Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III holds a press conference at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium > US Department of Defense > Transcript
PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Hello everyone. I’m John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary. I will moderate today. I’ll start with the secretary’s opening remarks, and then we’ll move on to some questions. We have time for four, and I will call the — the speakers at that time. We ask that you keep your follow-ups to a minimum, if you could.
And with that, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, thank you, John, and good afternoon, everyone.
I would like to thank Secretary General Stoltenberg for hosting this NATO Defense Ministerial meeting. This certainly comes at an important time for the alliance, as Russia continues to build up its military presence along Ukraine’s borders, including in Crimea, Belarus and the Black Sea. In many ways, this brings Russian troops to NATO’s doorstep.
So let me start today by saying that America’s commitment to NATO and Article 5 remains rock solid. As President Biden said a few days ago, we will defend, if we must, every square inch of NATO territory. There is no reason, of course, for this to happen – it should never come to this, just as there is no reason for Russia to invade Ukraine again. Ukraine threatens no one, let alone its Russian neighbors, and yet that is what Moscow would have us believe, and that is how Mr. Putin continues to justify his assembly of significant combat power.
Now the Russians are saying they are withdrawing some of those forces now that the exercises are over, but we don’t see it. On the contrary, we see them adding to the more than 150,000 troops they have already deployed to this very border in the past two days. We see some of these troops moving closer to that border. We see them flying in more combat and support aircraft. We see them honing their preparation in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up on blood — supplies.
You know, I was a soldier myself not too long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do this stuff for no reason, and you certainly don’t do it if you’re about to. your suitcases and from home. We and our allies will therefore remain vigilant. We will monitor so-called false flag operations where Russia fabricates a – a dramatic event to justify an attack, a play that we have seen them play in the past, and we will continue to explore ways to improve our preparedness such as United States and others have done that with additional troop deployments on NATO’s eastern flank, and we will – we will closely match Russian words to Russian deeds, what they say to what they actually do.
Of course, one thing that Mr. Putin says he wants to do is engage in more dialogue, and as we have always said, we would welcome that. We believe there is still time and space for diplomacy to work, and we are in tune with our allies and partners to that end. A peaceful outcome that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is the best outcome for Ukraine, of course, but also for Russia and the Russian people. If Mr. — Mr. Putin really wants to achieve this kind of result, he will not find in the United States and in this alliance a better or more serious interlocutor. And if he is not, as his actions so far tend to indicate, it will be clear to the world that he has started a war with diplomatic options left on the table. It will be Mr. Putin who will bear the responsibility for the suffering and the immense sacrifice that will ensue.
You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, this national security thing. I joined the US Army in the middle of the Cold War, and have served and fought alongside NATO allies for most of my adult life. But I can honestly say that I have never seen the alliance more relevant, more united and more resolute than I see it today.
Mr. Putin says he does not want a strong NATO on his western flank. He gets exactly that.
I will soon be leaving for Poland and then Lithuania to spend time with these powerful allies who also take these obligations seriously. I will visit their troops and mine, see their leaders, talk with my people, and talk about how together we can strengthen the defense of the alliance.
I would also like to add my gratitude to Bulgaria, which today just agreed to host a US Army Stryker company for joint training opportunities. Now, these troops will be leaving Germany in the next few days, and they will help ensure our readiness and interoperability with Bulgaria as a NATO ally.
All this to say that I leave here incredibly proud of the alliance and satisfied to know that we will be safe in the face of aggression, but committed, as always, to the prospect of peace.
Harry Truman, the US President at the founding of NATO, put it well when he noted that “although peace is difficult, war is not inevitable”. And so it is today. There is nothing inevitable about this impending conflict. It can still be avoided. The – the path of diplomacy can be difficult, but it’s still worth it, and NATO, as I said, remains confident.
Thank you, and I’ll stop there and — and I’ll be happy to answer a few questions.
MR KIRBY: Okay, our first question will go to Phil Stewart from Reuters.
Q: Mr. Secretary, who is responsible for today’s bombardment in the Donbass region of Ukraine, and how worrying is it? And what are you doing to reduce the risk of dangerous and potentially explosive US-Russian interactions, such as the close call between planes this weekend?
SECOND. AUSTIN: Well, we’ve seen the bombing reports from — Phil, and they’re certainly disturbing. We are still gathering the details. But you know, we’ve been saying for a while that the Russians might do something like this to justify a military conflict, so we’re going to be watching that very closely.
And in terms of any potential — potential interaction with our plane and — and somebody else’s plane, of course, we will follow our — our own procedures very closely, and I think our — – our airmen are very well trained. on, and we’ll make sure we do everything we can to stay safe in the air. And if we see dangerous acts, we will certainly solicit the people who are responsible for them.
M. KIRBY: The next question is for Bettina Klein from German radio.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I understand that you have evidence that there is more troop build-up, rather than troop pull-out in Russia. At the same time, I hear a certain skepticism, certainly with regard to the German public debate. How can we trust this? How can we trust US intelligence? What do you suggest to build public trust? And would you at some point consider making more evidence available to the public? Thank you.
SECOND. AUSTIN: Well, you know, I – I don’t see this as a storytelling competition. I think, you know, we’ve been very transparent about — about everything that — that we’ve seen so far, and we’ve shared what we — what we know with our allies and partners and we — – we really did a very, very important job of making sure our allies knew what we knew as soon as possible.
But I think in order to solve the problems that — the problem that you — that you raised, the solution is to continue to be transparent, to continue, you know, to talk to — to the American people and — and people around the world, quite frankly, and — and explain what we’re seeing. And – and I think, you know, that – it’s been very helpful so far. We will continue to do so, and we certainly strive to do so while we are at this conference this week.
M. KIRBY: The next question goes to Carla Babb, Voice of America.
Q: Thanks for doing this. Ukraine calls this week’s cyberattack the largest in the country’s history. Can you confirm if Russia was behind this attack? And last month, President Biden said that if anything less than an invasion happens, like if Russia continues to use cyberattacks, the United States could respond in the same way with cyber. So, has the United States responded to the latest attack? and if not, why not?
SECOND. AUSTIN: In terms of confirming whether or not it was Russia that was behind this, we — again, the — the intelligence community continues to assess what happened there. . But I would just point out to you — point out to you that this is a piece from his — his playbook. You know, we — we would expect to see, before any attack, we — we would expect to seeing cyberattacks, false flag activity and a — and a — and a number of others — increasing rhetoric in the information space, and we’re starting to see more of that.
In terms of responding to the cyberattack, if somebody attacks the United States of America, then certainly we’ll — we’ll hold that element accountable or accountable, and — and at this point, nobody — you know, we–we didn’t see it. We were not attacked. NATO elements were not attacked. So we’ll leave it there.
MR KIRBY: Okay, the last question today is for Natalia Drozdiak from Bloomberg. Where are you, Natalie? There you are.
SECOND. AUTIN: Where are you?
Mr. Kirby: She is over there.
Q: I am here. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for the question. Thus, some of these troops that we have seen en masse along the Ukrainian border come from areas far removed from Russian territory, including the Far East. So why do you think Russia feels comfortable enough to leave this border with China undefended? Does this represent a closer alliance between the two? Thank you.
SECOND. AUSTIN: Well, you know, sure, I can’t speak to the–the strength of that alliance. What I can say – and I – I’m not sure that implies anything. But we noted with – with concern China’s tacit approval of Putin’s activities here in – in the region. So I’m not sure that we can — we can make some sort of direct inference from — from what you just raised, but certainly, those are things that we will continue to — monitor in the future. But I think you raise a very, very interesting and important question. Thank you.
Mr. Kirby: Okay, thank you everyone. That concludes today’s presser. Appreciate it very much. Thank you.