term effort, but the good news is today we have a much more willing and a much more capable Afghan partner than we had in the past. That’s session number one.
A second session, now this is sort of mid to late afternoon tomorrow, will be on challenges to NATO’s south. And obviously here the conversation will focus on the international campaign to defeat Da’esh. For this session the 28 allies will be joined by Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, and that’s important because what’s happening to NATO’s south is happening to the EU’s south as well. We have common geographic terms here.
I think the discussion will center around how NATO is today contributing to the international coalition. It will feature, I think, strong support from all 28 allies who are contributing today to the military campaign against Da’esh that will sustain and maybe even expand those military efforts in support of the coalition. It’s almost certain to come up that beyond the 28 allies, 26 NATO partners are also contributing to the coalition. So if you do the math here it’s 28 allies, 26 partners, out of 65 total. So 54 of the 65 coalition members are already contributing in some fashion to the military campaign. I think you’ll get strong support out of tomorrow’s meeting to continue that kind of contribution.
I think you’ll also get strong support for the emerging political track. And here I’m talking about the Vienna process where Secretary Kerry, Minister Lavrov, Senior Representative Steffan de Mistura, and others have brought together a group that support the notion that the political campaign has to proceed parallel to the military campaign, and that the military campaign by itself isn’t going to take us that far. So this effort, I think, will be foremost on Minister’s minds when they talk about challenges to the south tomorrow.
I think the key way to look at NATO’s contribution here is that NATO really is the backbone or the force provider for the military coalition. I’ve already given you the numbers there. NATO is further contributing by way of building capacity, military capacity, in two front-line states: In Iraq and in Jordan. And this is by way of the Wales-approved program agreed at the Wales Summit where we have a defense capacity-building effort in both of those partner countries. So we’re trying to do what we can there.
NATO has a similar program on the books ready to go if we were to have a political settlement in Libya. So, one of NATO’s major contributing roles, aside from providing forces and capacity to the coalition is to help these partners who are under stress as a result of Da’esh.
I think beyond the south in this session, when Mogherini joins the Ministers, they will also talk about NATO’s new framework for dealing with hybrid warfare, and it’s appropriate that Madame Mogherini should be in the room when NATO talks about hybrid warfare because the nature of that threat, that challenge, is such that responsibility is shared among the member states. So the first line of defense is the state itself. But beyond that, by way of backup responsibilities, some of those backup responsibilities fall to NATO and others fall to the EU.
So this is really a triangle of responsibility in terms of getting in front of hybrid warfare or responding to hybrid warfare were it to happen, between the member states, NATO, and the EU. So it’s very appropriate that we come to terms, we come to agreement on the preventive steps we can take, and then if this were to happen in one of the common member states, how we would respond. So that hybrid warfare discussion will also take place in this second session.
That takes us to the working dinner, and here the topic is Russia and characterizing NATO’s relationship with Russia. This is clearly a lot different than where it’s been for about 20 years, so for about the past 20 years, setting aside the last two, before Crimea there was every intent on NATO’s part, and we thought an honest effort on Russia’s part, to form what we came to call a strategic partnership. But with the illegal annexation of Crimea, with the destabilizing activities in the Donbas, it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the strategic partner that we would like to have in Russia. But that doesn’t say what kind of relationship we have today.
So what does strategic partnership, what replaces strategic partnership by way of characterizing NATO’s relationship with Russia?
I don’t know where that conversation will end up, but I think one thing is clear, just by the geostrategic positioning of NATO and Russia, and that is that the two will remain strong, even powerful neighbors. So how do you move from sort of the strategic reality of neighbors, how can you then characterize the emerging new relationship between these two parties? And I think this is a conversation that will continue. It will start tomorrow night, but it will continue all the way to the Warsaw Summit next July.
That takes us to Wednesday morning. The first session Wednesday morning is on NATO’s enlargement policy or as we call it here the open door policy. Of course this policy traces all the way back to the origins of the alliance because it’s Article 10 in the Washington Treaty that lays out how NATO can add to the original 12 members of the alliance, and of course that’s been done 16 times since 1949. And following up on the decision taken at the Wales Summit, on Wednesday morning Ministers will decide whether or not to invite a 29th member, Montenegro. And so we’ll have to see where that goes.
The Washington Treaty itself essentially sets out the standards for such an invitation and it says that an aspiring member must adhere to the principles of the alliance, so these are the basic principles of rule of law, democratic principles and so forth. Must contribute to the collective defense. Must be able to make some contribution to collective defense. And then the third criteria is the invitation must be issued on a consensus basis.
So on Wednesday morning the vote has to be 28 to 0 if Montenegro is to be invited.
I can’t forecast how that’s going to come out. I’m sure some question here will be how’s it going to go? I don’t know. You’ll have to wait until — Did I rob someone of a question? Sorry. You have a few minutes here to think of another question. We’ll have to see how that goes, but that will be decided on Wednesday morning.
Now, whatever the decision on Montenegro, there are three other countries that are in the aspirant pipeline, if you will, or who have declared an intent to join. And I think the Ministers will also discuss progress with those other three aspirants, so here this is Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. So that first session is on open door.
And then the final session of the two-day Ministerial is with Ukraine. So here the 28 NATO Ministers will join the Foreign Minister from Ukraine in what’s called the NATO-Ukraine
Commission. This is important because as much as the conversations over the last weeks have been of what’s going on in the south of NATO, NATO must look in more than one direction at a time. It must be able to look to the south, but it must also be able to look to the east and continue to assess what’s going on in Ukraine. So it will be important to get a political update from the Foreign Minister. We know on the security front that that the ceasefire has been imperfect and of late there have actually been a couple of spikes in violence along the line of contact in Ukraine. We know that some heavy weapons have been withdrawn, but not all. And on the political front we’ve had some local elections in Ukraine. Just yesterday we had the local election in Mariupol, but not yet in the separatist territories. And of course on Kyiv’s part the constitutional reforms and so forth are not yet complete either. So it will be interesting to see where that goes.
I note with interest that coming out of the G20 meeting about a week ago, the G20 leaders agreed to sustain international sanctions against Russia until all of the provisions of the Minsk Agreement are in place. And of course that EU decision for sustaining the sanctions comes up near the end of this year.
So there’s a lot to discuss on Ukraine, and it’s important to keep a NATO spotlight on Ukraine, to keep it in our attention.
So look, those are the two big themes over the next couple of days. Just to follow up, initially implementation on things that were decided at Wales; and then second of all, to continue to assess what’s going on on NATO’s periphery, in particular to the south, a special emphasis I think to the south. But also, as I jut mentioned with Ukraine, to NATO’s east.
And I think I’ll stop there and get your questions.
Moderator: I’d like to start with a question on the first meeting, Afghanistan, the Dari version of Deutsche Welle, Ari Faraman.
Media: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador I have two questions. The first is that the Afghans [believe] that they don’t have enough [inaudible] equipment and there are some [inaudible] in Afghanistan that the United States of America, the partner, doesn’t provide necessary [equipment].
Second, there are many reports from, about the rise of Da’esh in Afghanistan. We are seeing a series of kidnappings in Afghanistan, allegedly by the Da’esh. Do you think Da’esh could be a serious threat for Afghanistan? And do you see any connection between these fighters and the leadership in [inaudible] local militia? Thank you.
Ambassador Lute: Let me take those in reverse order. There have been some reports that there are some small elements of Da’esh that may be emerging not only in Afghanistan but in South and Central Asia. These are not yet viewed — This is not yet viewed as a serious challenge to the Afghan authorities, but any place that Da’esh raises its flag has international attention. So I think General Campbell and the NATO forces there alongside our Afghan partners will be watching this very carefully.
Look, there are a lot of, in my view, of many antibodies between Da’esh and the Afghan culture, the Afghan people. But we’ve seen before where Da’esh can impose itself on a population. So we’ll have to watch this very carefully.
As for close air support, Afghan Air Force and so forth, look, you can’t create an air force, at least a modern, capable air force, in just several years. We’ve been at this for some time with the Afghan Air Force. It’s going to take a while. They have only an emerging capability, mostly helicopter based today and they don’t have enough close air support. The coalition has done things over the years to mitigate the fact that the Air Force has been slow in coming on-line. So for example, providing artillery indirect fire support, armored vehicles that have direct fire support and so forth. But there’s no debating the fact that the Afghan Air Force is needed and there’s a program in place to get it delivered, but it is slow. I think the United States admits that and I think certainly the Afghans admit that.
You’ll know that when the Afghans have been most severely stressed that the U.S. forces, not NATO, but the U.S. forces have some authorities that General Campbell can use to provide in extremis close air support to the Afghans, and that has happened on occasion. So for example it did happen in Kunduz. So it’s a problem we’re working on together.
There’s a big Afghan responsibility here too, because the pilots have to be Afghan. So, Afghan pilots have to be trained. They have to be retained in the air force, and that’s a challenge.
So there’s work to be done, and this is a good example of why the job is unfinished and why I think tomorrow NATO will take the decision that we have to continue the work.
Moderator: I’d like to go with a Montenegrin journalist who I hope has a second question. Antenna M Radio, Latina Yavanovic.
Media: Thank you. You said that you don’t want to predict the decision, okay. But do you believe that it would be good, the decision for NATO to call Montenegro in this moment? And do you think that any third side may have input on the decision right now in NATO on the member states? Because we’ve heard from [the Kremlin] last month a couple of statements, even their parliament adopted a document which they invite NATO not to press their power. Thank you.
Ambassador Lute: So NATO’s been very consistent over the years in terms of how a new member is invited in and there are a couple of principles here.
One is that the decision begins with the people of that country. So in all, in fact all the way back to the original 12 members, it began with sovereign decisions among those 12 countries to join. And we’ve held by that principle ever since.
So the first order of business here is what do the Montenegrin people want? And they have in our view taken a sovereign decision to join, and therefore they’re eligible to be considered.
The second decision, though, of course comes on behalf of the current members, so this is the 28-0, right? I note that among those 28 Russia is not a member. So Russia will not be in the room voting on Wednesday morning. It will be between the 28 current allies. And there’s no other country that’s in the room either. So this is a decision that begins with the sovereign choice of the country, and culminates with the vote among the current members.
Moderator: We’ll start with a question from Ukraine.
Media: Thank you, One-plus-One Media, Ukraine, Alex [inaudible].
Well, Ambassador, the Minsk doesn’t seem to be working.
Ambassador Lute: The what? Sorry? Minsk?
Media: Yeah. Actually I was just back from, not from Minsk, but from flying with Russia and Ukraine, and I’ve talked to a couple of governors of the local territories of Ukraine who see a lot of movements of Russian tanks. The regular forces instead of the local militias are spreading, according to their information. So the first question is do you share this kind of knowledge with them? Can you share with us a little bit of your intelligence on what is happening there in terms of Russian activities, movement of their forces, and [techniques] of military equipment? That’s the first one.
The second one would be probably on this Ukrainian-NATO Commission that we have on Wednesday. Is there anything interesting on the table? Anything new? Yes, we have these trust funds. Some of them are working, some of them are not. The amount of money is not that big.
On the other hand, we have the Congress decision in Washington allowing U.S., as far as I know, to give us some weaponry up to $300 million or something like that.
So do you see any progress here? Can you tell us any interesting news here?
That’s it, thank you.
Ambassador Lute: I’m not sure I have interesting news for you, but I can give you an update on where we are.
So we believe that Russia still has influence, significant influence, among the separatist militias in the Donbas areas. I don’t have an estimate for you in terms of number of Russians and so forth. I think that as heavy weapons have been gradually withdrawn from the line of contact, so tanks, artillery, rocket artillery, more sophisticated weapons, that the Russian role is less obvious because their role was to support those heavy weapons. So as that movement over the last several months, since roughly 1 September, has moved away from the line of contact, it’s a lot less obviously role.
Inside Russia, the number of Russian forces in Russia that are standing by perhaps to intervene has dramatically decreased and now it’s just one or two battalions. So it’s significantly less than what it once was maybe a year ago.
But that’s not to say that Russian influence with those separatist groups has diminished. Frankly, I don’t believe that there would be the progress we’ve seen on the cease-fire and the progress we’ve seen on withdrawal of heavy weapons if it were up to the separatists alone. I think they’re getting, they are being influenced by Russia.
So that’s the level of Russian influence.
With regard to the level of U.S. and international support, I’d just give you a couple of facts and figures. One is that the U.S. along with I think four other NATO allies have been for some period now, some months now, been active training Ukrainian forces. First National Guard forces and now regular forces to include Ukrainian Special Operations forces in western Ukraine. So not near the area of conflict. And providing quite sophisticated materiel. Most recently we’ve delivered several top of the line indirect fire radar systems, which are significantly more capable than ones we delivered earlier, which were rather short range. Now we’ve delivered much more sophisticated ones, and these are, of course, defensive systems that can be used to provide early warning of rocket and artillery attacks, which were the major threat against Ukrainian forces provided by the Russian supported separatists in an effort to better defend themselves, but if necessary to counter that fire.
So look, support continues. There won’t be any new, I don’t anticipate any news this week in terms of new forms of support. I think what’s important to recognize is that in the context of the five meetings of Ministers on Tuesday/Wednesday, they’re devoting one entire session to Ukraine. Despite what’s going on elsewhere. So Afghanistan and to the south. And I think that balance of attention between what’s happening in the east and what’s happening in the south is the right balance and it’s a positive message, I think, for the alliance.
Moderator: Terry Schultz?
Media: Terry Schultz with CBS News [inaudible].
While we’ve been sitting here, SHAPE has sent out a notice about the EU Military Staff and EUCOM’s [drafting] an agreement on enhanced cooperation. You’re looking — Okay. This is not my question if you don’t have an answer for it. I’ll give you another one.
Ambassador Lute: This could be it Terry.
Media: No, don’t cut me off.
Ambassador Lute: I don’t have anything on that.
Media: Seriously? Okay then move on to Turkey.
President Putin says that filed a flight plan for this shot-down plane with the United States. And that the U.S. should have shared that kind of information with Turkey. I’d like to know if that’s true. And secondly, when the Secretary General keeps saying that he has, that all the Allies support Turkey and Turkey’s version of events. Is the U.S. among those allies that can corroborate the Turkey version of what happened with the shooting down of the plane?
Ambassador Lute: The U.S. data that I’ve seen corroborates Turkey’s version of the events. The airplane was in Turkey; it was engaged in Turkey. It had been warned repeatedly. And this is not the first incursion of Russian aircraft into Turkish airspace. So all of that is corroborated by U.S. data.
Now on a flight plan: The way this works is that under the arrangement between the coalition, U.S.-led coalition and Russia, on the rules of the road in the airspace over Syria, they arrived at what I would call safety measures. So things like where will you be operating? What frequencies on your radio should you dial in to talk to the other side? They exchanged liaison officers so there are Russian liaison officers now in key positions so that we can try to reduce the risk of accidental engagement.
What I can tell you for sure is that there was no flight plan issued for a violation of NATO airspace. And that had such a flight plan been issued, we would have advised against it. Why? Because of the potential for the sort of thing that we saw happen, which is very dangerous, unnecessary, and irresponsible on behalf of Russia who repeatedly has, over the last few weeks since the early October episode, operated just on the limits of Turkish airspace and in some cases violating Turkish air spaces, despite warnings and so forth.
So, no notice of a flight plan. By the way, flight plans in combat areas don’t feature precise routes. They feature sort of areas of airspace. And certainly should an area would not have included NATO airspace.
Moderator: Robin Emmott from Reuters?
Media: Hi, Ambassador, to go back to Montenegro. I wondered how you feel on the support showing up for Montenegro joining NATO? Because I know that was the White House who said that was one of the reasons [inaudible].
And secondly, on the same issue, what sort of a message does Montenegro possibly joining NATO sends to Georgia?
Ambassador Lute: Sure. On Montenegrin public support, as I mentioned earlier, the first criterion for considering membership is a national decision. So we’ve looked for some period now for indicators of that national decision and national support for that decision.
We have seen over the last two or three months’ progress in terms of generating public support by way of opinion polling. Most notably we’ve seen the Montenegrin parliament, a vote in solid support of membership. And of course that’s what parliaments do, right? They represent the people.
So we’re satisfied that the Montenegrin people and their representatives have taken this decision to join.
I’m sorry, the second point was —
Media: What sort of messages does that send to Georgia?
Ambassador Lute: Yeah. So I think the message it sends to Georgia is simply the same message it sends to any aspirant, which is there are three fundamental criteria: So, democratic principles, contribute to the alliance, and unanimous support among current members. And Georgia is not yet there across those three criterion. That’s both as simple and as complicated as it gets.
Media: Julian Barnes, Wall Street Journal.
As the earlier questioner mentioned, Russia has said this is, Montenegrin membership, or expansion of NATO is a strategic threat. How important, if there is an invitation here on Wednesday, how important a signal is that to Russia and what exactly, what kind of message would the Alliance be sending?
And as part of that, do you see the hand of Russia in some of the protests that have taken place in Montenegro? Do you believe that Russia is trying to create an image of dissent or build up real dissent in Montenegro?
Ambassador Lute: Julian, it’s not designed in any way as a message to Russia. It’s really not. I understand Russia’s perspective on this, but this is not about Russia. This is about Montenegro, which by the way is hundreds of miles from Russia. And this is about the desire of the Montenegrin people, their government, and a decision to be taken at 28 on Wednesday morning.
So no intended message to Russia at all except that NATO intends to continue to abide by the Washington Treaty, which says that European nations who meet the criteria that I’ve outlined, are eligible to be invited.
So we’re simply abiding by a treaty which is now 66 years in being.
As for the opposition groups, look, I think it’s safe to say that public support in Montenegro is not unanimous, but quite frankly, I can’t think on any issues in any one of the 28 allies in which polling is unanimous. I mean I think in my own country, I’m not sure we agree with unanimity on anything. There’s opposition to virtually every public governmental decision.
As to who sponsors that opposition, I’m not a Montenegrin expert. I accept that there are elements of the political culture, the political body in Montenegro that don’t support this decision, but that’s, and where they, from where they are sponsored or who supports them I’m less clear.
I would note, though, that in the last six months that opposition is quite compartmented, quite ad hoc, and apparently has had not a significant impact on public support for the decision because public support has actually been increased.
So I think the issue fundamentally is that this is not about Russia. This is about Montenegro and NATO.
Moderator: We are running out of time. One more quick question from this man who’s been very patient, in the back.
Media: Radio Free Europe, [inaudible].
Russia for some time already expressing [inaudible] for an air base in Belarus. And the [inaudible] government is trying hard to avoid this. Is there a concern for this development, [inaudible] flight plans [inaudible]?
And a separate question, there was an agreement for delivery of American [inaudible] from Afghanistan to Europe. Through Russia by rail and Belarus. Is this agreement in any way under stress now in the situation?
Ambassador Lute: I think on the second question, I think any supply lines in and out of Afghanistan today are much less dependent on one route or another route because our numbers are so much lower. We’re less than one-tenth of what NATO’s strength was at its peak, so at our peak we were at about 140,000 troops which require a great deal of overland transport, and now we’re under 14,000. So you can do much of the support by air or using other ground routes. So I don’t think there’s an issue there.
As regard to a question about Russian, a potential Russian base in Belarus, look, this is between Russia and Belarus. I’d note that given the location of Kaliningrad which is sovereign Russian territory and has significant Russian military capability based there, I don’t think anything in Belarus is going to present much of a different picture. The Russians already are present along NATO’s periphery in Kaliningrad but of course with the Baltic States because of a direct border between Russia and the Baltic States.
So I don’t think the geography here suggests that this is a big deal for NATO. And really, it’s a question between those two capitals in terms of what they wish to do.
We can take one more.
Media: [inaudible] Could you please comment on the [true] perspective of NATO-Russia relations? You were talking about 20 years when the relations were developing to the strategic partnership. For the last two years, it has changed quite much. So do you think that possibly the [inaudible] act of NATO-Russia would be changed in the future? I think you were somehow mentioning this [inaudible] while you were talking. Please comment on this.
Ambassador Lute: So one of the decisions our leaders took, NATO leaders took at Wales was to continue to abide by the NATO-Russia Founding Act even when there was evidence that, clear evidence that Russia was not and, in particular, because of the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, first in Crimea and then in Donbas.
They went on to discuss that this is not the only provision that that Russia’s aggression violated. Right? It also, and by my count, violated the Helsinki Accords, violated the agreement on Ukraine at Budapest, violated even the UN Charter. So there’s a long list of violations. Okay? But in Wales, our leaders, NATO leaders said despite that violation in the NATO-Russia Founding Act, we will continue to respect it. And therefore, NATO’s response to Russian aggression has been calibrated to stay inside the provisions of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
So for example, we are not basing permanently NATO troops on the eastern, in the eastern allies. We’re not basing substantial combat forces in the eastern allies. We’re not changing our NATO nuclear posture with regard to basing and so forth.
So we will continue to abide by the NATO-Russia Founding Act even while Russia has not.
Now look, I don’t know where this conversation that takes place tomorrow at dinner and eventually culminates at Warsaw will, where it will end up. I think it’s quite clear that we don’t have a strategic partner, because the term “partner” implies that you’ve got two parties, right? And we believe that Russia has walked away from partnership.
But what I think we can all agree on is that the two parties, NATO and Russia, will be neighbors. I mean no one is moving in this setting. So we have to figure our way through this difficult period and figure out what’s next.