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SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to say a few words about the agenda here in Brussels today, and in fact, in Europe this week.
Just three months ago in Wales, all 28 NATO allies made a series of very important commitments, including on assurance, defense spending, readiness, and partnerships. And our meeting this afternoon focused on taking stock of where we stand on the implementation of these initiatives as well as looking together at the security challenges that we face ahead of us. I emphasized the importance of going forward very quickly with our readiness action plan and the need to avoid backsliding on defense investments, as well as the need to be vigilant in ensuring security along the entire periphery of the alliance.
Overall, I am very satisfied that NATO is on track to meet any challenge to our collective security; but in order to do so, every ally has to pull their weight, and that was part of my message today. We can’t have 21st century security on the cheap. All nations, all members of the alliance, need to be increasing their capacity to be able to meet the challenges that we face today.
Earlier in the day, the alliance received an update from Foreign Minister Klimkin of Ukraine regarding his government’s ambitious reform agenda. And while they haven’t yet completed the task of forming the government today, we’re very hopeful that’s going to happen in the very near term, and that will be a very important step forward in terms of the stability of the government in Kyiv. The United States and our allies today reaffirmed our strong support for Ukraine as it moves to implement the reforms that they have articulated which are vital to the country’s unity and prosperity.
This has obviously been a remarkable year for the people of Ukraine as their country held two rounds of elections, approved important reforms, and took steps to abide by their commitments under the Minsk accords. But Russia has not lived up to its promises to end all support for armed separatists, withdraw troops and weapons, release hostages, allow OSCE inspectors to do their jobs, and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory.
In fact, since the September 5th Minsk ceasefire agreement, Russia has funneled several hundred pieces of military equipment and material – including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery pieces – directly to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Russian military forces still operate in eastern Ukraine, where they provide command-and-control support for the separatists. Russia and the separatists it backs obviously could make a very different choice here, and they could come to the table and they could fully implement the Minsk agreements.
This afternoon, the alliance is also meeting with partners who will be participating in the Resolute Support mission for Afghanistan. And that is a train, advise, and assist program that will begin in January. This really marks a remarkable moment in the history of the ISAF effort, some 13 years of military engagement which will now end and be replaced by the Resolute Support mission. The accomplishments over those years are really quite remarkable, and today we heard from a unity government, from President Ghani and from Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom talked the same language from the same page about the same possibilities for Afghanistan. And their leadership, their willingness, each of them to put themselves and even their supporters to a place where they could find compromise and put Afghanistan ahead of their personal ambitions, is a great statement about the hopes of the people of Afghanistan. And so as a result, you have the first transfer of power in a democracy from one government to government – to another government in the history of Afghanistan. That is no small accomplishment, just as having a unity government is no small accomplishment.
The Resolute Support mission marks the start now of a new phase in NATO’s support for Afghan security forces, and those security forces have already assumed full responsibility for the combat operations in their country. The recent wave of Taliban attacks shows how vital it is that the international community remains firm in its support for a stable, secure, and prosperous Afghanistan.
And I might add that I met two nights ago in Washington with the chief of staff of the army of the military in Pakistan, who has already visited with President Ghani. President Ghani has already visited to Pakistan. And he believed that in President Ghani and in the discussions they had, they really felt there were a new set of possibilities. So if that can be fleshed out even more, if Pakistan and Afghanistan can work at that in the days ahead, the possibilities for greater progress with respect to cross-border violence, on-border violence, dealing with sanctuaries and other challenges, could conceivably change for the better.
On Thursday of this week, many of us will be in London to hear again President Ghani and Chief Executive CEO Abdullah discuss the reform plans for the new government and also to review issues related to the formation of the new government. Now, I said a minute ago that this has been a remarkable year for Ukraine. Well, obviously, the same could be said for the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole. In one way or another, we have been tested repeatedly by those who want to divide us or cause us to retreat from the basic commitments that we have made to one another.
Both within and beyond the NATO arena, we have been called to respond to aggression and to conflict, to lawlessness and deception, to violent extremists and epidemic disease. These tests are difficult and they will continue to be difficult in the new year, but history has shown just how tough the alliance of free nations can be. And those nations are working effectively as manifested in the response to all of these challenges. I have no doubt that we’re going to meet the challenges that we face today just as we have in the years past.
So I’m delighted to take a few questions from people.
MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
QUESTION: Sir, the sanctions imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine have taken a toll on the Russian economy, but they haven’t changed Russian behavior. As you just underscored, the Russian Government continues to send heavy arms to separatists in Ukraine and has troops in eastern Ukraine. So if the goal is to dissuade the Russians from intervening in Ukraine, the policy appears to have failed. Is the United States willing to consider providing defensive arms, including lethal weapons, to Ukraine to deter Russian-backed separatists from carrying out further attacks? And if not, why not?
And lastly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has fired his justice and finance minister, and called for early elections. Have you spoken with the Israeli prime minister, and does this dash or help any remaining hopes of restarting the peace process? What are the implications for the region? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Michael, to answer the first part of your question with respect to sanctions and Russia, sanctions historically take a little while. You can see that in South Africa with apartheid. You can see it in other instances where sanctions have been brought to bear – Iran and the negotiations that are taking place today with respect to the nuclear program.
But over time, sanctions have an ability to work. And if you look at what is happening in Russia today – I think there was an announcement today in the newspapers that Russia has declared formally it will be in recession next year. I believe President Putin has scheduled a speech to talk to the people of Russia sometime in the next days, and the early readout is that that may be addressing some sort of economic plans to deal with the problems in Russia. The ruble is at the lowest level in history, I believe, measured against the euro since its introduction in 1991 or so. And clearly the economy is feeling the impact of these sanctions.
So I just completely and totally disagree with any premature assumption that it has failed. Has it changed the behavior to date? No. But that is not a statement that it can’t yet or won’t or that there aren’t opportunities to move in a different direction.
Now let me make it clear – and I want this to be very, very clear to Russia, to President Putin, to the Russian people – we do not want to be in this situation where the only choice available, other than violence, engaging in combat, in order to change illegal international behavior is to inflict a broad-based sanction on any country, on any people. Now, obviously, some people get hurt by that who are innocent bystanders to the policy choices that are being made. But no one can stand by and watch while territorial sovereignty of a smaller nation is violated by a large and powerful nation and not uphold the international standards of law and of behavior that have been in place ever since World War II. These norms and standards matter. And that is why those steps have been taken not by one country, but by the entire EU and other countries who have joined together in this effort in order to make it clear that you cannot condone that kind of breach of behavior.
Now, good faith efforts have been made to come to the table and try to find a different path. I was personally engaged with the EU High Representative Cathy Ashton and with the Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov and with the foreign minister of Ukraine, and we went to Geneva and we came up with the Geneva agreement. And within days, the Geneva agreement was broken, not adhered to, as – and the opportunity for an off-ramp from this confrontation was not taken.
Subsequently, there have been many other meetings. Foreign minister of France, foreign minister of Germany have met with the foreign minister of Russia and others. There have been the Minsk agreements. The Minsk agreements have not been implemented. So I said a moment ago that Russia has the opportunity to make a very different choice, and we are prepared, as others are prepared, to sit down, to negotiate, work through reasonable ways in which all the parties could agree to very specific steps that could be taken in order to move in the different direction that is available. And we hope that that will happen.
With respect to lethal assistance, to date the United States has committed over $118 million in equipment and training to the Government of Ukraine, to help Ukraine better to monitor and secure its border, to operate more safely and effectively, and to preserve and enforce the territorial integrity of their country. U.S. assistance, to date, includes body armor, helmets, vehicles, night and thermal vision devices, heavy engineering equipment, advanced radios, patrol boats, rations, tents, counter-mortar radars, uniforms, first-aid equipment, supplies, other related items. And we continue to increase our assistance over time and as needed. And we will continue to consider a range of security assistance requests from the Government of Ukraine, but we have been very clear there is no military solution to the crisis. Our focus on the outset – from the outset has been on supplying and supporting Ukraine and on pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. But any other possibility is on the table. No option has been taken off the table, but at this moment, no decision has been made, and that is not the direction we are moving at this moment.
With respect to Israel and the choices, I simply don’t comment on the internal politics of any country, and certainly not of a change in personnel within the Government of Israel. I don’t think – Israel is our partner and ally and friend, and we will continue to support Israel in the same ways that we have previously. But obviously, we hope that whatever government is formed is a government that will – or whether there are elections, that those elections will produce the possibility of a government that can negotiate and move towards resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, and obviously, the differences in the region.
But with respect to the motivations or politics of this, we just have no comment. We will continue to be supportive of our friend and our ally, the state of Israel.
MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Carol Morello of The Washington Post.
QUESTION: After all your discussions today with various representatives about the need for countries to pull their own weight, can you finally tell us whether you have secured any concrete commitments that the United States has long sought for all these countries to send enough troops to Afghanistan and soon, so the burden does not fall disproportionately on the United States again? And on a related matter, when you sit down tomorrow with the Iraqi foreign minister, is the United States prepared to offer any additional aid beyond what has already been announced?
And lastly, would the United States approve —
SECRETARY KERRY: When we sit down with whom?
QUESTION: With the foreign minister of Iraq. Mr. —
PARTICIPANT: Prime minister.
QUESTION: Excuse me, the prime minister of Iraq, Mr. Abadi. Would the United States approve if Lebanon decides to take the wife and son of al-Baghdadi and offer them as a prisoner swap for hostages held by ISIL?
SECRETARY KERRY: With respect to your last question, I’m just – I’m not – I don’t think we engage in that kind of negotiation, period. But I’m not up to speed. I don’t have the details of what the circumstances are, who’s holding who. I saw a news flash earlier on this. I don’t have all the input on it, so I’m not going to comment further with respect to that, except that we don’t negotiate, and I think people know that.
With respect to the question of – you asked a question about whether or not there’d be more troops?
QUESTION: From NATO countries for Afghanistan, so the United States is not —
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m confident – yeah, we are engaged, we’ve been engaged today. I mean, first of all, I want to clarify something, because this is important and I think there’s a misunderstanding out there about U.S. policy with respect to troop numbers at this point in time. And I want to make it crystal clear that no changes whatsoever have been made to the force management level for 2015. But because of the Afghan election delays, because of the delays in the passage of the SOFA, the agreement to sign the bilateral security agreement and now finally the ratification – all of this delayed many countries in their planning. And as a result, we simply were behind where we had hoped to be with respect to that planning. And over the last several days, we have increased commitments from a number of member countries, and that gap is slowly being filled. But I want to emphasize President Obama’s measures that provide flexibility to the military so that they can manage the shortfall that resulted from the delay and the lack of clarity that resulted is temporary. It is not an ongoing effort, and General Breedlove and General Campbell emphasized that in the meeting that we just had. The Department of Defense is currently assessing the impacts of these delays on the mission and we’re working to sign up additional countries. And I’m very confident – these are temporary steps that have been taken and NATO member countries are close to meeting the troop levels, and I anticipate that ultimately they will. So I think that’s the important takeaway from – with respect to the troop question.
On Iraq and the prime minister and money, let me just pass on to you – you may not have heard yet, but today a very important step was achieved by the Abadi government in Baghdad and the government in Erbil. And they have arrived at an agreement with respect to the export of and allocation – export of oil and allocation of revenues. This has been a long time in coming, and it is a very significant step forward in terms of the Abadi government keeping its pledges, in terms of the provision of stability and the prospects of progress over the course of these next weeks and months. So I want to make that clear.
And with respect to the question of additional aid, I’m confident that over a period of time the United States will be providing additional assistance of one kind or another. I can’t tell you today specifically; those decisions have not been finalized. But we are in ongoing dialogue and obviously with our troops training, advising, and assisting, and with the support that we’re providing today, we have a very significant stake in the progress that this government is able to make. And we will continue to be deeply involved in our relationship to guarantee the outcome that we hope for.
MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Vaidotas Beniusis from Baltic News Service.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question is: Is the U.S. planning to further increase the military presence in the Baltic states, like deploying some military equipment next year? And is that some kind of message to Russia by boosting this presence in this year and possibly next year? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think as you know, NATO has established a persistent rotational air, land, and sea presence in Central and Eastern Europe to reassure our allies and in order to carry out joint training and exercises. And a number of our allies have been implementing a readiness action plan to ensure that we do have greater capacity to respond in the event that we needed to. And at the Wales summit, allies agreed to a certain number of immediate reassurance steps. And we built on that discussion today, and all 28 NATO allies have made clear that their commitment to Article 5 and to mutual defense is ironclad. And the United States continues to have an increased presence within the Baltics specifically in response to this reassurance effort. We have F-16s, we have C-130s, we have a rotation of some of our troops on the ground. And that will continue.
Whether it will increase or not or whether it needs to increase or not is not currently under consideration. But we feel that the overall preparations, including the Baltic air policing mission, has effectively responded to the current challenges. And we’ll see as we go along whether anything else is necessary.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Appreciate it. Thanks very much.