MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussel’s Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us today for this virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Julianne Smith, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO.
We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes that we have allotted today, so please so your support and like the questions you’d most like us to cover. You can notify us of any technical difficulties at [email protected]. Finally, a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador, thanks so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Sure. Well, thank you. And thanks to everybody who was able to join us this afternoon for this session with the Brussels Media Hub. Really appreciate the Brussels Media Hub pulling this all together and facilitating it. Happy to talk to you today a little bit about the ministerial that will start tomorrow and run through Wednesday here at NATO Headquarters.
It’s a really big week for the Alliance. Obviously, the headline is that Finland is officially becoming a member of the Alliance. They have – or they will have completed the accession process in full by tomorrow. The Finnish flag will be raised here at NATO Headquarters, so it’s very exciting. And it just so happens that all of this coincides with two really unique other facts, and that is that it happens to be NATO Day tomorrow, and April 4th is also the 74th anniversary of the NATO Alliance. So a lot to celebrate tomorrow, a big moment for all of us that work here at NATO headquarters, and big moments for the folks back in Finland. And we hope they will be joined by Sweden in the not-too-distant future.
Obviously for somebody like Vladimir Putin, he had assumed that the NATO Alliance would splinter or fracture and ultimately look away and be unable to sustain its support for the people of Ukraine. But in fact, the exact opposite has happened. NATO is stronger and more unified as ever, and tomorrow we will be celebrating its 31st member.
In terms of the ministerial itself, there are three main sessions. First and foremost, we are going to be holding what is called a NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting. That means that all of the members, including Finland as a full-fledged member, will sit around the table and join Minister Kuleba, who has joined us many times in the past, but this will be in the format of an official nook*, as we call it here at NATO. And this will be a good time for the Allies and Ukraine to come together. Of course, we will be continuing to pledge our support for Ukraine and our commitment to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.
And then secondly, we are going to have a session with NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners. So those are the four countries of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. They actually joined a NATO ministerial a year ago, in April of 2022, for one of our first sessions at a ministerial with the Indo-Pacific partners. This will be a follow-up at an important moment for us to come together and continue talking about some of the crosscutting issues that collectively we’ve been tackling together and look for opportunities to share more best practices and unique insights.
Lastly, we’ll be having a session just for NATO Allies, just for the 31 members around the table. And that will be kind of a step on the road to the Vilnius Summit, which as you all know will take place in July, this summer. We’ll be looking at a variety of questions in that session, including resourcing. We’re going to be rolling out something that will replace the defense and investment pledge that was created in 2014. We’ll talk about the south, I’m sure, which will be folded into that particular session. And we’ll also be talking more broadly about deterrents and defense and working, again, towards some of those summit deliverables that we’ll be rolling out later this summer.
So it’s going to be a busy couple of days, but also really historic in terms of what we’ll be witnessing. It’ll be emotional to see that flag go up the flagpole tomorrow. We’re all looking forward to it. And really, just a wonderful opportunity for all of us to come together to celebrate not only Finland’s membership but to sit with our friends in Ukraine and reiterate our support.
So with that, I will turn it to all of you, and I look forward to your questions. Thanks, again, for joining us.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. Let’s go to our first question from Marek Świerczyński from Polityka Insight in Poland. He asks: “In light of the recently presented data on NATO countries defense spending, what is the U.S. position on whether to adopt a new defense investment pledge at the Vilnius Summit and how to better secure its implementation?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Sure. A great question. So there is some good news and there is a little bit of challenging news as it relates to the defense investment pledge. So in the good news category, since 2014, we’ve essentially seen eight years of consecutive growth. We’ve seen a significant rise in many defense budgets across the Alliance, and multiple countries have undertaken really incredible efforts to move their defense expenditures to that target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
The more challenging part of it is, while we’ll celebrate that growth and the rise in defense spending just writ large across the Alliance, we want to make sure at the end of the day that all 30, soon to be 31, nations really reach that intended target. I think by next year, which is really the end of the defense investment pledge – it was supposed to run from 2014 to 2024 – I think we’re going to see close to about two-thirds of the Allies hit the target, which would be remarkable, and we hope that we can get there. And again, we would celebrate that, but we want to see everyone get there at the end of the day.
So we’ll have two things that we’ll be rolling out this summer. One, we’ll want to continue pressing those Allies that aren’t quite there yet to accelerate their plans and move out on meeting the 2 percent target, and then we’ll have to develop something that will replace the defense investment pledge. And I think where we are largely as an Alliance – I certainly know where the United States is – where the U.S. is, is that we’re very interested in making the 2 percent target a floor, not a ceiling. And so we salute those countries, like Poland, that have already taken national decisions to stretch beyond the 2 percent, and we would welcome similar efforts by other Allies across the Alliance.
I think fundamentally what we want to see happen is we want to make the 2 percent pledge an enduring commitment that won’t have a specific period of time attached to it but would be just a long-term, enduring commitment by all of the members of the Alliance. So that’s what we’re working towards. And again, the debates continue here inside the NATO Alliance, but you will see a new development in this space by the time we get to the summit this summer.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Let’s go to a live question now, Alex Raufoglu. Alex, you have the mike. Alex, can you hear us?
QUESTION: Hey, John, can you hear me?
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you so very much. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time. Quick questions – first one is on sort of like housekeeping on Finland. Traditionally, new members used to bring their final paperwork to Washington as their last stop. I understand this is a done deal on your end. Shall we expect any White House address tomorrow?
On Sweden, Hungary says that they have some sort of grievances stopping their support on Sweden’s NATO bid. Do you have their sense of what those grievances are? Have they shared them with you?
And finally, on Ukraine, let me get your sense of the latest on the ground. Is it certain now that Russian offensive in Donbas has failed? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Thank you very much for those questions. So on Finland’s accession, you are correct that after each individual NATO Ally completes the ratification process, which occurs in cooperation with a country’s parliament or in our case Congress, the country in question then deposits the accession protocol in Washington at the State Department. But in order for us to complete the process tomorrow, what will happen is that our friends from Türkiye will be actually handing over their accession protocol to be deposited in the hands of Secretary Blinken, who will be here in Brussels tomorrow. So it’s just changing the depositing tradition from Washington to a moment here.
And then Finland also – once they are notified that all Allies have completed the ratification process, Finland also will submit paperwork. And then we will celebrate with a ceremony here in Brussels, and that will be the key feature for Allies to come or the key opportunity for Allies to come together and celebrate.
So your other question on Sweden, I think it is pretty well known that Türkiye in particular had some specific concerns both on Finland and Sweden and that’s why they’ve needed a little more time on the clock. Those concerns were related to the ways in which those two countries address the challenge of terrorism. And what we’ve encouraged those three countries to do over the last nine months or so is really to meet in a trilateral format, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. They’ve repeatedly come together. We’ve asked Sweden, Finland, and Türkiye to sit down in different locations, work through some of their differences.
I think it’s clear now that certainly Finland has addressed some of the concerns that Türkiye has raised, and I suspect we’re going to see movement on Sweden in the not-too-distant future, so we’re quite optimistic on that front. And as is usually the case, we can work through these types of differences and concerns and get to the right outcome, which is getting these two countries to become full-fledged members of the Alliance.
On Ukraine, I think what we’ve seen is a Russian attempt to kick off some sort of spring offensive. I think what’s also clear is they have not been able to have any major victories on the battlefield, from what we can tell so far. We’ll see what the future holds. But we do expect the Ukrainians to put forward or begin some sort of their own spring offensive in the weeks ahead. We’re really leaving that in the hands of the Ukrainians, to map out not only the timeline for that spring offensive, but the specific tactics as well. But it does appear that Russia right now doesn’t have anything specific to point to in terms of major victories on the battlefield.
QUESTION: That’s extremely helpful, Ambassador. Just my question was about – on Sweden was about Hungary’s position, not Türkiye’s, if you may address their grievances.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Yeah. I didn’t hear the mention of Hungary. So Hungary has been, I think, a little bit more private in some of the conversations that it is having with both aspirant countries. Obviously, they completed the process with Finland just a couple days ago, last week, and we were happy to see that completed.
Again, any time a country has a reason to raise its hand and slow down a process for any reason, we encourage the countries in question to have a dialogue and engage. So you’ll have to consult both with Hungary and Sweden to find out more, but we do believe that the more countries can talk about some of these concerns, the better.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to another pre-submitted question right now from Vitaly Syzov from the outlet Freedom, a Ukrainian outlet. He asks: “Ambassador, how will the United States change its activity and presence in Finland after NATO accession?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: So on the question of Finland, I mean, first and foremost it’s important to note that Finland has been an incredibly strong partner to the Alliance for quite some time, which means that Finland is deeply familiar with the Alliance, and the Alliance is deeply familiar with all that Finland brings to the table. This is a country that’s incredibly capable, a very strong partner and now Member of the Alliance. It has really remarkable reserve forces. It has a strong naval force. This is a country that shares NATO values, and no doubt will be fundamentally a security provider to the Alliance.
In terms of what specifically will change over time, I mean, we’ll have to take it week by week here inside the NATO Alliance. It’s an evolution. We are currently reviewing or actually drafting new regional plans for the Alliance, and so we’ll want to fold Finland into that process to see how future NATO posture might be affected by the good news of Finland joining the Alliance.
I certainly know that our friends in the Nordic-Baltic region more broadly are really celebrating this breaking news about Finland. Obviously, it will bring added value to that particular neighborhood. But I have no doubt that Finland will be a contributor across the board in how we look at countless challenges.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Let’s go to another live question. Georgy Popova, I believe from Georgia, you have the mike. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Yes. I have one question. Ms. – hello, everyone. Thanks. I have one question with Ms. Ambassador. My name is Georgy Popov (ph) from Tbilisi, Georgia, Mtavari TV channel. So Mrs. Ambassador, do you assess Georgia’s chances to become a member of the Alliance in the current situation?
All of us know the Georgian Government does not support Ukraine, does not join the Western sanctions against Russia, and also has so many political prisoners – for example, (inaudible) president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili and general director of independent media Mtavari TV channel. Mrs. Ambassador, how do you think, after all of this, how realistic is Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspiration or prospect?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, I hope what’s come across loud and clear over many years is that the Alliance and the United States, we support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. It was in 2008 when the Alliance said it wasn’t a question of whether but when both Ukraine and Georgia would join the Alliance. We’ve been very clear in our messaging to Moscow, as you well know. It was just a few weeks before the war started last year when Russia was trying to persuade the Alliance to abandon its “Open Door” policy.
The answer that came back from the Alliance in stereo surround sound was that we would not be altering our “Open Door” policy, that the door will remain open to countries like Ukraine, like Georgia, and that the question of enlargement rests entirely between the aspirant countries – in this case Georgia – and the Alliance, and Moscow does not get a voice in that matter; Moscow does not get a veto in that matter.
And so we look forward to continuing to strengthen our partnership with Georgia. Obviously, we want to work with the Georgian Government on some of the ongoing reforms that are being undertaken there. We obviously would love to see Russia leave Georgian territory, and those are some of the things that we will continue to work with our Georgian friends on. So we couldn’t be clearer in our messaging to Moscow that NATO is not altering its “Open Door” policy, and we will continue to work to strengthen our relationships both with Ukraine and Georgia in the future.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to another pre-submitted question from Niels Goedegebuur from ANP in Belgium. Niels asks: “Do you expect other European countries with a tradition of neutrality, like Ireland and Austria, to follow the example of Finland and Sweden in requesting NATO membership?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, we haven’t had any specific requests by any other neutral countries to engage in some sort of dialogue about membership. We will leave that in the hands of individual governments to determine whether or not they want to either strengthen their partnership with the NATO Alliance, which is certainly something we would all support, or whether or not they want it to go further and talk about something else.
But right now we don’t have anything to share in that regard, and we’re just very focused on celebrating Finland tomorrow, and ensuring that Sweden joins us in the not-too-distant future.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll go to one more pre-submitted question from Katalin Halmai from Hungary. She asks: “Despite Hungary’s opposition to ministerial-level NATO-Ukraine committee meetings being held in Brussels, what importance do you attach to this event, and what do you think of the Hungarian reservations? The Hungarian foreign minister claims this decision is a violation of NATO unity.
AMBASSADOR SMITH: So we, the United States, we certainly welcome the fact that the NATO Alliance is going to be hosting a NATO-Ukraine Commission. We think it’s important for the Alliance to meet in this formal structure that was created some time ago, many, many years ago.
All that said, I would say that we have been able to meet repeatedly over the last year in a more informal setting with our friends in Ukraine. There have been a series of defense ministerials where we’ve had Minister Reznikov here, and we’ve also had a series of foreign ministerials where we’ve been able to welcome Minister Kuleba. It’ll be great to have Minister Kuleba here in person tomorrow, and we’ll look forward to engaging him on, again, our ongoing support to Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. The next question comes from Vasco Cotovio from CNN in the UK. He asks: “Bakhmut seems to be in an increasingly precarious situation for Ukrainian forces. We understand NATO has advised Ukraine against continuing to hold on to the city. How is the status of discussions with the Ukrainians regarding that particular part of the front line and its potential impact on an unexpected – or on an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, I do want to be clear here in one point, and that is NATO, as an Alliance, as an institution, is not providing any sort of advice to Ukrainian military commanders. We have a situation where individual Allies are providing security assistance, and some of them are providing advice and guidance, should the Ukrainians seek it, on part of their approach and overarching strategy.
So we really don’t have a consolidated view here. And in terms of the Ukrainians’ path forward, I think what we in Washington have done is try to leave that decision in the hands of Ukrainian military commanders to let them determine where and how they want to engage Russian forces. This is their fight. This is – they are defending their territory. We are here to assist them in defense of their territory and really, ultimately, leave it in their hands.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. I think we have time for one last question. We will go to a submitted question from Elina Kervinen from Helsingin Sanomat – obviously in Finland. She asks: “Finland will become a full member of NATO in the coming days, but Sweden is still waiting. What is the expectation of the Swedish timeline at this point? Will Sweden become a member before the Vilnius Summit?
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, again, we’ve been encouraged to see the three countries over the last year meeting on a regular basis. Coming together, they signed a joint memorandum where they were able to outline some of the steps that would be taken as Sweden and Finland march towards full-fledged membership.
Now that we have Finland really crossing the finish line tomorrow, we’re going to focus a lot, as an Alliance, on Sweden. We are hearing encouraging signs from our friends in both countries. We will continue to encourage them to meet. And the hope is that Sweden could join the Alliance possibly before the Vilnius Summit, which would be in mid-July.
MODERATOR: Thanks. And we actually have one last question that popped up from Momchil Indjov, Club Z Media. He asks: “Your Excellency, some NATO Member States are not keen to join the European Defense Agency project that is working towards a collaborative procurement of ammunition for Ukraine. What is your message to these countries?”
AMBASSADOR SMITH: Well, I think, from a U.S. perspective, but even from a NATO perspective, fundamentally we really want to ensure that the Ukrainian military forces have what they need to defend their territory. I think it’s no secret that the Ukrainians have been seeking additional munitions. And to the extent that this new initiative inside the European Union either allows European nations to procure or eventually produce, say, 155s, I think ultimately that would be a net plus for the people of Ukraine.
So from a U.S. perspective, from a NATO perspective, we support initiatives that will get greater amounts of assistance into the hands of the Ukrainians.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today. Thank you for your questions, and thank you again, Ambassador Smith, for joining us. Shortly we will send the audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at the Brussels hub at state.gov.
Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can all join us for another press briefing in the near future. This ends today’s briefing.