Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Participation in the NATO Foreign Ministerial Meeting

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Brussels, Belgium
May 19, 2016

MODERATOR: All right, guys. Just to – here to walk us through the NATO ministerial for today – or for today and a little bit of tomorrow, is [Senior State Department Official], and [Senior State Department Official] will be henceforth known as Senior State Department Official. Go ahead, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. Thanks, everybody. As you know, this is the traditional NATO foreign ministerial meeting in the spring which we have every year, but this year it takes on extra significance because it is preparatory to the July 8, 9 Warsaw NATO summit. So it’s the last time foreign ministers will gather. There will be a defense ministerial in June as well. So we are about 50 days out from the summit, so this meeting is primarily to try to reach ministerial-level agreement on the main political elements for the summit.

As you know, we issued an invitation to Montenegro to become the 29th NATO ally when foreign ministers met in December. So the first event today will be the ceremonial signing of the accession protocols by Montenegro. So they sign, and then all existing NATO foreign ministers sign. And then they become a formal observer at NATO meetings until such time as all allied parliaments have ratified the treaty, adding them. And then they take their seat formally. But for all intents and purposes, they get to act like an ally after this first event, which will happen today.

I should have said that the Secretary will start his NATO program today with his usual signals check meeting with Secretary General Stoltenberg, then we’ll do the Montenegro event. As we head towards Warsaw, we are thinking about NATO’s responsibilities for defense of allied territory in a 360-degree arc, but also its continuing responsibilities for regional stability for expeditionary security.

So, obviously to the east, continuing to work on deterring Russian aggression, reassuring those allies on NATO’s eastern edge. We are looking now at moving from the regular allied presence that we’ve had all along the eastern flank – so the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania – to a more structured approach. NATO military authorities have recommended that we make this presence more structured, more organized, and particularly that we look at lead nations to partner with our eastern allies. So we’ll be talking about how we implement that. I don’t think you’ll see decisions on that. That’ll be publicly announced before the summit, but that’s one of the things that we’re working on on the eastern flank.

On the southern flank of NATO, we have been very involved as individual allies in the C-ISIL coalition, as you know. Almost all allies are contributing – are members of the counter-ISIL coalition. All are contributing in some manner, most through provision of trainers, provision of equipment and arms for Peshmerga, et cetera. But we now have an increasing number of allies involved in the combat mission, whether it’s in Iraq or over Syria. We will be talking about making NATO’s own role in support of the coalition more visible, more formal as we head towards the Warsaw summit. NATO, as you may know, has already offered and has stood up a training program for Iraq, but it takes place in Jordan. Abadi has now asked NATO to move that training program into Iraq, so we will be discussing that request among allies. I can’t predict whether there’ll be a decision on that, but it’ll be certainly one of the things that the United States will be strongly supporting.

QUESTION: When did Jordan join NATO?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This is our partner nation Jordan.

QUESTION: Oh, right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Jordan is a partner of NATO and has been a partner of NATO since the late ’90s, and we often do partner training in Jordan and elsewhere. So the training for Iraq had been taking place in Jordan at Jordan’s – with Jordan’s support. So now there’s an Abadi request to move it into Iraq. So that’s one thing that NATO can do to enhance its role in support of the C-ISIL coalition. We’re also looking at whether NATO can provide more ISR – intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance – with its own assets. We’re also looking at whether NATO’s existing mission in the Mediterranean could play a stronger role in helping support the UN arms embargo in the Med to help Libya. We also have a NATO offer to the Libyan Government to do more training and defense capacity building there, which the Libyans have not yet opened a formal conversation with NATO about. But we will presumably renew that offer.

So that takes you to the south. We’ll obviously be talking about concerns that allies have about dangerous military activity by Russia to NATO’s north. So some of these close flights and other things. We’ll be comparing notes on that. More generally, we expect allies over dinner tonight to talk about Russia’s – to NATO’s approach on Russia. As you know, we have resumed now meetings of the NATO-Russia Council. The first one took place in March. I think we’re open to continuing to talk with Russia at NATO as long as we include in the agenda the difficult issues we have, including Ukraine. So our approach to Russia I think you’ll see will be a mix of deterrence and dialogue. But that’s what allies will talk about, and particularly how we ensure that our messages to Russia are clear along those lines as we head towards Warsaw.

So just getting back to the schedule, after the signals check, there’s the Montenegro accession meeting, then there is the first NATO ministerial session, which is about projecting stability beyond NATO’s borders – so this is primarily the conversation about doing more to the south, doing more to support the C-ISIL coalition. Secretary will then have a presser; you’ll get a chance to talk to him. We have the working dinner tonight, which is primarily about the east, Russia. And then we have tomorrow’s sessions are about NATO-EU cooperation, here both in the context of migration and in the context of asymmetric threats. We can and are already doing more together. We have NATO’s new mission in the Aegean, which is helping to stop trafficking in persons and refugee smuggling across the Aegean that we believe it’s had a concrete effect. The numbers are significantly lower. We’ll be talking about how we sustain and build on that. We also think we can do more together, NATO and the EU, on cyber, on preparing on countering hybrid threats, et cetera.

And then the final session for NATO will be the ISAF session on Afghanistan. There our priorities are to ensure allies meet their commitments to continue to support and fund the ANSF and that we stay in sync on our – on the RSM mission, on staying together on all of that.

So that’s what this meeting’s about.

QUESTION: Since you just got back from Russia, can you give us a sense – did you – were there conversations about what’s happening on the border and the belief of many in Russia that there’s a new Cold War forming? What did they tell you and how much of a – how confrontational is what is going on in NATO in the east, eastern border of Europe?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The consultations that I had on Tuesday were on a very limited number of subjects. They were primarily with Kremlin staff on the implementation of the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, and they were quite detailed on that round of issues. They were not about a larger set of global or regional issues. And then I had a set of consultations at the ministry of foreign affairs on U.S.-Russia bilateral issues. So some of these questions of – some of these security questions came up at the MFA, but it was less focused on the NATO meetings. The Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov have had some discussions about that, but frankly even their consultations aren’t – on Monday were primarily about Middle East and C-ISIL issues.

QUESTION: Well, is there some concern that this beefing up to the east is a little provocative?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we have to remember where this started. NATO took these measures because Russia chose to invade and occupy Crimea, and then move into eastern Ukraine. So the concern – and we’ve been talking about this for a number of years – was to ensure that this was not the beginning of a broader move that might threaten NATO territory. So the President and other allied leaders, beginning in 2014 in Wales, but going on to Warsaw, wanted to make absolutely clear to Russia so it doesn’t miscalculate that our commitment to Article V, defense of our eastern allies, is ironclad. We had a first response, the reassurance response, and now we’re looking since Russia continues to exercise actively to have Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and take – and be very active in and around NATO airspace and territorial waters, that they should not be under any illusions that we are softening our deterrent in the least.

So from our point of view, this is defensive. We have made clear to Russia it is purely defensive and that it responds directly to the concern that Russia might miscalculate allied resolve.

QUESTION: So when – is there another NATO-Russia Council meeting that’s been set?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There has not been a decision whether to have another one between now and the summit. There are mixed views among allies. I think the United States is relaxed about this. We believe in dialogue so long as we’re not shying away from the difficult issues.

QUESTION: But doesn’t the fact that there was a meeting already with no change in the situation in either Ukraine or – I mean, either Crimea or eastern Ukraine – suggest to them, at least, that you guys have basically given up on Crimea --


QUESTION: -- on Crimea being returned and on them toning down their activity in the east?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, the conversations with Russia about resolving the situation in eastern Ukraine are taking place primarily in the Normandy Four format, but now also with reinforced U.S. activity in parallel. So there’s no expectation by either Russia or of the alliance that we’re going to solve the Minsk problem in the NATO-Russia Council. That’s not the negotiating format.

QUESTION: Right, but the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But what we do do in that format – and we did it when we met in March – was reinforce the unity of all allies that if Russia wants its sanctions relief back it’s got to implement Minsk, and that the allied position – all 28 of us and soon to be 29 – are rock solid on keeping sanctions on Crimea unless and until Crimea is given back to Ukraine.

QUESTION: Yeah, but --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So those messages are passed, but these are not – this is not a format where anybody expects to resolve those particular issues.

QUESTION: Well, I understand that, but that’s not the point. I mean, the point is that they were cut off because of Crimea --


QUESTION: -- and then they were resumed without anything changing in Crimea. So if I’m sitting in the Kremlin, I’m saying – (laughter) – “We’re going to get back to normal without” – and I’m not sure --


QUESTION: -- I’m not yet convinced that – and maybe I’m completely wrong, but that allied unity is so rock solid. What about the Italians and the Greeks that don’t --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, sanctions remain in place, and we’re --

QUESTION: Yeah, they do, but these countries are --

QUESTION: Until in July?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the other thing I would say about this is you may recall that over the years of NATO-Russia cooperation, which began in the ’90s, we also had a very robust menu of practical cooperation with Russia. We had exercises, we had training, we had cyber, we had – all of that remains suspended as a result of their behavior in Ukraine, and it will continue to be suspended. I think the issue here is that we’re going to try to keep the lines of communication open and see whether continuing to talk helps at all, but we’re not going to resume practical cooperation in the current environment.

QUESTION: All right. Well --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I would not say that – I think our message is pretty clear to Russia.

QUESTION: Okay. I’ll stop after this, but continuing to talk to see if it helps – I mean, has continuing to talk helped since – well, over the past two years?


QUESTION: Has talking done anything to help? I mean, it doesn’t seem that anything has changed.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the question there will be proven one way or another by whether we get this Minsk stuff implemented by the end of year. So watch this space.

QUESTION: Do you expect the Europeans to roll over the sanctions in July if nothing has changed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’re having good conversations with the Europeans about sanctions rollover. As you know, the President was very clear with – in his remarks in Hanover, as was Chancellor Merkel about what we expect. I think you’ll see the same from G7 leaders when they meet in Hiroshima in a couple of weeks, and we are continuing to work with all of our European allies and partners in the EU to make clear that we do not see Minsk as fully implemented and therefore we believe sanctions need to be rolled over.

QUESTION: Mogherini spoke to this today.



QUESTION: Said that it would be rolled over.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], What more, given the meeting in Vienna on the consideration to supply more arms to the – or supply arms to the government, what do you think that’s – what kind of discussion, or how does that change the discussion --







QUESTION: So anything that the U.S., NATO, and Italy are kind of considering --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As I said at the beginning, NATO has had a capacity-building offer out to Libya for more than a year. I think we will continue to encourage the new Libyan Government as it thinks about standing up a more democratic-looking defense structure to take advantage of the expertise we can bring to bear. Whether the – Libya also wants concrete training of any kind I think remains to be seen, but I think the alliance will be open to it. And then the third question is this question, which I think we’ll have some ministerial conversation about today: We have a NATO mission in the Med, the EU has the Sophia mission, the EU is talking to Libya about bringing that closer to the shore. NATO could do more with its mission to support Sophia, to support Libya. If there was interest in that, we could do more on the arms interdiction side. We could do more to offer intelligence support to Sophia. So I think from the U.S. perspective, we’d be eager to do that if both Libya and the EU were interested. So we’ll be talking about that.


MODERATOR: Last question, guys.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry also said --

QUESTION: Who’s Sophia? Oh, the Libyan guy --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The EU’s mission, the EU’s naval mission.

QUESTION: -- not Sofia --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no, no, no. With a “ph,” not an “f.”

QUESTION: The – Secretary Kerry also said that President Obama reserves the right to strike ISIL if U.S. or allied interests are threatened. That’s something NATO would be involved in at all on the ground in Libya?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think he was speaking on behalf of the United States.