November 30, 2015: Ambassador Lute’s Telephonic Press Briefing

November 30, 2015

Moderator:  Thanks very much, and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. European Media Hub here in Brussels.  I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe and thanks to all of you for joining this discussion.  We’re really looking forward to taking your questions in a few moments.

Today we’re pleased to be joined once again from Brussels by Ambassador Douglas Lute, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO.  As you know, this week is the NATO Foreign Ministerial, so this is a very timely conversation and I’m sure you have many questions.  And we thank you, Ambassador Lute, for taking the time to preview the Ministerial.

We’ll begin today’s call with a few opening remarks from Ambassador Lute and then we’ll turn it over to your questions and we’ll try to get to as many as we can during the time that we have, about an hour.  As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  And with that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Lute.

Ambassador Lute:   Thanks Peter, and thanks to all the journalists who are joining today.

Just by way of context, let me just put this Ministerial over the next two days in a bit of perspective and then I’ll turn to the agenda.

For those of you who don’t follow NATO day to day, NATO typically holds these sorts of Ministerial meetings roughly every quarter, and these typically alternate between Defense Ministers and Foreign Ministers, so this time we’re in the Foreign Ministers session Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and this will be the final such Ministerial this year.

Of course everybody here at NATO Headquarters is actually looking forward about seven months towards the Warsaw Summit in July of 2016.  So this Ministerial is an important opportunity to assess progress on several key themes that we work on every day here at NATO Headquarters, and these are the same themes that we think will eventually end up being on the agenda at the Warsaw Summit.  They are as follows:

First of all, delivering on the decisions taken at last year’s Wales Summit; and second of all, continuing to adapt to the security challenges that NATO faces on our periphery.  So there’s both a delivery on Wales, but also adapting to new challenges on our flanks.

These two themes will inform the five sessions over the next two days.  So the Ministerial themes very much coincide with the same sort of things we expect to talk about at Warsaw next July.

For our Minister, Secretary Kerry, this is also part of a longer European trip.  He’ll be coming from the Climate Summit in Paris.  He’s then here Tuesday, Wednesday at NATO.  Thereafter he goes to the OSCE Ministerial and he has a couple of additional European stops in between.  So he, as is typical, will be a very busy European traveler here.

So let me review the agenda for the Ministerial, and then we’ll get to your questions.  There are a total of five meetings.

The first one is on Afghanistan.  Here the 42 countries of the NATO-led Resolute Support Coalition in Afghanistan will join Afghan Minister Rabbani to assess political progress after a very challenging year on the security front.  We expect two key decisions to come out of this first session.  First of all, I believe NATO will decide to sustain its current military mission and force posture into next year.  And this of course is in line then with the U.S. decision taken several weeks ago and announced by President Obama.

And then second and maybe even more important in the long term, we believe Ministers will agree that now is the time to secure political commitments to sustain funding at current levels for the Afghan Security Forces for years 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Now for those of you who follow Afghanistan very carefully, you’ll appreciate that this is a three-year commitment, much like the three-year commitment we took a couple of years ago at Chicago, at the Chicago Summit, whereby the international community comes together and generates enough resources to continue to fund the Afghan police and Army.

So those are the two key decisions.  Sustain our current mission and posture; and second of all, begin to line up long term funding.

So basically before NATO, Afghanistan is unfinished business.  And despite a lot of competing challenges closer to NATO at home, we have to follow through on our commitments in Afghanistan and we especially have to follow through now that we have a willing and more capable Afghan partner.  So that’s session number one, and that’s just after mid-day tomorrow.

The second session tomorrow afternoon has to do with addressing challenges to NATO’s south.  So here the challenges range from the counter-ISIL campaign in Iraq and Syria, all the way through the challenges in North Africa.

For this meeting the 28 allies will be joined by the EU’s High Representative Mogherini, and together they’ll discuss support to the international coalition against Da’esh or ISIL.  And actually, the coalition was conceived at the Wales Summit last year.

So what will this discussion include?  First of all, it will take note that NATO’s role begins with our commitment to our ally which borders the fight against Da’esh and this, of course, is our ally Turkey.  No one should have any doubt about NATO’s resolve to support the sovereignty of Turkey’s territory and its airspace.

Second, the recent attacks in Paris underscore the importance of focusing military efforts against Da’esh, not so much against other groups opposing the Assad regime.  All this while pursuing the political track agreed in Vienna.  So we would like to reemphasize the focal point of the military campaign is Da’esh.

I think it will be clear as an outcome of this discussion that NATO, in fact, is the backbone of the coalition.  Why do I say that?  It’s because all 28 NATO allies and another 26 NATO partners are contributing to the military effort.  So by my count that’s 54 of the 65 nations in the coalition are either allies or partners.

NATO in that way is the force provider for the military effort against Da’esh, both on the ground and in the air.

NATO is also investing in the capacity of two key front line states — Jordan and Iraq.  Here we’re contributing training programs, and again, these were agreed at Wales.  So tomorrow we’ll check in on the progress of those training programs.

We’re ready, frankly, to do a similar training program in Libya once there is a political settlement.

Beyond the south and the fight against Da’esh, Ministers with the High Rep will tomorrow talk about NATO’s framework for dealing with hybrid warfare, and they’ll discuss with the EU how NATO and EU should better cooperate to counter this threat wherever it may appear.

Here the key, I think, the focus will be on taking preventive steps.  Making nations less vulnerable to this form of aggression and intimidation.

With the responsibility, frankly, shared first among member states but then in a follow-up role with NATO and the EU.

So that second session will deal largely, I think, on the fight against Da’esh but it will also, we believe, approve this new framework for dealing with hybrid warfare.

The working dinner tomorrow night will focus on NATO’s relationship with Russia.  Here the events of the past two years, especially since the illegal annexation of Crimea, demonstrate that Russia today is not the partner that NATO has invested in so much over the last 20 years.  At the same time, I think there’s a general appreciation that Russia will always be NATO’s largest, most powerful neighbor.  So Ministers will discuss the evolving relationship with Russia and how NATO should adapt to this new reality.  That’s dinner tomorrow.

We’ll kick off Wednesday morning with the first session on NATO’s open door or enlargement policy.  We agreed at the Wales Summit last year that Ministers would decide at this session whether or not to invite Montenegro to begin the accession process to become the 29th member of the alliance.  So we expect that decision on Wednesday morning.

They will also address, however, the other three remaining aspirants.  So Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia.

In the final session, so now mid-morning on Wednesday, will be a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.  This meeting exemplifies that NATO has not forgotten Ukraine and remains focused on the situation there.  Ministers will review progress on the implementation of the Minsk Accords, especially the security situation and ongoing political steps.

We note that at the recent G20 leaders meeting, leaders recommitted to sustaining sanctions on Russia until Minsk is fully implemented, and we stand behind that decision.

So there are two key themes that run across these sessions Tuesday and Wednesday.  First of all, as I said, we’ll continue to implement the decisions taken at Wales as we move towards the Warsaw Summit; and second of all, we’ll take stock of changes in the situation on NATO’s periphery with a special focus on the south.

So let me stop there and Peter will handle our questions.

Moderator:  Thank you for those remarks and that overview, Ambassador Lute.  We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question today comes from Dirk-Jan van Baar from De Volkskrant.

De Volkskrant:  Thank you.  You mentioned that the battle against ISIL is primarily also a NATO battle, but President Hollande, he invoked European sort of aid, not Article 5, and he even went to Russia, to Putin after a Turkish fighter plane shot down a Russian plane.  This is also in connection probably to the troublesome south, as you mentioned.  How do you see this?

Ambassador Lute:  First of all, the French decision to turn to EU provisions in the wake of the Paris attacks is obviously a sovereign decision which we support, we understand and support.  We think they made that decision as they’ve described, for very reasonable, with very reasonable causes.  I mean the sorts of support the French requested of EU members were the sorts of things that they needed to respond.  So these were things that were more in the EU channels and competencies than in NATO.  So police support, border support.  They went to the EU with regard to budget deficit rules.  They went to the EU with regard to passenger name recognition arrangements.  This is the sharing of passenger data on airlines and so forth.  So these sorts of internal security and border security requirements are much more in the purview of the EU than they are of NATO.

So going to the EU and invoking Paragraph 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty made sense for France and we support that.

At the same time, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, NATO is contributing in a very fundamental way as a force provider for the international coalition.  And so actually there’s no discrepancy here.  You can do both.

I think the important thing is that what’s happening in the fight against Da’esh is happening on NATO’s border and this is a 1,500 kilometer border between Turkey and Syria and Iraq.  So it’s a primary topic for NATO, even though NATO is not leading the military coalition effort.  As you know, that’s a U.S.-led, multinational effort.

So I think you can have both.  Both France turning to the EU, and both NATO contributing in a very fundamental way.

Moderator:  Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question will be going to Myrna Nicolaido of Estia Newspaper in Greece.

Estia:  Hello, Mr. Ambassador Lute.  I’d like to ask you your opinion about yesterday’s deal of EU and Turkey about the migrant crisis.  Are you satisfied with this kind of deal?  And what do you think about the contribution of the USA in the migrant crisis?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  I can speak more about it from the U.S. perspective than I can the EU, although we certainly applaud the EU’s support for our NATO ally Turkey which today is managing something like two million Syrian refugees with another million refugees in Lebanon and about that same number in Jordan.  So you have a total of four million refugees who have fled Syria and Turkey has about half of them.

So any arrangement between Turkey and the EU that brings additional support to Turkey to try to manage that humanitarian situation with two million refugees is certainly welcome.

As for the U.S., we’re the single largest national contributor to refugee support, and that number over the last couple of years has reached about a billion dollars.  So we’re there in the same effort that the EU is in in terms of supporting these refugees, and the reports I saw indicating increased EU support are certainly welcome.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Matteo Bosco of LaPresse in Italy.

LaPresse:  I have two questions actually.  The first one is about the Ministerial meeting at NATO.  I don’t follow NATO affairs that closely so I would like to understand a little bit better: are we going to see a major change in the NATO operations against Da’esh after this meeting?

The second question is about the U.S. position on the operations on the ground that could be led as far as we understood from local actors like, you know, the Syrian Free Army, maybe even somebody from the regime.  What’s your take on that?

Ambassador Lute:  Let me start with the second one first.  It’s been the U.S. position for some time that the air campaign alone won’t be sufficient to defeat Da’esh and that that air campaign will need to be complemented by an effective ground effort.

It’s also been the U.S. position, joined by many other allies, that that ground effort should be from indigenous forces, or from local forces who much better know the situation on the ground and who have a political stake in a durable outcome of the fight.  So this is why the U.S., the coalition and NATO are supporting local players like the Iraqi Security Forces, and then not so much NATO but on a national basis the U.S., the Syrian-based opposition forces.

So the U.S. and NATO and coalition focus on indigenous forces is really a very important part, in fact I would argue it will be the decisive part of the military campaign.

Now I don’t think you should expect any major shifts coming out of the next two days in terms of NATO’s role, but I do think what you’ll see is a recommitment by the 28 allies that we will sustain the sorts of forces that are fueling the coalition today.  This again is this question of all 28 allies contributing.  Twenty-six additional NATO partners are contributing.  I think you’ll see broad support for that sort of reinforcement of the coalition to be sustained.

I also think you’ll get a political statement out of the next two days that is fully in line with the Vienna talks which promotes the possibility of a political track alongside the military track.  So strong support, continuing support on the military front, and increased attention and support of a political front.  That’s what you can expect, I think, out of the next two days.

Moderator:  For our next question I’d like to turn to Ms. Loara Stefanescu of Romanian Public Television.

Romanian Public Television:  Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador. I am Loara Stefanescue from Romanian Public Television.

The Russian jet shot down by Turkey after flying, allegedly violating Turkish airspace, is a tragic and really dangerous incident threatening peace and security in our region.  All NATO countries are insisting on a peaceful resolution of the emerging crisis.  President Erdogan while trying to contact President Putin used to say about the Russian reaction that somebody is playing with fire and decided to withdraw from anti-ISIS coalition.

Taking into consideration that Turkey is a pillar of NATO common defense system on the alliance’s eastern border together with Poland and Romania, do you believe that it will be necessary to have additional reinforcements of the deterrence capabilities focused on southern flank that is Romania and Bulgaria?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  I think Ministers over the next couple of days will talk about the evolving security situation.  Certainly a part of that consideration will be this most recent event with the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft.

But look, the Council met last Monday and stated unequivocally that we stand in support of Turkey’s right to defend its territory, to defend its airspace, and you can expect that NATO will do whatever is required to support Turkey in that effort.

Now I will tell you that there are already NATO Patriot missile batteries in Turkey.  This is an air defense system.  There are already U.S. air superiority fighter aircraft, F-15s, based in Turkey on request of the Turkish government, all in support of Turkey’s effort to defend itself.  This will go on as long as necessary.

So I don’t think there’s any question that for all 28 of NATO allies the basic promise of NATO is that we will come to one another’s assistance.  You, I think, will be able to see that in this case as well.

I think that basically answers your question.  As to Romania and Bulgaria, you’ll appreciate that for about 18 months now there’s been increased NATO presence all along the eastern flank.  So from the Baltic Sea all the way down to the Black Sea as part of what we call the Readiness Action Plan.  This plan was approved at Wales, at the Summit in September of last year.  And basically it calls for increased air, sea and ground presence in all six of our eastern flank allies, to include Romania and Bulgaria.  The result of that over the last year has been that you’ve seen NATO aircraft patrolling your skies.  You’ve seen increased NATO presence in the Black Sea.  And you’ve seen allied ground forces to include U.S. ground forces exercising right alongside the Romanian and Bulgarian allies.

So that, I think, will continue for the foreseeable future, and NATO will do — can do and will do — more than one thing at a time.  It will do everything that’s required on the eastern flank to reassure allies; and it will do whatever is required on the south to protect Turkey, but also to contribute to the fight against Da’esh.

Moderator:  Thank you.  And for our next question I will go to Ronald van Gessel of De Telegraaf of the Netherlands.

De Telegraaf:  Good afternoon.  I have also two questions.

One is that Mr. Putin refuses himself to speak to Mr. Erdogan, so that means he’s really playing it tough.  Do you think there are serious consequences for the coalition against ISIL?

And the second question, do you think it’s possible to defeat ISIL without boots on the ground?

Ambassador Lute:  Again, let me take them in reverse order.  As I said, I think there will require troops on the ground to eventually defeat ISIL, but I don’t think it will require Western troops.  The strategy all along has been to apply air power, Western air power, largely Western airpower, to contain ISIL while we build up local ground forces.  So Syrian opposition forces, Kurdish forces, Iraqi forces to take the fight on the ground.

So the question is, which ground forces?  But in my mind, there’s no question that you will require ground forces.

Now I admit, maybe I say that as a former Army officer, but I think reality over the last year has proven that airstrikes will only take you so far.  That eventually you’ll need local ground forces.

Look, as for the rhetoric between Turkey and Russia, look, this is a very serious incident a week ago with regard to the downing of a Russian aircraft and the death of the pilot.  No one takes this lightly.  This is fundamentally an issue between Turkey and Russia.  I think the two governments are in communication.  I think over the last several days you’ve seen, I’ve seen a reducing of the sort of rhetoric and an effort to deescalate this problem.  And these are moves that NATO and the U.S. applaud.

We think that conversations, discussions, dialogue between Ankara and Moscow are the way forward here, and we hope that that process continues.

So I don’t see an escalating crisis.  I see an effort on both sides to deescalate, even though there have been some steps that are quite serious.  For example, the Russian economic sanctions.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Maria Khrenova of TASS.

TASS:  Mr. Lute, have not United States been contacted by Turkey before or during the incident with a Russian fighter about its, I mean Turkey’s course of action?  Did not United States play any part in Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian plane?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  We’ve been in touch with Turkey since the violation of its airspace back in early October about the persistent danger of Russian aircraft operating so close to Turkey’s boundary.  So in that way, yes, we’ve been in touch with Turkey.  However, there was no coordination or joint action with regard to the incident itself.  It was a sovereign Turkish decision in Turkish airspace under Turkish rules of engagement.  But NATO, over the last weeks, has been aware of this increasing risk.

And of course it’s a similar risk that had the United States-led coalition coordinate or rather work alongside Russia to try to arrange rules of the road, safety rules, over the airspace in Syria so that Russian fighter aircraft and coalition aircraft could operate in the same space safely.

So there’s been this long, persistent understanding that this was a hazardous situation, but neither NATO nor the U.S. had anything immediately to do with the engagement the other day.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Filip Raunic of Telegram.

Telegram:  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador.

There has been a lot of speculation in European and Russian media that the Russian plane wasn’t in Turkish airspace.  Do you have and did Turkey provide enough data to confirm, to definitely confirm that that plane was in Turkish airspace?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  As NATO stated last Monday after our consultation, our extraordinary meeting and consultation with Turkey, we stand by Turkey’s — the data Turkey provided.  Turkey provided both radar data as well as audio recordings of the warnings issued to the Russian aircraft.  That data is supported by other allies’ view of the situation.  So we think that the Turkish description of the engagement is accurate and we stand by it.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  For our next question we’ll go to Nikola Tomic of BLIC Newspaper in Serbia.

BLIC:  I have two questions too.  The first one is shorter, so I will begin with it.

What is the U.S. position on the possibility of Montenegro joining NATO?  And will you support it or not?  That’s the first question.

 

The second one is regarding again, the Turkish-Russian crisis.  As someone mentioned before, President Putin today said that he doesn’t have plans for a bilateral meeting with President Erdogan, but maybe the first direct talks between Turkey and Russia or their Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Davutoglu and Lavrov, will happen this week in Belgrade during the OSCE Ministerial conference.  Both sides announced that from unofficial sources a few days ago.  At the same time in Belgrade at that conference will come Secretary Kerry, too.  So what do you expect from these meetings in Belgrade, and could the Belgrade and Ministerial conference of the OSCE become one of the places for solving the Turkish-Russian crisis?

Ambassador Lute:  Thanks for your questions.

The U.S. position is that we support a NATO decision to invite Montenegro to become the 29th member of the alliance.  Now a U.S. decision in support, however, does not deliver a NATO decision.  So the way this works is that the vote around the table on Wednesday morning must be 28 allies in support, and no ally in opposition.  It has to be 28-0. So the U.S. vote will be to invite, but we have to wait and see what will happen on Wednesday morning with regard to the alliance as a whole.

With regard to Turkey-Russian dialogue, look, as I said, it’s a good thing in the face of a crisis or the face of a dangerous incident like the downing of the Russian aircraft, that the two sides talk.  And initially I think what you saw was dialogue that was rather, that reflected the incident.  Then after about a day or so the dialogue between Turkey and Russia began to take a non-escalatory sort of a cooler, a lower temperature quality.  That’s the kind of conversation that could easily lead to continued dialogue and that’s why we favor it.

So I don’t have any forecast in terms of the OSCE Ministerial, but certainly that Ministerial is an opportunity for the two sides to continue the discussion.  But I think the two capitols are already in contact and we hope that that dialogue continues.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Ulrike Scheffer of Tagesspiegel.

Tagesspiegel:  Thank you very much.  I would like to come back to the question of ground forces in Syria.  Ambassador, you mentioned that ground forces should be local ones.  You mentioned forces of the Syrian opposition.  But what about regular Syrian troops?  I mean in Europe and especially in Germany we discuss this question now: is it possible to work together with Assad’s troops, with Syrian troops even if Assad is still in power?  Do you see that this is possible?  And are there plans or already talks underway to bring in Syrian troops while Assad is still in power?

And my second question is about Russia.  President Hollande, the French President, wants Russia to be part of the anti-IS or ISIL coalition.  Does this already have any effect on the ground?  Is there better communication underway?  Or do you see that this could work?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  Sure.  On the ground forces, I don’t know of any effort underway now to include the Syrian forces in the coalition simply because for now we don’t share the same objective.  I mean the coalition is founded on a common interest to defeat ISIL.  That common interest is not today shared by the Syrian forces who are also at war with many elements representing opposition to their regime.  But beyond that, I would argue they’re in a civil war with the Syrian people which has generated the four million refugees, which is generated in another eight million internally displaced Syrians, and so forth.

So the Syrian forces have not demonstrated, and the Assad regime certainly has not demonstrated anything like a focus on ISIL, but much more a focus on Assad staying in power.

Now there’s actually a parallel to the answer with regards to Russia joining the coalition as President Hollande has suggested.  In my experience, successful military coalitions begin with common objectives, and today I don’t think it’s been demonstrated that we have a common objective with Russia.  Again, the coalition’s objective is to defeat Da’esh.  The Russian objective appears to be to prop up the Assad regime by way of supporting his campaign against opposition movements.

Now yes, Russia has attacked to some extent Da’esh, but the majority of its attacks, the majority of its military support in Syria today are not against Da’esh.

So until we can arrive at a common objective, I don’t see a common coalition.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Alina Matis of Digi24, Romania.

Digi24:  Hi, thank you.

Just to follow up to the answers you gave to my colleague from Tagesspiegel, since the French government, I’m referring now for example, to the Foreign Minister, Mr. Fabius, have mentioned a couple of times now that they do envision working with Russia and working with Assad forces in Syria.  Would it be fair to say that there is perhaps a disagreement on this with the U.S.?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  You know, President Obama’s been rather clear on this during President Hollande’s visit to Washington just last week.  That is that the coalition welcomes any nation which is willing to join on this common objective to defeat Da’esh.  So thus far it’s been a Russian decision not to join the coalition.  And in fact Russian actions suggest that there may be another objective to Russian military presence in Syria and that is, as I said earlier, the propping up or the support to the Assad regime.  And we’re simply looking at actions here.

The Russian actions do not suggest a focus on Da’esh.  The Russian actions suggest a focus on taking the fight to those who oppose Assad.

So we would be happy for any nation to join the coalition, but the ticket into the coalition is the sharing and agreeing on the common objective, and the common objective is Da’esh.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Marco Liconti of Adnkronos in Italy.

Adnkronos:  Good afternoon.

My question to the Ambassador: Italian Prime Minister Renzi has said very clearly that Italy is not joining the race against IS in Syria.  And he also said that he doesn’t want to repeat the mistake made in Libya when military action was decided without having a clear strategy for what would come after the military action.

So what kind of support do you expect from Italy given the fact that Italy is not taking part in the race in Syria.

Ambassador Lute:  Well, Italy is participating in other ways.  So Italy is making a major contribution in Iraq, for example, in taking the lead in training the Iraqi police.  This contribution is every bit as important as activities going on in Syria, because Da’esh is in both countries, in both Iraq and Syria.  So Italy is contributing.

But more broadly, Italy has been vocal in its support in search of a political process, and here the recent convening of the Vienna talks at least raises the promise, increases the promise that perhaps we can move towards a political track in parallel with the military track.  And I think the Italian government has been in support of that as well.

So Italy is making a contribution.  Not every coalition member of the 65 are operating in Syria these days.  Not every member of the 65 nations of the coalition are conducting air campaigns, conducting airstrikes.  So there are multiple ways to contribute, and Italy is contributing.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Alexander Ratnikov of RBC News in Russia.

RBC:  Mr. Lute, good afternoon.  My name is Alexander Ratnikov.  I represent RBC News Agency.

This escalation in Russia-Turkey relations and now for Turkey to declare the regime of [inaudible] threats that [inaudible] close the straits to the Russian military and possibly civil ships in Black Sea and Mediterranean.  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  I think I understand the question.  Having to do with Bosphorus Straits.

RBC:  Yes.

Ambassador Lute:  I’ve seen nothing that suggests that Turkey will take some sort of action with regards to the straits.  Turkey has for many many years, decades, taken very seriously its international responsibilities under the Montreux Treaty to govern traffic through those straits, and I’ve seen nothing that suggests that that has changed.  So I expect no change in that regard.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to Igor Ćuzović of Telegraf.

Telegraf:  Thank you, sir.

I have two questions.  The last time we spoke, Ambassador, I asked a question about the possibility that the Russian plane could be shot down over Turkey or Syria or border.  It happened.  This time the stakes are higher because, as you know, Russia [moved] the Moscow missile cruiser near to the place where that happened.  Do you think there’s a real possibility that something similar could happen and that Moscow could retaliate by shooting down one of the Turkish planes?

My second question is about Russia hurting Da’esh on the ground.  According to the data available to NATO is it really doing some serious damage?  Thank you.

Ambassador Lute:  As I said earlier, our view of the Russian military activity in Syria is that it is, its top targets, its number one targets are the opposition groups opposing Assad.  Its secondary target is Da’esh.  So our view is that Russia should do much more against Da’esh and it should shift its focus and concentrate on Da’esh.  But today that is not the pattern that we see.

Look, I don’t think there’s any room or need for escalation, to go to the first part of your question.  In fact, both the United States and NATO have called for just the reverse, which is a de-escalation of the situation and a lowering of the temperature between Russia and Turkey, and in fact I think the last 72 or 96 hours demonstrate that in fact the rhetoric is lower, the rhetoric is de-escalatory and we think this is a good thing.

Now you mentioned the movement of the Russian ship Moscow towards the Syrian coast.  Look, any time we bring sophisticated military capabilities like that ship, like Russian fighter aircraft, and so forth, into one operating area like the airspace over Turkey, I’m sorry, over Syria, where many different nations are flying, it becomes a very complex setting.  And that’s why weeks ago, perhaps around the time you and I last talked, weeks ago the coalition took an initiative with Russia to arrive at a common set of rules which had to do with very practical mechanisms for pilots to talk to pilots; planners to talk to planners, and so forth.  This has to do with radio frequencies and so forth.  So that there are no surprises in the air over Syria.

Now all of that, all of those arrangements will not prevent the problem if Russians aircraft violate Turkish sovereign airspace.  So there’s a difference between sharing radio frequencies in the air over Syria and arriving at those agreed rules and one nation violating the airspace of another.

So I think we really have two different situations here.  And if we abide by the rules agreed over Syria, then we have a reasonable expectation to avoid incidents and accidents.  But those rules will not prevent an incident if the territory of Turkey is violated.  And I think, you know, the incident of a week ago demonstrates that.

Moderator:  Thank you.  And for our next question we’ll go to Mr. Nicolas Klein of Le Quotidien, Luxembourg.

Le Quotidien:  Hello, thank you.  I’ve got two questions.

One is you said you want support to local forces in Syria, so we’ve got American troops in Kobani now to help Democratic Union Party, but Democratic Union Party is the ally of the PKK in Turkey, and the PKK for Europe and for the Americans they are a terrorist group.  So is it not a contradiction?

And the second one is apparently the Turkish attacking, is attacking more the Kurdish forces in Syria than, more than ISIS. So is it a problem with the common interest with first target you said against ISIS?

Ambassador Lute:  Both of your questions reflect the complexity of what’s going on on the ground.  Because you have multiple Kurdish forces, as you mentioned.  You have multiple opposition groups.  And while they’re not coordinating their activity on the ground, they have, they do have a common interest which is the opposition to Assad.

Look we have been completely transparent with our Turkish allies with regard to our support for the Syrian-Kurdish elements which are there along the border between Syria and Turkey.

We have reached a bilateral agreement —

Operator:  Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a connection issue.  If you can just give us one moment, we’ll figure it out.

(Pause)

Operator:  Ambassador Lute, you’re back on the call.

Ambassador Lute:  The question had to do with the U.S. support of opposition Kurdish groups in Syria which Turkey views differently than the U.S.  Look, the only thing I can tell you is that we’ve been transparent all along with our Turkish allies about our support for some of these groups which Turkey does not wish to support and there’s room within the coalition for that kind of flexibility, and I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Moderator:  Great.  Thank you very much.  For our next question we’ll go to Lucian Kim, a freelance journalist.

Freelance Journalist:  Yes, Ambassador.  I’m calling you from Berlin.  At the last Ministerial meeting I was hearing that there was a movement within NATO to declare Russia an enemy or recognize Russia as an official enemy at the Warsaw Summit.  I was wondering if you could comment on efforts within the alliance to do that.

Ambassador Lute:  Thanks.  As I mentioned, tomorrow night at dinner the Ministers will take on this question of how to characterize NATO’s relationship with Russia.  I do not expect anybody to support the notion that NATO should declare Russia an enemy.  I do expect broad consensus that Russia is no longer acting as a partner.  Now that’s rather obvious since the annexation of Crimea, the destabilizing of the Donbas and then Russian actions all along NATO’s periphery, which used to include the area between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.  Now we can add some of Russia’s activities in Syria as well.

So it’s clear they’re not acting as a partner, but I would not use the word enemy.  I think the reality, the hard reality is that NATO and Russia have to figure out how to get along based on the fact that they are neighbors.  And so we’ll have to see how this goes.  I’ll be very interested in the discussion tomorrow night among Ministers in this regard.  But I don’t expect the characterization to involve enemy.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll go to Matthew Holehouse of the Telegraph.

Telegraph:  Thank you, Ambassador.

I’m interested to know the only time I understand that the Article 5 has been invoked was following 9/11.  Do you think had the French wished it that the situation in Paris would have merited an Article 5 response?  Was there any discussion around that in the days after the attack on which the French took another path, which is to secure cooperation through an EU framework instead?

Ambassador Lute:  You’re right.  The only time in the 66-year history of NATO where the collective defense clause, so Article 5, has been invoked was in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001.

The basic conversation that took place here after the Paris attacks was simply what can we do in support of the French government and the French people in the wake of that attack?  And the answer came back from Paris that they, for I think very reasonable, understandable reasons, turned to the EU provisions because of the nature of the support they needed.

I think it was also a factor that there’s already an ongoing active military coalition confronting ISIL.  So the French didn’t face a situation where they needed NATO to step in and displace the existing coalition.

So the situation I think was much different from the situation following 9/11.  And most important and most fundamental, is that NATO simply respects and will support the French decision, and it was a sovereign choice on their part.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  We have time for just one more question, unfortunately, and we’ll go to Zeljko Trkanjec of the Jutarnji List, please.

Jutarnji List:  Thank you very much.  I’ll try to explain [inaudible].  So Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for having this conversation.

My question is again regarding Montenegro, because we in Croatia are very worried about the security situation in Balkans, and you just told us there is a possibility that between NATO allies will be some of them who will be not ready to invite Montenegro into membership.  Can you explain more about that?

Ambassador Lute:  I don’t know if there will be opposition.  What I stated is that the U.S. supports the invitation.  And then I went along to say that we’ll have to wait until Wednesday morning to see if everyone joins us.

The NATO Treaty, the Washington Treaty which was signed in 1949, specifies that the vote must be unanimous.

Now I can’t predict that vote.  We’ll have to wait and see what happens on Wednesday morning.

What I can tell you is that the U.S. has been active in its support to invite Montenegro.  Why is this?  First of all, we think it’s right for Montenegro.  Second of all, and as a Croat you’ll understand this, we think it’s right for the region and that it can serve a stabilizing role in the Western Balkans.   Finally, we think it’s right for NATO.

So for all of those reasons, the U.S. has decided to support the invitation and we’ll just have to wait until Wednesday morning to see if our other 27 allies join us.

Moderator:  Thank you, sir.  Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for today.

Ambassador Lute, did you have any closing remarks you’d like to offer?

Ambassador Lute:  No, only to say thanks to those participating and like you, we’ll be watching carefully here the outcome of the next couple of days.  So thanks very much.

Moderator:  Great.  I want to thank you, Ambassador Lute, for joining us and thanks to all of you for participating and for all your questions.  Thank you very much.