February 4, 2015: Ambassador Lute’s Pre-Foreign Ministerial Briefing

February 4, 2015

Ambassador Lute:  Thanks.  For returning veterans, thanks for coming again to the latest greatest ministerial session here at NATO.  We do these, for those who are new to the game, we do these about quarterly with either Defense Ministers or Foreign Ministers, so tomorrow is Defense Ministers.  It will be the first such session of Defense Ministers since they last met at Wales in early September, so in that way it’s an important follow-up session.

Let me give you first a little context.  It is, as I said, the first Defense Ministerial since Wales.  As such, it represents a golden opportunity for the 28 Defense Ministers to meet and assess progress on the commitments and decisions made by leaders at Wales.  So it’s sort of a five month check-in on the progress at Wales.

And of course Wales to the Alliance  was an important event not only because it was a leaders meeting, a Summit, but also because leaders noted that they sensed that NATO was at a bit of a phase line or an inflection point in the history of the Alliance .  They noted obviously the 65 year anniversary of NATO but they noted that beyond the first 40 years of NATO, the Cold War period, NATO had gone into a period of about two decades of operations during this period, so the ‘90s.  NATO went obviously first to the Balkans and then more recently to Afghanistan.  But that perhaps at Wales they sensed that maybe we’re moving into the next phase.  So maybe the post-operational phase of NATO.

Why did they say that?  Because they looked around NATO’s periphery and they saw a combination of challenges —  East, Southeast and South — that maybe mark a return to basics for NATO.  And obviously here they noted Russian aggression in the East, they noted the rise of ISIS and the continued instability in Syria.  So Syria and Iraq also on the border of NATO as those conflicts border Turkey, a NATO ally.  And then to the South, the continuing failing situation in Libya.

So that combination of events led leaders to discuss at Wales what they called the arc of instability, so if you can imagine NATO and conflicts and challenges on the East, the Southeast and the South.

So at Wales they took some pretty fundamental decisions about what to do about this, about these challenges on NATO’s periphery.  So tomorrow when Defense Ministers come what they’ll do is check in on five months’ worth of progress against the commitments made at Wales.

You can also look at this Defense Ministers meeting as logically the next stepping stone towards the follow-on Summit which now probably will be mid-say June – July of 2016.  So in a way, we’re checking in on progress on Wales, and we’re beginning to lay tracks towards Warsaw where the next Summit will be.

There will be four sessions tomorrow, beginning in the morning and ending late afternoon, early evening.

The first is called the Nuclear Planning Group, the NPG.  This is a routine, periodic session where Allies come together and assess the status of the nuclear deterrent section of NATO’s defense posture.  So you shouldn’t see this as anything but a routine session.  It’s typically held about once a year, and this is the occasion for the NPG in 2014.

The second session will be the NATO Georgia Commission.  This is one of several such sessions where NATO has a special stand-alone format with a particular partner.  In this case it will be at what we call a 28+1 format, so the 28 NATO Defense Ministers joined by their Defense Minister colleague from Georgia.  Here again they’ll follow up mainly on decisions taken at Wales.

At Wales, NATO commissioned two new partnership formats and for both of these, in both of these, Georgia is a key participant.  The first one is Defense Capacity Building, and this is a program that leaders decided to set up at Wales that has a focused, tailored outreach to key partners.  And in particular, partners who are under security stress.  Georgia fits that category, so Georgia alongside several other partners — Moldova and Jordan — were selected by leaders at Wales because they had requested such assistance, and the Alliance  agreed at Wales to reach out in a special Defense Capacity Building effort to better enable their defense institutions.  So we’ll check in on how Defense Capacity Building has taken root in these early days, early months with Georgia.

We’ll also take a look at a second program set up for Georgia called the Enhanced Opportunity Partners.  These names, I know, get confusing.  But EOP, if you will, was a program set aside for five partners who over the last decade have proven themselves especially committed to operations and training with NATO, and who have made the most progress on being interoperable with NATO in a military sense.  So these are five countries aside from the 28 Allies who have worked most closely alongside NATO operationally. Georgia is one of those five  – it’s not only one of the first in the Defense Capacity Building program, but it’s also one of the inaugural or charter members of Enhanced Opportunity Partners.

What those five Opportunity Partners get are sort of special privileges, special opportunities inside the NATO system to exercise along NATO, to make use of the NATO military education system.  They typically are first and foremost among those partners working with us on operations.  For example, today, Georgia is second only to the U.S. in the number of troops committed to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.  On both of these programs Georgia is a key member and Defense Ministers tomorrow will check in on progress.

Aside from that, Georgia is also in another category that distinguishes it.  It’s one of four nations, four partners, which have made the decision to aspire to NATO membership, so it’s one of our four aspirant countries as well. For all these reasons Defense Capacity Building, Enhanced Opportunities, one of the four partners — it’s important that occasionally we pull Georgia into a session with the 28 Ministers and assess how we’re doing.  That will all take place tomorrow in the NATO-Georgia Commission.

The third session is a working lunch.  Here, Defense Ministers will return to the agenda item from the Wales Summit having to do with the whole array of challenges facing NATO along its periphery.  This is as I described up front in my remarks – these are the challenges that range from the East to the Southeast to the South along this arc of instability.

I’m sure that their conversation will note how diverse and complex these challenges are.  You have inside this set of challenges state-on-state conflict – Russia/Ukraine for example. You have conflicts within states, and you have transnational conflicts like the challenge of ISIS across the borders of Iraq and Syria.

Together, these are tearing at the fabric of international agreements and international institutions that have actually served the transatlantic community quite well for decades.  But now those institutions are being challenged by Russia in the East and by these more diverse, complex threats in the South. So over lunch, a very pleasant lunch conversation I’m sure, they’ll take on this conversation and assess how we’re doing.

Now just to clarify, in the fight against ISIS, NATO – as an Alliance   – is not participating as an Alliance , but all 28 NATO members are participating as nations in the 60-some nation coalition against ISIS.  It’s a bit confusing there, but nonetheless ISIS and the instability on the border of Turkey in particular is very important. The counter-ISIS fight also is important because of course there’s the returning fighter phenomenon which those of us here in Brussels know well from beginning back in May of last year when there were murders in front of the Jewish Museum just a couple of miles from here in Brussels and obviously, more immediately, the attacks in Paris several weeks ago and then the follow-up actions, police actions taken here in Brussels that impeded or interrupted another such threat. The return of foreign fighters, while it’s not immediately a NATO issue, it involves all 28 NATO Allies.  So I think that discussion will also be addressed during the lunch period tomorrow.

Then fourth, and finally, the last session tomorrow will be a meeting at, as we say, at 28, that means just the 28 Allies, and here the Defense Ministers will take on internal NATO business.  Most important, they’ll assess progress and make some decisions on implementing the Wales decisions having to do with internal adaptations, all packaged as the Readiness Action Plan.

So the Readiness Action Plan really has two fundamental parts, and this is how NATO adapts to the new challenges.  First is the ongoing set of assurance measures which has air activities, NATO air activities, activities at sea in the Baltic and the Black Sea, and NATO ground troops, all exercising together from the Baltic Sea all along the Eastern flank down to the Black Sea.

As an example, U.S. troops today are exercising with NATO Allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.  This is a program which began last year in the spring.  It will continue all through this year and it will continue not only on land. but at sea and in the air, as well.

At Wales, leaders decided that these assurance measures have the purpose of reassuring Allies, especially those who feel most worried about actions in the East, Russian aggression in the East… reassuring those Allies that Article 5 of the Alliance  Treaty means what it says. That is simply that an attack on one will be considered an attack on all.

Those assurance measures are coupled with the set of adaptation measures which has NATO reforming itself so it’s actually better suited, better postured to deal with challenges on its own territory.  Here, the centerpiece is to generate for the first time in NATO history, a Rapid Reaction Force that is on several days’ notice to move and able to respond in any cardinal direction to challenges of security inside the Alliance  space.

Tomorrow, we expect decisions by the Ministers on several discrete points of the Readiness Action Plan.  First of all, we believe that they will reaffirm that this year we have in place the first Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.  So you’ll see the term VJTF.  We’re great with acronyms, so bear with us.  But the first Rapid Reaction Force is in place this year as a test bed, and in the course of this year that test bed task force will undergo certain exercises from which we hope to derive lessons so that when we go into the final phases of standing up the actual readiness, the actual High Readiness Task Force. We will have derived lessons and we’ll be smarter about how to do that.  So, we think Ministers will take decisions having to do with the VJTF.

Secondly, they’ll take decisions about moving ahead now and establishing six small command and control centers across the eastern flank Allies.  We expect tomorrow they’ll decide to set up small command and control centers in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, and that we’ll do that beginning the day after tomorrow. So in the near term, in the weeks that follow this ministerial, we expect these small command and control centers to be established.

The U.S., for its part, will make an announcement about its willingness to contribute to these six command and control centers. I’ll leave the announcement itself to Secretary Hagel, who will be here tomorrow.

And then third, we believe leaders tomorrow will take a decision to energize or expand a three star headquarters, so a corps-level headquarters in western Poland that is designed to focus on the defense of northeastern NATO territory.  It will command and control exercises in that area.  It will conduct defense planning.  And if NATO has to operate in that area. it would command and control NATO  operations in the northeast. as well.

So those three key steps we think will be taken tomorrow: VJTF, the Rapid Reaction Force; the six command and control centers from Estonia down through Bulgaria; and the three star headquarters.  And I can expand on that if you’re interested in the question period.

Together, the Readiness Action plan and the three elements I just described really comprise a quite fundamental change in NATO’s force posture.  If you think of the long history of NATO, it’s gone through some phases that are quite distinct.  For 40 years in the Cold War, NATO was all about fixed forces, very heavy armored formations pressed right up against the Iron Curtain.

At the end of the Cold War, we moved more into an expeditionary mode.  These are contingency operations in the Balkans, contingency operations in Afghanistan which continue to this day.  That phase of NATO’s operation featured a program of deployments, so if you were going to Afghanistan, you knew about it a year in advance, you could prepare, you deployed to Afghanistan, you did your stint, and you came home and recovered and someone replaced you.  That went on for year after year.  In fact, today we’re still in Kosovo.  Today, we’re still in Afghanistan.  That’s a way of those sort of periodic, very routine program deployments.

This new phase, though, in response to the newest challenges on NATO’s periphery, feature something NATO hasn’t done before – that is to get very light on its feet, and return to the basics of defense of Western Europe or the euro-atlantic space itself.  How we’re doing that is not how we did it in the Cold War.  We’ve chosen a different model.  The model that we’re now adapting towards is this notion of a light, modest footprint forward which is rapidly reinforceable by formations that are more in the western part of the Alliance .  This is not in that way in terms of force posture a return to the Cold War.  It’s a very different model.  It’s based more on rapid response.

At any rate, we expect tomorrow decisions coming out on fundamental elements of the Readiness Action Plan. We think that’s probably the headline material coming out of the ministerial tomorrow.

With that, let me just close by saying this is a routine, periodic update by Defense Ministers.  It happens to be the first one after Wales and the first one on the way to Warsaw, but it’s not spectacular, but it’s important NATO business and we look forward to having the ministers here tomorrow.

Let’s go to questions.

Question:  Ambassador, there’s been renewed discussion in Washington this week about the possibility of the U.S. sending weapons to Ukrainian armed forces.  Can you tell us any information [inaudible]?  Second, is there going to be any discussion tomorrow on the possible threat from Russian nuclear forces?

Ambassador Lute:  On arming the Ukrainian military, there is an ongoing national policy discussion in Washington on this topic.  The key word there is “ongoing”.  I don’t expect that Secretary Hagel is going to bring with him tomorrow any form of announcement on a change in U.S. policy in that regard.  I can tell you that as that discussion takes place, it’s really a question of balancing cost, benefits and risks.  There are two reasonable sides to this argument that are being debated in Washington.  In fact, you see it debated openly in the press.  They have to do with what is the best way to craft a set of policy tools — political, economic and potentially security assistance, so that you achieve our objective.  And our objective is to deescalate the crisis there and to move towards a political solution.  I can’t forecast how that debate will turn out in the next days and weeks in Washington, but what I can tell you is that the focal point of the discussion, of the policy discussion itself, will be on how do you move towards de-escalation and a political solution which, of course, is our goal.

As you consider different ways to move in that direction, you can come across advantages and disadvantages of providing weapons to the Ukrainian military and becoming party to the conflict. We’ll just have to see how that policy debate goes.

On the Russian nuclear question, as part of the Nuclear Planning Group when NATO assesses periodically, as it will tomorrow, its nuclear deterrent which has been in place for as long as NATO’s been here.  It’s a 65 year-old nuclear deterrent.  Inevitably, the ministers will discuss the value of that deterrent against its counterpart, the Russian nuclear posture.  It’s inevitable that, of course, we’ll talk the force that we’re deterring, the Russian nuclear force, the counterpart Russian nuclear force.  So yes, that will be a natural part of the conversation, but I just want to emphasize, this is a routine, typically an annual review of NATO’s deterrence posture, so nothing very newsworthy there.

Question:  Ambassador, we’ve heard Mr. ____ saying that he would love to [inaudible] direction of the [inaudible] with Russia, so we would be happy to know any more details on that.  What do you expect and when?  The Swedish discussion is particularly interesting but [inaudible] points of interest.

The other thing is, tomorrow we don’t have a special Ukrainian session.  [Inaudible] with Russia and in particular the [glory] of Ukraine.  So what practical decisions that may be applying to the Ukraine that may be considered as support to Ukraine [inaudible] tomorrow?

Ambassador Lute:  With regard to pressure, so far you’ll all appreciate that the key pressure tactic agreed across the Atlantic, both by our government, but also by our European and EU colleagues, has been to use the economic tools as the key form of pressure.  There’s significant evidence that that pressure, the set of sanctions that are agreed and paralleled on both sides of the Atlantic, are having good effect. Now to be completely fair, the effects of the sanctions are also being amplified by the dramatic reduction in oil and gas prices.  There’s no doubt about that.  This is not the work of sanctions alone.  We also have the reduction in oil prices on which the Russian economy is very very dependent.

So you have the combination of these two impacts.  One intended — the sanctions – and the other, a function of market dynamics, the fallen prices.

So far, we’ve relied, along with our European partners, on that tool.  I think some of this policy debate that Adrian mentioned, the policy debate will hinge on whether that set of tools has been effective, what are the promises for that set of tools as we go forward, and are they sufficient to achieve our policy objectives. When we talk about security assistance and providing arms and that sort of thing we shouldn’t look at those in isolation of the rest of the package of policy instruments.

Again, I can’t predict exactly how that will come out.  One thing I’ll note, though, is that there’s been a great deal of coherence between where the U.S. has gone with economic measures against Russia, and the counterpart measures from the EU.  As we think about new measures or the potential for new measures in Washington, one of the considerations will be how do we preserve, if we take new steps, what are the impacts of those new steps on the coherence of the U.S.-EU sanctions that are already in place.  I think my perspective is that there will be a bias towards doing no harm on the in-place sanctions, so take no steps that would break the coherence or impede or fracture the coherence of the economic step that’s in place and having good impact. Again, that doesn’t predict the outcome of the policy debate, but I think that will be a factor that’s considered.

I don’t have a particular comment with regard to the potential for SWIFT.  I take it you mean not “swift” in terms of rapid, but SWIFT, the acronym.  The financial — Yeah.  I don’t have a forecast on that front.

With regard to a Ukraine meeting, you’re right.  Typically, it’s not unusual for us to have a Defense Ministers’ session that also features a stand-alone session with Ukraine.  We’re not, tomorrow, and part of the reason for that is that we just met with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister in early December and then we met with Ambassadors just last week. Last week, we had a thorough session that reviewed the uptick in violence, in particular, after the tragedy of civilian casualties in Mariupol, but also the more recent pattern over weeks where we’ve seen a more significant inflow of Russian heavy weaponry into the separatist area in Ukraine.  The council met on that for several hours last week, so as we lined up the business agenda for Defense Ministers, we chose this time not to meet on Ukraine.  You shouldn’t derive from that any lack of importance of that crisis for the Alliance  or any lack of attention of us on what’s going on there.  It’s just a question of how much you can do in one ministerial.

Question:  I wanted to ask about the U.S. role specifically on the Very High Readiness Task Force.  I understand that some nations are going to come forward and volunteer training nations tomorrow. I get the sense [inaudible] it happens.  Tell me if that’s right, but also given that, what kind of role will the U.S. play in the task force.

Ambassador Lute:  In order to answer that question, let me unpack a little bit what the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force is.  It may be the world’s worst acronym, but a capable force when we get it.  It is a force of several thousand troops.  It is joint, meaning that it is all services, so there’s a land component, an air component, a sea component, and a special operations component.  It has all of those.  The most ready elements are on several days’ notice to move, meaning they’re at home station and given the dropping of a flag, they can be ready to move in days, not weeks or months.

The land component is formed around a multinational brigade formation, so you should think 4,000 to 5,000 troops in the land component.  And what we expect tomorrow is for a number of Allies to step forward and announce that they’re prepared to serve on a rotational basis as the lead of that land component.  So a number of nations we expect tomorrow will step up and say count me in, on rotation.  My country will provide a brigade.

Now the question is, how many of those will we get?  When you look across the Alliance , not all 28 are capable of filling that commitment.  We believe in order to make the concept work and to have this rotation in sufficient numbers so that can be durable and it can be sustainable over time, we need four to six land brigades from which to draw.  We need a pool so that you’re not always on duty.  You can imagine it’s very difficult to do this for a year.  It’s almost impossible for a nation to do it non-stop with no break.  We need a pool from which to draw and from which to set up a cycle.

What we’re expecting tomorrow are a series of national announcements from European Allies, and

here I’ll make the distinction, that they’re prepared to step up and be, as the question suggested, framework nations for the land brigade.  We’ll have to wait and see how the tally ends at the end of the day, but we expect at least three so that we can set up the three year cycle; and we’re hopeful for more than three so that the cycle is more durable.

Now what’s the U.S. contribution?  The U.S. in particular has decided not to contribute, not to offer a land brigade, but rather to focus its contribution to the VJTF on niche or specialty enablers.  Like what?  These are things that the U.S., in some cases the U.S. alone, has the capacity to do.  The sorts of things that you can expect are sustainment of forces once deployed.  Airlift, the ability to move this force from Western Europe where it would assemble, to potentially the East or the South.  But airlift,  intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance–what we call ISR.  Think overhead platforms, aircraft that have intelligence collection capabilities, and so forth.  And those sorts of specialized, in some cases unique capabilities that only the U.S. has.

So the basic arrangement here is that we’re anticipating that European Allies will step up and provide the foundation of a land component, and that the U.S. role will be with enablers.  That’s essentially what we’re hopeful for tomorrow.

Question:  Two questions.  How will the cost of the six C2 centers be paid and maintained?  And more substantially, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the CJTF concept–NATO launched Combined Joint Task Force way back in 1996 to essentially try and achieve things like more flexibility, more deployment.  The Allies worked on this for years.  They really did.  So why are they going to be able to do this more [quickly] now?

Ambassador Lute:  Let me take the last one first.  NATO has attempted in the past to have this kind of response capability in its pocket.  The challenges in the past when we’ve attempted this is that the priority was overcome by the priority to move into the Balkans, by the priority to deploy for what’s it been now 14 years in Afghanistan and so forth.  And the fact, the reality of the matter was there was not an immediate threat on NATO’s periphery that demanded that the Alliance  take the tough measures that we’re frankly taking now.

The impetus for doing this now, and I’ll get to your cost factor in a second and incurring additional cost, is the fact that we have a stimulus.  We have a reason to do it now.  The reason is the instability in the East, most immediately, but the realization that the kind of instability we see in the East could also be encountered elsewhere on NATO’s periphery.  So it’s a combination of demand I suppose and immediacy.

On the six command and control centers in the East, the cost will be shared between the six host nations — so Estonia through Bulgaria geographically — and some common funding by Allies, by the Alliance  itself which is of course paid on a proportionate to GDP basis into a common pool.  The common funding will be rather modestly focused on command and control systems and computer systems and things like that, but the burden here is prominently on the host nations, on the six host nations.

What we’re looking for tomorrow are those six host nations to step forward and say we’re prepared to host one of these.  That’s key for us.   We’ll be listening carefully for that tomorrow.

Question:  Ambassador, a question about Afghanistan.  There are actually reports that [inaudible] in the country might actually, challenging so they will require more forces mainly from the U.S., from other countries to work the situation.  Also would it be possible, any cooperation with Russia on that matter?  Because [inaudible] issue where we worked well despite our differences.

Ambassador Lute:  Afghanistan’s going to be a challenge for some time.  I mean I don’t see any sort of breaking point in the near future where we can come to one of these sessions and say you know today I’d like to proudly announce that Afghanistan is no longer a challenge.  So it’s just going to be that way.  Some of it’s in the nature of the setting that’s in Afghanistan.

So you’re right.  There’s still a security challenge there.  Our sense as we’ve handed off responsibility for security to the Afghan forces, and that took place on 31 December, since we last met in this session, by the way, is that the Afghan Security Forces are sufficiently able now to handle that with modest NATO follow-on assistance, and that modest assistance is in the form of this mission that we have in place now, non-combat mission, where about 13,000 NATO troops are teamed up with the over 350,000 Afghans to secure the country.  And we’re going to have to see how that goes.

The Afghan Security Forces for the last two fighting seasons — 2013 and 2014–have been in the lead for combat operations.  In other words, we handed main responsibility for combat to the Afghan forces two summers ago.  But it’s still, to be fair, the Afghan Security Forces are still a work in progress.  They’re still under development.  You don’t generate an Army in four or five years.  In the U.S. Army to generate a battalion commander, for example, a lieutenant colonel ready to command a force of 600 to 800 takes 20 years.  It’s a 20 year investment in that officer to get him ready to command a battalion.  The Afghan Army hasn’t had 20 years.  So they’re still a work in progress.

But the good news is that NATO commissioned the day after we ended the old mission, we commissioned a new Resolute Support mission and as I said, we have 13,000 troops there.  They’re advising, they’re working alongside Afghan Special Forces, they’re working in the corps headquarters, the three star level headquarters around Afghanistan, and very importantly, they’re working inside the Ministries of Defense and Interior to build Afghan capacity.  We’ll see how that goes.  We’re only five weeks into that project.

Afghanistan is one of the topics, one of the functional areas where we are still cooperating with Russia.  There are a bunch of areas where cooperation, routine practical interaction with Russia has been stopped because of Russia’s aggression, but one area where we continue to have common interests is in Afghanistan because it’s in neither NATO’s interest, the U.S. interest nor Russia’s interest that Afghanistan fails and become once again a source of instability.

For example NATO supplies are still transiting Russian territory and Russia is still in a series of cooperative conversations with Afghan authorities about, for example, repairing helicopters and training pilots and so forth.  So this is one area, counter-narcotics in Afghanistan is another area where NATO and Russia continue to have means of cooperation.

Question:  I would like to just talk about a little bit the issue of getting weapons to the Ukrainian Army.  If the U.S. is, there is ongoing consideration in the U.S., and so will the U.S. discuss or consult with this issue with European Allies at tomorrow’s meeting on the [inaudible] on this issue?  So how does the U.S. consider the [inaudible] opinion when you take a decision?

Ambassador Lute:  You’re right to note that today, over the course of the last year since Putin moved into and illegally annexed Crimea, there’s been closer cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic.  I think that’s one of the strengths of the current Western position with regard to Russia and Ukraine, it’s this coherence, this integration between what’s happening on the U.S. front and what’s happening especially with the EU.

NATO, however, has not been the venue in which this cooperation has been developed.  It’s been largely bilateral between the U.S. and the EU as an institution, and then it’s been bilateral between the U.S. and leading capitals.

For example, the U.S. is in constant contact with European leaders with regards to the future of the sanctions regime and the effort here has been to maintain the alignment between what the U.S. is doing on sanctions and what Europe’s doing on sanctions.  But that’s fundamentally not really a NATO issue.
It’s done across town by what of the EU, and Ambassador Tony Gardner–my U.S. colleague who represents the U.S. with regards to EU matters–is really in the forefront of that.

Question:  The EU and the OSCE are calling for a ceasefire [inaudible] because the fighting is just so intense.  A hospital was just shelled.  Secretary Kerry is on his way there.  Is the U.S. joining this call for a ceasefire?  Do you think it’s even possible with what we’ve seen?  Nothing but isolation despite calls to stop.  Is it even realistic to think that [inaudible] stop?

Also quickly on Afghanistan, we’ve seen over the years in and out of ministries based on the green on blue threat.  Are you worried again because there was an attack just last week again with three American contractors killed?  How is Resolute Support handling the green on blue threat?

Ambassador Lute:  Again, let me take them in reverse sequence.

On the pattern that goes back now several years of Afghans in uniform, in the Afghan uniform attacking NATO troops in particular.  This pattern began about, I believe three years ago. We lost, in a period of about five or six months, tens of soldiers to the so-called insider attacks, soldier on soldier if you will.  As a result of that phenomenon, and this was really quite a new thing for our forces in Afghanistan, a series of mitigating, or response measures, were put in place and have proven, over the last two years, to be quite effective.  The incidents went down from tens of incidents, I think three year ago, to only maybe several last year.  Then as mentioned there was a very unfortunate recurrence with an attack, I think, at Kabul Airfield, Kabul International Airport, where three U.S. contractors were killed apparently by an Afghan soldier.

The pattern is there.  The mitigation measures are in place, have proven largely effective but not perfect, and I think what we saw just last week in this episode was a reminder that it’s still a dangerous place and that we’re still subject to these kinds of attacks.  But largely they’ve been mitigated and the situation is under control.

With regard to ceasefires, if there’s one thing that’s been persistent in the crisis in the East, it’s been Russian aggression.  And if there’s a second thing that’s been consistent, it’s been calls for a ceasefire.  These go most back to early September where you had the Minsk Agreement, which is still today we believe, and most international parties believe, ought to be the standard by which we move towards de-escalating.  That is the measures agreed to in Minsk on the 5th and then later the 19th of September, the challenge has been that they’ve never been implemented fully.  And there’s been anything but a ceasefire since the Minsk Agreements, and the essence of this right now is that we don’t have a ceasefire.  It would be great, that would be the most prominent step towards de-escalation–if we could get a ceasefire–but if you judge by the months since Minsk, over the last five months, there’s not much evidence that the Russians and the separatists are interested.  And of course a ceasefire has got to be two-sided.

Question:  But I mean specifically the call for a three day ceasefire right now around the [inaudible] because of the escalation and because of the large numbers of civilians wounded.  [Inaudible] just put out a statement calling —

Ambassador Lute:  I’m not watching it on that sort of minute to minute basis.  I do know, obviously the U.S. position is we’ll support broadly any meaningful attempt towards de-escalating, to include ceasefires.  But I haven’t heard anything that suggests that we immediately reinforced this support from the EU.

Question:  Can you speak a little bit about the plans for the larger NATO response force?  That was mentioned yesterday by senior NATO officials who said the plans for it to be bigger, faster, better equipped.  I notice it’s something you didn’t mention as a key topic tomorrow and he did and I was wondering why.

Ambassador Lute:  There is in place today a 40,000 troop force called the NATO Response Force, the NRF.  It’s been in place for more than a dozen years.  The challenge is that first, it’s only been called out once in those dozen years.  There are a few NATO hands here that can probably cite this trivia question: When was the only time that the NRF was called — Do you know?

Question:  No, I don’t.

Ambassador Lute:  The Pakistan earthquake in 2005 in a relief effort.  That’s the NATO trivia for the day!

The challenge is that it was judged at Wales not to be fit to purpose, not to be suited to the needs today.  Largely because the bulk of the current NRF is on timelines to move in weeks and months, and that was deemed as an insufficiently responsive to the kinds of challenges that we face today.  That led to this Readiness Action Plan, a key component of which is this more rapidly deployable brigade called the VJTF.

What’s to become of the rest of the NRF?  Another factor in the Readiness Action Plan, the rest of the NRF also goes through a review and probably reform.  So I don’t think, a year from now for example, by the time we move into the Warsaw Summit, that we’ll have the same NRF.  The priority in these first five months after Wales has been on this most ready part.  There’s more reform to come for the rest of the NRF.

Question:  A follow up question about fighting in Ukraine.  What do you make of the latest Russian troop dispositions and exercises, some of which are still ongoing?  Plus there were calls by separatist leaders for a mass mobilization which would require tapping manpower from Russia proper.  Are these signs that a larger scale Russian advance is in the works?

Question:  We have not yet assessed that.  As you’ll recall back in August, we saw a spike in direct Russian intervention in the form of Russian military units.  We saw Russian battalions as coherent formations deployed into Ukraine, and that was largely in response to the change in the battlefield dynamics which saw the Ukrainian military making quite significant advances against the separatists.  Our assessment is the Russians moved in with Russian formations to stop that and to essentially stalemate the situation on the ground which then led to the Minsk discussions and so forth.

We don’t see indications right now another direct intervention by Russian formations as imminent. That’s not to deny something has been going on from the outset, and that is the presence of Russian intelligence operative and military in and out of uniform– some retired or reportedly on leave–serving in positions in Southeastern Ukraine.  I’m distinguishing between military formations like battalions, units, and small sets or groups of individuals who are serving there.  What do we assess the Russians are doing in Ukraine?  We think that they’re primarily there in a command and control function.  They have a sort of parallel command structure that shadows the separatist command structure in an effort to control what’s going on on the ground.  And they’re only partly successful with this.  We don’t think that they have absolute control over the separatist movements, but we think they’re trying, and they’re doing this by way of intelligence operatives and ununiformed military operating alongside the separatist movements.

We also assess that there are Russian soldiers in Southeastern Ukraine today operating the more sophisticated Russian hardware that has been provided to the separatist movement.  Why do we assess this?  Because it takes us 10 or 15 years to train and qualify crews on sophisticated gear like this in our Army, so we assess this as not equipment that’s subject to be handed over to a group of separatists with very sketchy military backgrounds and operate effectively.

When we see this gear operated in Southeastern Ukraine, we deduce that it must include Russian military operators.  What kind of systems?  Electronic warfare, the more sophisticated command and control systems, we don’t think you can just hand these over to separatists and they’re going to use them effectively on the battlefield.

So when you add that all up, we think there is Russian military presence there.  It’s just not in sort of the classic traditional sense of formed units.

Question:  About these new units in Eastern Europe, they’re obviously directed to the threat from the East, against Russia.  Does NATO have any assessment of how the Russian responds to these new units, and will there be any threats coming from these units?  And by the way, you said that American military is probably going to be involved in those units.

Ambassador Lute:  The six small command and control centers are fewer than 100 people each. They’re essentially staff officers who are there to do exercise control, planning, and ready to receive the High Readiness Task Force if it were deployed in one of these six countries. You can imagine it’s one thing to form this unit and have it based in say Germany, France or the UK, it’s very useful to have a reception element waiting to receive it at its destination in one of the six Eastern flank allies.  So that’s what these six command and control centers are designed to do.

And yes, I anticipate that there will be U.S. military officers in all six of these but we’ll have to see what’s in Secretary Hagel’s notes when he comes tomorrow and makes his announcement.

I also think the U.S. will contribute to the three star headquarters, the more senior headquarters that is located in Western Poland.  This will be another NATO facility, so you’ll have six NATO flags in the small reception centers.  You’ll have a NATO flag at the three star headquarters in Western Poland.  And quite frankly, these will be the first seven NATO flags in Eastern Europe.  Think about that.  That’s quite a distinction.  From zero NATO presence full time to six.  But those are fundamentals in the Readiness Action Plan.

Western Europe has grown accustomed to NATO presence.  It goes all the way back to the birth of the Alliance .  And of course at one time in Western Germany alone, we had something like 300,000 Americans.  NATO in Western Europe is not news.  NATO in Eastern Europe is news.

Again, the purpose here is deterrence.  The purpose here is defense.  The High Readiness Brigade isn’t going to invade anyone.  It’s a defensive force.  It’s a brigade, after all.  But we reason that a High Readiness Brigade is sufficient to reassure Allies who feel threatened and to create a NATO presence, if a crisis were emerging, to create a NATO presence on the ground that both reassures Allies and could potentially deter aggression.  But let me be clear, we’re talking about NATO territory.  We’re not talking about the deployment of this High Readiness Brigade elsewhere.  Right now, in its early days, it’s very much focused on Article 5 and the defense of NATO territory proper.  I don’t think a brigade is threatening to anybody, but it can certainly be sufficient for reassurance and it can certainly deter once it’s deployed on the ground forward.

Question:  My question is about AGS program.  What about the AGS program for tomorrow?

Ambassador Lute:  You’re referring to the AGS, it’s the Air Ground — Alliance  Ground Surveillance System.  This is a purchase by NATO of a set of unmanned aircraft, drones, large drones.  High altitude, long endurance, so we’re talking endurance 18 hours plus,  that are equipped with surveillance suites, a variety of suites, and the purchase is underway.

The first aircraft I believe are designed, are programmed to be delivered in 2016.  As an Italian, you’ll know they’re headed to Sigonella to be home based there.  And when the AGS aircraft arrive and are connected to NATO command structure, NATO will have for the first time owned and operated long range, high endurance, long endurance systems that are state of the art.

So if you want to ask why don’t we know more about what’s going on in Eastern Ukraine today, I mean why are we relying on YouTube and Twitter, one reason is NATO today does not have AGS.  But it is in the pipeline and we’ll have it sometime next year, sometime in 2016 I believe.  It really fills an important capability gap that the Alliance took on several years ago and is now filling. We’re happy that the Italian government is going to host the system there and it’s really a system NATO needs badly.

Question:  Today the Defense Minister has meeting with Secretary General, tomorrow will be Georgia NATO Commission.  Also [inaudible] training center in Georgia this year and there will be first exercises also with it.  So how do you estimate implementation of [inaudible] package and NATO-Georgia cooperation?

Ambassador Lute:  I assess the implementation of the package agreed at Wales with regards to NATO and Georgia as really quite good.  I’ll just give you a small vignette: Inside the package, the NATO package which includes a training center and it includes exercises and so forth, right?  There was a manning chart developed which would see some tens of NATO officers stations on Georgian request on Georgian territory and the forward points of contact with your Ministry of Defense.  This manning chart went out to Allies and there was great competition for the positions.  I mean often when NATO puts out a manning chart we have to work the hallways and get people to sign up.  We did not have that problem with the package for Georgia.  In fact, there was a lot of competition.  I took that competition for the positions that represent the package as really very positive and maybe the most positive possible indicator that the Alliance is full behind the package.  We intend to do what we said we would do at Wales, and we consider our partnership with Georgia rock solid.  It’s really quite good.

Question:  My question is given those rotations which are becoming continuous, when the ‘97 Russia-NATO Founding Act.

Ambassador Lute:  You’re right.  In 1997, NATO and Russia signed this agreement, the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  We do not yet consider it dead.  We consider that there may be the potential someday to return to the principles on the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  NATO intends for now to hold itself to the obligations of that Act, even though it’s quite clear that Russia has violated the Act.  So you might ask why would we unilaterally stick to this given that our partner, Russia, has walked away?  The reason is that we think that NATO should take a more mature, a more responsible, a longer term view of euroatlantic security.  In the long run, not today, not tomorrow, who knows when, some sort of return to a cooperative relationship with Russia is in our interest.

Now the hard part about that, of course, is that it can’t be unilateral.  It’s got to be mutual.  And it’s clear that we don’t have anything like a mutual partnership now with Russia seizing Crimea illegally, with Russia doing the sorts of things I’ve described in southeastern Ukraine, and tossing aside the rule book from the last 20 years.  But we still think that there’s value in holding ourselves to the principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, even though right now it’s clear we don’t have a partner.

Now with regard to the rotation of troops and so forth in the Eastern territory, the NATO-Russia Founding Act — NATO agreed at this time of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, that we would not station on a permanent basis substantial combat forces in the Eastern Allies.  There’s nothing in the Readiness Action Plan that violates that.  A, they’re not going to be stationed there.  B, you can argue about the definition of substantial combat forces, but one brigade, as I said, is not going to invade anyone.  And NATO’s commitment is to sustain the NATO-Russia Founding Act with the aspiration that someday we may again have a partner.

Question:  Ambassador you emphasize a lot on the routine pattern of the review of the NATO’s nuclear deterrence model, but does that mean that you don’t have any concern about the new alleged posture of Russia about nuclear forces?

Ambassador Lute:  I don’t think we have new concerns about Russia’s nuclear posture.  I mean we watch carefully developments on that front.  We watch, for example, the prominence of investment in the defense budget of Russia that goes to its nuclear forces.  We watch their nuclear exercises carefully.  We monitor the deployment of their delivery systems.  We saw earlier this week a Russian nuclear-capable aircraft was intercepted in international airspace off the coast of the UK.  This is not the first such episode with Russian nuclear-capable aircraft on the periphery of NATO recently.  We watch all this very carefully, but we don’t assess that there are dramatic changes in that nuclear posture, and tomorrow when the Nuclear Planning Group meets, it’s simply doing the responsible thing that NATO has done for decades, that is periodically assess its own nuclear posture and whether that nuclear posture remains in our view sufficient to deter the Russian posture or anyone else’s posture.  This is Alliance maintenance.  This is what responsible bodies do; they periodically review where they are and check to make sure that the systems they have in place are sufficient.  That’s what we’re doing tomorrow in the nuclear deterrent part of the defense package.

Thanks for coming out today and we’ll see you in the hallways over the next couple of days.