May 18, 2016: Ambassador Lute’s Pre-Ministerial Press Briefing

Ambassador Douglas Lute

U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO

Pre-Ministerial Press Brief

May 18, 2016


Moderator:  Good afternoon, everyone.  My name is Shannon Quinn.  I’m the press attaché for U.S. Mission to NATO and it is my pleasure to introduce my ambassador, Ambassador Douglas Lute.  I want to welcome the people that are not normally here, the foreign affairs editors from across the alliance, our friends from Russia, Ukraine, and other countries.  And I just want to say thank you for coming.

This press briefing is going to be on the record.  Ambassador Lute will start with some short remarks and then we will open it up for questions and answers and we’ll call on you when that time comes.  Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Ambassador Lute, Permanent Representative for the U.S. Mission to NATO.

Ambassador Lute:  Thanks, Shannon, and welcome back to Brussels for those of you who don’t live here.

As is our convention before ministerial meetings, we like to offer a presentation like this that essentially frames the next two days of meetings among ministers so that you get a bit of a preview as to what’s going to happen, what we think is going to happen, over the next two days.  They don’t always exactly follow the script as ambassadors prescribe.  So this is an honest attempt to give you sort of a one-day’s notice on the upcoming events.

I think one thing to just lay the context is that we are exactly 50 days from the Warsaw Summit.  And so the ministerial Thursday and Friday of this week, the next two days, represents one of the last major stepping stones on, as we say, the road to Warsaw.  There’s a Defense Minister’s meeting in the middle of June and that’s the final tune-up event, and then we have the Warsaw Summit itself on 8-9 July.  So the next two days, followed by the Defense Minister’s meeting in June, are really the key preparatory event before President Obama joins his 27 heads of state and government colleague at Warsaw.

Let me first outline the agenda of the ministerial over the next two days, and then we’ll get to your questions.  You should think about this as a total of five sessions.  There are three sessions of ministers tomorrow, and two on Friday.  So let me just take them chronologically in sequence.

The first one tomorrow is actually a historic session, because the first session tomorrow is only the seventh time in NATO’s history, so 67 years of history, that we will do what we’re going to do tomorrow: that is to formally sign what is called the Accession Protocol, which is a document which is the next important step in bringing into NATO our 29th member, Montenegro.  So you’ll appreciate if you were here for this session in December, that at that time the NATO foreign ministers took the decision to formally invite Montenegro, to begin accession conversations.  That conversation, that dialogue between Montenegro and NATO has now taken place over the last six months and we’re ready to take the next step, which is this
Accession Protocol.  This is essentially a document which all 28 current members of NATO will sign, and it then serves as the mechanism from tomorrow’s meeting out to the 28 capitals of the alliance, to include Washington, DC, and then inside each of those 28 capitals it begins what’s referred to as the ratification process.

So this is a process governed by national constitutions — so in the United States, the U.S. constitution; that in the U.S. case has this decision whether or not to invite Montenegro to join the alliance and become a member, is taken up by the parliaments or in our case the U.S. Senate.  That process typically takes a number of months, but at the end of that process where 28 allied parliaments and congresses, in our case the Senate, have ratified the protocol, then the Montenegrin party ratifies and we have our 29th member.

So this is an important step tomorrow on that path and from here most of the activity in terms of the final process of joining goes out to the 28 capitals as I’ve described.

This is more than just a procedural step, just a bureaucratic step.  I think it’s an important symbol that Article 10 of the Washington Treaty — which too few people read, everyone reads Article 5, right?  that’s the collective defense clause: an attack on one is an attack on all.  But actually, Article 10 of the treaty lays out the importance of this step we’re taking tomorrow and essentially says, all the way back from 1949, that European states, aside from the original members, the 12 members of the alliance, that membership is open to, the door is open for additional members.   European states that demonstrate both the values, demonstrate the values of the alliance — so democracy, rule of law and so forth, and can contribute to the collective defense.  So those are really the only two criteria for membership.

It also specifies in Article 10 that this decision must be taken at consensus.  In other words, the current 28 all have to agree, the vote has to be 28-0, if you will, in order to add a new member.

So I think tomorrow is an important reminder of the open door policy, which is embedded all the way back in the original treaty, and tomorrow is an important demonstration that the door remains open.

It’s also, I think, a signal to the three nations that have publicly aspired, made a national decision to follow Montenegro’s path and also become members.  So Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Georgia are all on the path to membership.  These are three separate paths, separate and distinct, and they’re very much governed by the ability of those three aspiring states to meet the criteria for membership.  So it’s an important message to the alliance.  It’s obviously an important message to Montenegro.  But it’s also an important reminder to the three aspirants that the door remains open.  So that’s all session number one.

The second session tomorrow has to do with the ministers discussing how is it that NATO should try to project stability beyond the 28 members themselves.  So beyond our borders, and especially on our periphery, the periphery to the south and the periphery to the east, of the alliance, how is it that NATO can project stability so that as our neighbors are more secure and as our neighbors are more stable?  We accrue the benefits of that stability.  It’s obviously much better to have stable neighbors, stable partner on our periphery, than weak, failing, or failed states.  And if you look at NATO’s periphery today, especially to the southeast with Syria and Iraq, but also across the Mediterranean to the northern shore of Africa, you see a whole set of weak, failing, and failed states.

So the second session tomorrow will take on this question of how do we project, how do we export stability along NATO’s periphery?  It will have discussion items that include: how does NATO take advantage of our partnerships with Syria — I’m sorry, not with Syria — with Iraq, with Jordan, and Tunisia.  So three close partners.  What can NATO do with those close partners to build their self-defense capacity?

So this entails, for example, building the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces, which is underway today.  How can NATO enhance that effort?  Should we expand it?  Should we take on different tasks?  Should we increase the scale and scope?  So that will be an important topic.

It will also, I think, take us into NATO’s potential role for a capacity building effort in Libya.  You’ll appreciate that on a Monday in Vienna, Secretary Kerry was a co-chair with his Italian colleague of an international conference assessing progress, mostly political progress, in Libya, with the new Government of National Accord, and assessing if the conditions might soon be ripe for a capacity-building effort in Libya.  Well, NATO has a potential role in that and I think this topic will come up tomorrow in the second session.

And then finally, I think a main topic will be how can NATO contribute to maritime security along its periphery, and here in particular across the Mediterranean?  This mostly will have to do with what NATO can do to reinforce standing European Union maritime security efforts in the Mediterranean.  You’ll appreciate that today there’s an ongoing, rather modest effort in the Aegean Sea where NATO is linking the EU and two NATO allies — Turkey and Greece — in an effort to stem illegal migration.

Well, what can we take from that ongoing NATO effort in the Aegean?  Should we extend that effort in time?  Should we expand it?  Should we extend it elsewhere in the Mediterranean?  So these are the kinds of conversations that I think will take place tomorrow in the second session.

I think the main effort here or the main theme is that NATO can contribute to ongoing efforts even though NATO is not in the lead.  So in the case of the effort against ISIL, obviously the international 66 nation coalition is in the lead, in the fight, in Syria and Iraq.  But NATO has capabilities that it can contribute in support of the coalition.  In maritime security in the Mediterranean, the EU is in the lead and Frontex is in the lead, that European Union agency.  But NATO has capabilities that it could contribute.

So we’re very much looking here for ways to reinforce what the coalition is doing in Syria and Iraq and what the EU is doing in the Mediterranean.

The working dinner tomorrow, so session number three, has to do primarily with NATO’s relationship with Russia.  Now this is obviously a relationship that’s gone through some tough times over the last couple of years since the illegal annexation of Crimea in February and March of 2014 and then shortly after that, Russia’s aggressive activities to destabilize the Donbas, which continues to this day.  But one thing doesn’t change over that period and that is that Russia remains NATO’s largest, most militarily capable neighbor.

So it’s incumbent on the ministers and on NATO and I think this will trace all the way to the summit itself, to have a conversation among ourselves as to what kind of relationship do we wish to fashion with Russia.  I think this will be a very realistic, a very sober conversation dealing with the Russia that we have today.  Not perhaps the Russia that we hoped we had as a partner over the last 25 years since the end of the Cold War, but rather the Russia which has essentially thrown out the rule book over the last several years, especially with regard to Crimea and the Donbas, but also has by way of its military exercises, its aggressive activities in the international sea space and air space, most recently over the Baltic Sea, shown that it is not the responsible player.  It’s not the predictable player that we imagined we had in the days of partnership in the last 25 years.

So I think NATO’s basic approach, and I suspect this will be the theme of the dinner tomorrow night, will be a balanced approach between strength and dialogue.

So on the strength side, NATO will do everything as it has for 67 years, everything required to defend and to deter aggression.  To defend ourselves and to deter aggression.  What does this mean?  It means we will fully implement the Readiness Action Plan that was commissioned at the Wales Summit in 2014.  This has to do with the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and a headquarters and plans and so forth, so there’s a whole set of 10 or 12 measures that constitute RAP, the Readiness Action Plan.  We have to complete that work by Warsaw, and we will.

It means beyond that that there’s an ongoing discussion about how NATO should posture forces for deterrence purposes along our eastern flank.  That discussion is underway.  That will get delivered as a strength measure by Warsaw.

It has to do fundamentally with how the 28 allies commit to invest in defense capabilities as greed by our 28 leaders at the Wales Summit, and this is the Defense Investment Pledge and the move gradually as economies recover, towards two percent of GDPs being devoted to defense spending.

We have work to do on all these fronts, but this work is going to culminate and will receive full reports on measures of strength at the Warsaw Summit.  But alongside strength, NATO has to balance the at least openness to dialogue.

Now we may not always have a ready and a willing partner with regard to dialogue, but it’s important from NATO’s perspective that we at least remain open to the possibility of talking to Russia.  This was well demonstrated about a month ago, when for the first time in quite a while the 28 NATO allies at our level, ambassadors level, met with Alexander Grushko, our Russian colleague, in what’s called the NATO-Russia Council.  So we 29 sat together and discussed three topics.  Three common topics or topics of common interest, beginning with the situation in Ukraine, which after all, was the reason that our relationship moved from partnership to where we are today.

After Ukraine we talked about military activities and here we were interested in transparency, exercises and so forth, but also steps that we might discuss about risk reduction.  So how do we reduce the risk of miscalculation or accident?  These are the risks that have been demonstrated just over the last 30 days by Russian aircraft buzzing U.S. ships in international space in the Baltic Sea.  This is not a pattern that began a month ago.  This is a pattern that’s been going on for some months.  Also in the Black Sea.  But it’s also taken place air to air where Russian fighter aircraft have intercepted American aircraft in international air space.  So this is not in Russian territory.  This is in international sea space, international air space, and performed aggressive, unsafe maneuvers like inverting their aircraft.  If you’ve seen the movie Top Gun, okay, well, we don’t need a replay of the Top Gun over the Baltic Sea.  But that’s the sort of activity that we’ve seen.  It was unsafe in the movies and it’s unsafe in the air space over the Baltic Sea today.  Movies are movies.  This is not movies.  So we talked during the NATO-Russia Council about reducing those sorts of risks.

Then finally, we talked about our common interests with regard to the security situation in Afghanistan.

So these are the sorts of topics.  These are three good examples of topics of common interest that can bring together Russia and NATO in a common dialogue, and I think the NATO-Russia Council is a good example of that.

I think what you can expect here coming through the ministerial this week but all the way through the Defense Ministerial, all the way through to Warsaw, is that NATO will follow this sort of two-track approach.  Strength: we’ll do what we have to do to defend ourselves; to ensure the commitments to Article 5, to collective defense; to deter any potential aggressor.  We’ll take all those steps.  But at the same time, we’ll be the mature, responsible, predictable player in the international space and we’ll be open to dialogue.  So that’s sort of the two-track approach that I think will pretty much come out of the dinner tomorrow night.

On Friday morning, two sessions.  The first one covers NATO’s relationship with its most promising partner, the European Union.  This ought to be the most natural partnership among the whole set of partnerships that NATO has, and we have partnerships with over 40 countries and different international organizations.  But I don’t think for any of those partners is the linkage between NATO’s interests and NATO’s capabilities and the challenges NATO faces more closely aligned than those with the EU.  So this ought to be a quite natural partnership.  After all, 22 of the 28 NATO members are also EU members, so we have a common membership of 22 states.  Many of the remaining six EU member states are NATO partners.  Sweden and Finland come to mind.

So this is a very natural conversation about how we can cooperate.  What are the topics for cooperation?  How to counter hybrid warfare in one of our member states?  How to deal with cyber security in our common member states?  How to deal with maritime security?  I’ve already mentioned that with regard to ongoing operations in the Mediterranean.

There’s a lot of work to do here.  The theme here for the next 50 days, though, is to move beyond rhetoric and move to concrete mechanisms, cooperation, protocols and so forth.  Concrete agreements that can be actually signed, commissioned at Warsaw, that demonstrate that given today’s challenges it’s time to move beyond talk with the EU and it’s time to get into concrete cooperative arrangements that can benefit both institutions.

So this session on Friday morning will include High Representative Mogherini.  It will also include two EU members that are also very close NATO partners — Sweden and Finland.  So we’ll be joined by the ministers from Sweden and Finland as well.

I think the key there is that neither of these two institutions that are separated by what, two miles or something here in Brussels, should be separated by the kind of institutional distance that we’ve seen in the past and it’s time to close that gap and begin to take some concrete steps to work together.

The last session, session number five, is on Afghanistan.  We’ve had many sessions on Afghanistan over the years.  For NATO, I think it’s safe to describe Afghanistan as unfinished business.  And so for the Warsaw Summit we have two objectives.  First of all, we wish to secure international funding support for the Afghan army and police all the way out to 2020.  So you’ll appreciate that at the Chicago Summit in 2012, we took a similar decision that secured funding out to 2017.  But next year is 2017.  So at Warsaw, we wish to extend that pledge for international funding all the way out to 2020. And by and large, that’s the funding that keeps the Afghan army and police in the field and operating and salaries paid and so forth.  So that’s a very important international commitment.  We’re not there yet in terms of accruing, assembling all the funding.  Friday’s session will be an important milestone, and then we hope to finish that work and to have the full funding assembled by Warsaw.

The second major task though, is as this is unfinished business, is to extend the current NATO-led coalition of some 40 countries in Afghanistan who are today doing training, advising, and assisting.  To extend that mission beyond this year.  We expect the leaders will take that decision at Warsaw, but exactly the configuration of that mission, which nation’s contributing how many troops and so forth is work in progress, and we need to cement down those commitments.  Both on the funding side but also on the troop commitment side, by the Warsaw Summit so that we can essentially communicate to our Afghan colleagues that they’re not in this fight by themselves, and that NATO will be with them through this year.  And in the case of funding, all the way out to 2020.  So this is designed to be a big confidence-building step in the relationship between NATO and the Afghans.

So that’s the five session in a nutshell, and I’m happy to take your questions.

Moderator:  Thank you, Ambassador Lute.  I’d like to tart with one of our Afghan guests, Afghan journalist Mohammad Naim Taher Qaderi from Mitra TV.

Journalist:  My question is considering the security threats in Afghanistan and the spring offensive which is currently going on in the country, and bearing in mind that United States is one of the biggest contributors to Afghanistan, what will it be pledging in the Warsaw Summit and how will these pledges affect other NATO nations?

Ambassador Lute:  Remember, I mentioned two types of pledges, right?  There’s a financial pledge which keeps Afghan Security Forces in the field and it’s safe to assume that the United States at Warsaw will announce that it will remain the single largest funding source for the Afghan Security Forces.  I think President Obama will make that pledge.

Now the question is, can we assemble the rest of the pledging community to join us?  And that’s the work that now takes place in the next 50 days.

In terms of troops, the United States has made and announced its decision.  It will start next year with 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and then of course there’s a prominent event early next year with regard to the political situation in the United States and the next President will decide what to do after that.  But we’ll start 2017 with 5,500 which will also secure our position, longstanding position, as the single largest troop contributor.  So we’ll be, I believe, the single largest funder and the single largest troop contributor going into next year.

Moderator:  Thank you, sir.  I’d like to go to [inaudible] of Pobjeda newspaper in Montenegro.

Journalist:  The newspaper Pobjeda from Podgorica. I was wondering, do you have any prediction when will the U.S. Senate ratify the protocol with Montenegro?

Ambassador Lute:  This will be the easiest question I get because the answer is no, I don’t have a prediction.  And the reason for that, of course, is that Washington is just like the other 27 capitals, right?  I mean like your parliaments, the other parliaments in NATO capitals, the U.S. Senate has its own time line.  The Obama administration isn’t in control of that time line.  So it is set, it is very much determined by the schedule and the program, in our case ,of the U.S. Senate.  So I don’t have a prediction.

I can tell you that in the previous six examples of NATO enlargement, it has taken months.  So this is not something where Montenegrin citizens should expect a quick answer.  It’s going to take a while.

Journalist:  Thomas Lauritzen from the Danish newspaper POLITIKEN.

Concerning the enhanced presence in Eastern Europe, I realize the details haven’t been decided yet, but I’m interested in hearing the American view on this.  How many troops in which countries?  How do you see the American participation and the European participation?

Ambassador Lute:  Sir, you’re right.  The details haven’t been decided, so how many troops in which country, and so forth, I don’t have any announcements today.  But I think we can outline some principles.

One of the principles is that over the last two years we have, U.S. troops have, participated non-stop in what we call assurance measures.  These are air, sea, and land activities to essentially reassure our eastern-most allies that Article 5 means what it says.  That if you’re attacked, we’re going to be there alongside of you, and we’ve been doing that now for two years.

I think one of the things we safely assume by Warsaw is a decision to move from that program of assurance measures — which are really a collection of back to back exercise and so forth, right?  — to something that’s more robust.  In the Council we talk about moving from assurance to deterrence.  So I think the model here will feature combat formations that are more coherent and more combat ready than the exercise program that has been true for the past two years.

Now the size of those units, which nationalities, which nations will lead and so forth is not yet determined.  I need to add, though, that you can expect that the U.S. will participate in what we’re calling enhanced forward presence.  It even has an acronym — EFP.  Enhanced forward presence.  And you’ll recall that several months ago the United States announced that we are quadrupling our funding to support that kind of forward presence and that beginning in early 2017 we will rotate non-stop, that is 365 days a year, an armored brigade from the United States with all its equipment to eastern allies.

So we’ll be in the equation, but exactly the format and the configurations are not yet decided.  But the theme here will be to move from assurance to deterrence.

Moderator:  Thank you, sir.  Duygu  Guvenc, Cumhurieyet daily, Turkey.

Journalist:  The Secretary General was telling that NATO is discussing stepping up efforts in anti-ISIL coalition to fight against terrorism in the south.  Would you clarify what kind of efforts that NATO can take in the coming days?

And with respect to the southern borders of NATO, I’m sure you have noted as well that there was so much rockets launched by ISIL that led to the death of the civilians in the last month.  But for the last ten days there isn’t even one rocket launch by ISIL.  Have you noticed any extraordinary activity in the Turkish-Syrian border in the lasts ten days?

Ambassador Lute:  To the first part of your question, I think that NATO starts from the premise that the international coalition against ISIL — which is operating today in Syria and Iraq, right? — that it has the international lead.  And we’re not in competition with that coalition.  So we accept the international coalition as having the lead.  We’re looking for niche capabilities that the alliance can add to support or to reinforce the coalition.  So the starting point for what roles might NATO take starts with a conversation between NATO and the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, which is the military organization at the center of the coalition, and then at the political level starts with conversations with Secretary Kerry and his coalition counterparts about what role is best suited for NATO.

So I don’t want to pre-judge where we may end up there except to say that one of the key capabilities that I think will be in play is NATO’s ability to train, advise and assist, to build partner country capacity.  And here in particular I’d cite three NATO partners who are at risk because of their geographic location and their security situation.  So these will come as no surprise to you.  So Iraq, clearly under stress; Jordan, a tough neighborhood, under stress; and Tunisia.  So those three in particular I think are good candidates for NATO alongside the coalition and other international players to figure out what more we can do to support these three neighbors.

I think that conversation will be moved forward tomorrow when we talk about this, but it will go all the way to the summit.  One of the key themes of Warsaw, I believe, will be this idea of how does NATO project stability along its neighborhood?  Within its neighborhood, along its periphery.

Journalist:  My second question?

Ambassador Lute:  Sorry, can you refresh my memory?

Journalist:  On Turkish border have you noticed any extraordinary activities?

Ambassador Lute:  No.  It’s been reasonably consistent.  Obviously NATO’s concerned because there are persistent threats, and in some cases actual attacks on our Turkish ally that undoubtedly are ISIL related.  So that’s a pattern which continues and is disturbing.  I don’t think there are any significant shifts right along the Turkish-Syrian or Turkish-Iraqi border, though, of recent weeks.

Journalist:  [Inaudible], Croatian Radio.

My question goes with the Secretary General mentioned that there is ongoing discussion of the possible moving of NATO assistance in training for Iraqi officers from Jordan even to Iraq.  Does this discussion include possible NATO assistance and training for Kurdish Peshmerga troops in Iraqi Kurdistan?  Or only for Iraqi Army?  Because we from the media, we all see that Peshmergas are actually very very efficient in fight against ISIL, and they are under-equipped and several other problems with that.

Ambassador Lute:  I think the first thing to say there is that many NATO allies today are already doing that.  Now they’re not doing it under a NATO banner, under NATO headquarters.  They’re doing it as member of the international coalition.

So for example, you have German troops today in Iraqi Kurdistan training, I think, the location it somewhere near Irbil.  And there are other training sites around Iraq where NATO allies are working as part of the coalition.  In fact, when you look at the ledger sheet, all 28 current NATO allies are part of the 66 nation coalition.  So we’re, to some extent, already doing that.

What we’ll be looking at is how can NATO-organized, NATO-assembled training work alongside what the coalition is doing and maybe bring some of NATO’s medium and smaller-sized allies into that effort?  We have a formal request from the Prime Minister of Iraq to consider this, and Prime Minister Abadi has asked us to consider moving the effort that’s underway today in Jordan closer to home and inside Iraq.  This, of course, means that we’ve got to get in very close coordination with the coalition so that, first of all, we reinforce one another and don’t compete with one another; but also so we’re just most efficient in doing this job.  So this is work which I believe will very much be discussed tomorrow in the second session, but that work will also trail all the way to Warsaw.

Journalist:  Jim Neuger from Bloomberg.

Just to follow up on the Montenegro question, do you expect Senate ratification before or after approximately November 8th?

And separately on the Eastern European deterrence measures, the Secretary General said that the troop levels will remain “far below” the substantial threshold as agreed with Russia.  Do you regard Russia’s forces on the other side of the border as substantial?  And if so, how will a far smaller Western allied force deter it?

Ambassador Lute:  First of all, the question on the Senate.  I don’t have a forecast on the Senate schedule.  That’s kind of up to the Senate leadership in terms of how they table this issue among a whole set of issues that they’ve got to deal with.  So I don’t have a forecast in terms of timing.

I agree with the Secretary General that the plans that are being discussed now for NATO presence along the eastern flank are certainly below the NATO-Russia Founding Act thresholds, and while those thresholds are not, they’re not absolutely defined, the term is substantial combat forces in each of the countries along the eastern flank.  So we think the forces that we’re thinking about are below that threshold.  However, they’re sufficiently coherent and sufficiently combat capable to contribute to deterrence.

So there is space beyond occasional ad hoc exercises, what we’re doing today, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act — which was a self-imposed NATO restriction; NATO was restricting NATO to stay below the threshold of substantial and permanently based combat forces for us to contribute to deterrence.

The rest of deterrence, though, there’s more than one ingredient to effective deterrence.  It’s not only the ground forces you have forward deployed, it’s your ability to rapidly reinforce, and NATO by the way, right now is in the midst of an exercise, exercising this year’s rapid reinforcement brigade which is home-based in Spain, but is today, a significant part of it today is in Poland on a rapid deployment exercise.

So it involves forward based, it involves rapid deployment, and then it involves what I would call over the horizon reinforcement capabilities of other national forces.  So there are U.S. forces at high readiness rates that are today not committed to NATO, but in the face of a crisis could be committed to NATO.  And there are sea and air forces that are likewise not standing present today pressed up against any border, but which are part of NATO’s rapid response capability.  So this has got to be thought of sort of holistically in the sense of not just bean counting the forces that are right there along the border, but also factoring in the reinforcement capability.

Now as for what Russia does on Russia’s territory, I leave that to Mr. Putin and General Gerasimov.

Journalist:  Ambassador Lute, I just want to get back to the word substantial.  I know because of both Russia and NATO talk about this as substantial.  Maybe this should be clarified, and maybe the Russia-NATO Founding Act, our bible now, should be updated so that word substantial might be sort of given sort of a better meaning, sort of what substantial means, actually.  That’s my question.

Alexander Braterskiy from

Ambassador Lute:  Okay, but is that a comment or a question?

Journalist:  It’s a question, sir.  So how and —

Ambassador Lute:  So we do not believe now is the time to go back to foundational documents like the NATO-Russia Founding Act and begin a revision drill.

It’s clear that we’re in a period of transition.  Things changed dramatically over the last two years with Crimea and the Donbas and other Russian behavior.  We think that during periods of transition like we’re in right now, it is safer, it is more responsible to stick with the founding documents and try to establish the balance that I discussed, which is strength in dialogue.

So during this period of transition I don’t think we’ll take on a revision of any of our founding documents.  We’ll keep them as a source of predictability and stability inside the alliance and outside the alliance, right?  And if there are going to be adjustments, they’ll have to take place down the road.

Moderator:  Bryan Bonner from the Kyiv Post.

Journalist:  Bryan Bonner, chief editor of the Kyiv Post, English-language newspaper in Ukraine.

As you mentioned, Russia’s war against Ukraine is in its third year now with no end in sight, and the Minsk Agreements are not going anywhere because of the preconditions that Russia is not meeting — withdrawal of heavy weapons, return to the border, control of Ukraine.  Start with the ceasefire.

Is there sentiment in these meetings to change, to recognize that what is happening now is not working, maybe it’s time to send weapons to Ukraine and maybe it’s time to instead of talking about maintaining and rolling off sanctions, to set strict deadlines on Russia for meeting Minsk Agreements, and if they don’t by a certain date increasing sanctions?

And one more thing on the weapons.  Do you agree with Chuck Hagel that Ukraine doesn’t have the capability to handle modern weapons and that the sentiment is still that supplying them would be counter-productive?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  Just taking that in reverse order.  I haven’t seen former Secretary Hagel’s comment with regard to the weapons, so I’m not really sure what he said.  But the U.S. position remains that the most effective support we can give Ukraine comes in the following forms.  So first of all, unquestioned political support.  Unquestioned support for continuing the sanctions regime, alongside the EU.  And the kind of training and advisory support that were given to Ukrainian forces.

Our sense is that those are the high payoff targets in terms of U.S. support to Ukraine and that process I continuing almost non-stop, day to day.

We still believe, to the first part of your question, that Minsk may not be the perfect path to a political resolution, but it’s the path we’ve got and it is the path that we’re sticking with and we’re committed to.

There are substantial obstacles along that path.  You mentioned some of the obstacles with regard to the security provisions in Minsk.  So ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, eventual controlling again of the border by Ukrainian forces.  But there are substantial political obstacles as well.  On both sides.

So our process now is to stick with Minsk, double down, reinforce the obligation of all the parties, but beginning with the Russian supported separatists to provide by the provisions in Minsk and we still think that’s the best path forward.

Journalist:  — talking about this ten years from now, to set some deadlines for stricter sanctions.  Do you see that as a good thing to do going forward?

Ambassador Lute:  To my knowledge, and I’m not, you know, here at NATO we’re not in the room in terms of the Minsk dialogue and the Normandy format and the political authorities who are dealing with Minsk implementation every day.

I am not aware of a process that features imposing time lines, deadlines.  So that’s all I can say on that.  I’m just not aware of it.

Moderator:  Dragos from Digi24, Romania.

Journalist:  Mr. Ambassador, I would like to ask you if the Black Sea security will be on the agenda of this ministerial?  Also the Baltic Sea.  We know that these two important regions are on the top of priority on the countries in the east and north of Romania.  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  So there’s not a particular session which will feature as a focus topic the Black Sea.  But certainly the Black Sea as part of NATO’s sea space, if you will, and the Black Sea as a region in which NATO allies border, by say of sea boundaries Russia, will certainly be on the discussion, and mostly I think tomorrow night at dinner where we take on this question of what should NATO’s relationship with Russia be.

I mentioned some of these unpredictable, unsafe activities in the Baltic Sea.  We should not forget that similar activities have taken place over the last year or so with Russian aircraft buzzing U.S. ships in the Black Sea.  And not only U.S. ships.

So certainly the Black Sea is part of the international space bordering NATO that will enter into the conversations.

Journalist:  [Inaudible] News Agency.

While it’s pretty clear that the NATO eastern allies will get more persistent NATO military presence, how are the discussions going on the general unified rules of engagement of what forces are going to be, and could we expect agreement on the rules of engagement in Warsaw? I mean the unified rules of engagement.  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  This is one of the details that’s not yet locked down.  Not yet decided.  But I would imagine that as we are an alliance at peace, that NATO forces forward deployed — as they are today, by the way, right?  — will deploy under peace time rules of engagement which always includes the right to self-defense, the rule of self-defense, but does not go much beyond that.

The way NATO treats rules of engagement is that it judges the situation, the circumstances, and then adjusts the rules of engagement based on the circumstances.  So today we’re an alliance at peace and therefore we deploy and operate in NATO space under peace time rules of engagement which essentially is the right to self-defense.

Journalist:  [Inaudible] newspaper, Lebanese newspaper.

Ambassador, I want to ask two questions.  The first one is about what the Secretary General said.  The discussion about projecting stability.  Could you clarify the nature of this discussion?  Because he said something about NATO being ready to deploy bigger forces like happened in Afghanistan before, and the paradox here that NATO is reluctant to do active role in the fight against ISIS while being asked now to be ready to deploy, or ready to deploy these large forces.  Is it about also scenarios of the situation in the south being worse?

And the second question, could you just help us to understand this issue which is you are fighting against ISIS now and the only, and very direct link between NATO and the fight against ISIS is this 90 kilometers of open gap between Turkey and Syria.

We had long discussion before how you are going to close this gap — buffer zone, safe zone, et cetera.  Is there anything new here?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  So the operational question, the second one, having to do with the gap in northwestern Syria where Syria borders Turkey, is not really a NATO question.  So NATO is not fighting ISIS in that area or any other area of Syria or Iraq.  The coalition is.  Right?  So we would have to be in Tampa, Florida, to get the best answer to that question.

With regard to the Secretary General’s comment, I’m not sure exactly, I didn’t listen to his conference today so I’m not sure exactly what he was referring to.  But I take it from your question that he may have been making the point that there are several ways for NATO to project stability in the region.  On the one end of the scale, you can project stability or attempt to project stability with 100,000 troops.  At one time we had 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.  That’s the big model.

I think what he was probably suggesting is that there are ways to project stability short of that huge commitment of manpower and funding in a preventive way with, frankly, a small fraction of that number of troops.  If you can get in front of the problem, so if you can build the Jordanian or Tunisian capacity today to defend themselves, the price of building that capacity, the price of projecting that stability is much less than if you’re dealing with a state that has actually failed.

So the idea of projecting stability is one of taking the cost effective mechanism of getting in front of the problem and trying to build capacity in the states themselves before you reach crisis proportions.   So I don’t know that that’s exactly what the Secretary General was addressing, but that’s a point he typically makes very effectively, and we happen to agree with that.

It makes sense, if you can, to get in front of these problems with preventive measures.  And that’s what projecting stability is all about.

Journalist:  Just quickly, you said that there is no link or clear link, but we know that NATO is providing assurance measure, one.  Two, you are asking NATO to do more on the Syrian-Turkish border.  So there is a clear link here between NATO and the issue of fighting ISIS.

Ambassador Lute:  So the measures that we’ve taken in support of Turkey are not immediately directed against ISIS.  They are measures, they’re even referred to as assurance measures, so they are reinforcing Turkey with missile defense, for example, with both Spanish Patriot missiles and soon I think Ballistic Missile Defense Forces from other allies on Turkish soil at Turkish request.  They are intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — ISR assets that provide intelligence to Turkish forces and so forth.

So I took your question, your original question to suggest that somehow NATO was in the sort of coalition-like fight against ISIS in an engagement setting.  We view our role along that border more as reinforcing an ally, Turkey.

Moderator:  Julian from the Wall Street Journal.  And then Robin from Reuters.

Journalist:  Ambassador, is there consensus on NATO being a formal member of the coalition against the Islamic State?  And would doing training in Iraq require that sort of consensus?  And what is the U.S. position on additional NATO-Russia Council meetings ahead of the Warsaw Summit?

Ambassador Lute:  We have agreed not to get into the categorization of are we a member, a formal member of the coalition or not?  And to simply move past that question and ask the more practical question of is there a way, are there ways, capacity support and other niche capabilities, that we can contribute?

So we’re not hung up on being declared a member or not.  We’re simply interested in practical support.

With regard to the NATO-Russia Council, so I tried to make the point that NATO’s interested in taking steps for strength but also being open to dialogue, and one of the most prominent mechanisms, channels we have for political dialogue, is the NATO-Russia Council.  So the U.S. remains open to further meetings of the NATO-Russia Council.  The timing of those meetings, of course, have to be agreed at 28, and then actually at 29 because Russia’s got to agree as well.

So I don’t have any forecast as to when the next NRC, NATO-Russia Council might be held, but the U.S. is certainly supportive.

Moderator:  Robin Emmott from Reuters.

Journalist:  Ambassador, thanks.

I had a question on Afghanistan.  I wonder if you could clarify the U.S. troop levels for next year, specifically in the three groups.  So with the numbers in Resolute Support, but also training the special forces and also training the air forces.  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  I don’t want to get in front of U.S. political and military authorities in terms of how the number actually break down.  But what I can tell you is of the 5,500 troops total, that the President has committed to Afghanistan at the beginning of 2017, two principle tasks of those troops conducted under the NATO flag — so in a train, advise and assist role — will be to prioritize the training of Afghan Special Operations Forces and to prioritize the training of the Afghan Air Force.

So those are sort of two focused functional areas where the U.S. has committed a lot of resources, both in terms of finances but also in terms of train, advise and assist troops.

Other allies are providing other functions for the coalition, but those are two that the U.S. has the lead on and I expect that lead will continue.  So without getting into troop numbers, those are the two key TAA — train, advise and assist — functions that the U.S. will retain.

Moderator:  Alix from AFP.

Journalist:  Ambassador, thank you for taking my question.  I have a little follow-up on the role NATO could play in the anti-ISIS coalition.  If it’s not a formal role, what about the AWACS?  The backfilling was agreed but there might be other options than sending AWACS directly to above Iraq or Syria.

And I have another question.  The dinner tomorrow night will be about Russia.  Apparently there has been some analysis about the military intentions, the capacities, capabilities of Russia that it has right now, and also projections for the future.  I can imagine you cannot give details, but could you maybe give us a picture of how NATO allies today before the Warsaw Summit and before important decisions look at what Russia is capable of and what its intentions are.  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  It’s true that NATO has some of the world’s most modern AWACS capability.  This is the Airborne Warning and, what’s the acronym?  Shannon knows all the acronyms.  At any rate, this is the airborne command and control aircraft which essentially serves as air traffic control, airborne air traffic control and surveillance for air campaigns.  And NATO has a set of these, 15 actually.  And it’s also true that the counter-ISIL coalition needs these.  Today, though, there is no gap which requires NATO to get involved in that function.  If there were a gap, NATO would be open to a conversation to consider that kind of contribution, but today the coalition has no such gap.  So NATO AWACS are doing other things around the NATO space.

As to Russian capabilities, this is a very long conversation because it’s clear that in the last ten years, Russia has taken some pretty significant steps to modernize its armed forces and to move its armed forces out of sort of the immediate post-Soviet Union period.  They’ve invested across the board in conventional capabilities, in strategic nuclear capabilities.  They put a premium on creating forces that are more agile and more ready to deploy.  We’ve seen some of this on display, some of this rather modern capability on display in the Crimea, in the Donbas, on the periphery of Ukraine, and then most recently into Latakia in western Syria.  You’ve seen Russian demonstration using sea launched cruise missiles, air launched cruise missiles, submarine launched cruise missiles.  You’ve seen the deployment of high end air defense systems in Kaliningrad, in Crimea and in Latakia.  So I think it’ safe to say that a new and modernized Russian military capability is on pretty ready display right now.

Now the reality is that when you sum up the conventional capabilities of Russia and compare it to the ledger sheet of the conventional capabilities of NATO, NATO is still far superior across the realm of conventional capabilities.  It’s also true that Russian strategic nuclear capabilities are in keeping with international agreements, especially bilateral agreements with the United States, and are world class capabilities.  But this is not news.  This has been — the strategic nuclear deterrence regime has been in place for decades.  What’s news here is that on the conventional forces front they have modernized with equipment and they have moved to higher readiness levels than we have seen say more than ten years ago.

So that’s kind of the reality that we see.

We’ve also, I suppose I should add, we’ve seen a willingness of Russia to employ these forces in Crimea and the Donbas, and then most recently in Syria, in a way that is also unlike sort of ten years ago.

So modernized equipment, ready forces, willingness to employ I think are the big features.

Moderator:  I’m afraid we’re out of time, sir.

Ambassador Lute:  We’ll take one more.  This lady has been very patient.

Journalist:  Georgian Broadcasting Company.

You already mentioned about three aspirant countries.  Around one month ago Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, made a statement that he wants to raise tomorrow issue about NATO’s next enlargement and speak about Georgia.  So can we expect such discussion tomorrow?

And follow up my colleague’s question about Black Sea region security.  Can Georgia be involved in this project also?  Thanks.

Ambassador Lute:  So in the Black Sea, obviously Georgia is a Black Sea state and we value, NATO and the U.S., value our partnership with Georgia because you bring that Black Sea southern Caucasus perspective to the table.  So that’s a very important regional perspective and the council where I sit, but also our military authorities and on a bilateral basis U.S. authorities, value that kind of relationship with Georgia because we gain from it.  We don’t live in the south Caucasus, we don’t live on the Black Sea, so you bring that to the table.

There is not a session tomorrow or the next day that features Georgia itself, but I think the message that Georgia should take from the next few days is demonstrated by the first session tomorrow morning.  And that is if there was ever any doubt about NATO enlargement and the open door policy and so forth, we’re demonstrating in the clearest possible way that the door remains open to those countries who have taken the decision, as Georgia has, to some day join the alliance.

So Article 10 is alive and well.  The open door is open.  Okay?  And we’re going to demonstrate that very prominently tomorrow morning.