Joint Press Conference with Secretary Carter, Lithuanian Minister of Defense Oleskas, Latvian State Secretary of Defense Sarts and Estonian Minister of Defense Mikser in Tallinn, Estonia
DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF STRATCOM ARTUR JUGASTE: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the press conference. Sorry to keep you waiting.
I am Artur Jugaste, deputy head of stratcom at the Estonian MOD.
We will begin with statements from our four speakers, first, the host of today, Defense Minister of Estonia Sven Mikser, then our honorable guest, Secretary of Defense of United States Ashton Carter, then the Defense Minister of Lithuania Juozas Oleskas, and the Permanent Secretary of Latvian Ministry of Defense, Janis Sarts.
And then we have time for — for questions. We have kindly asked you to agree who will get the questions so that everybody will be — will be happy.
The press conference is in English, and when you get the chance to ask the question, please use the microphone. My colleague, Captain (inaudible) will — will hand you the microphone.
We have a live stream by the feed, so then they can get the — get the sound.
So Sven Mikser, please.
ESTONIAN MINISTER OF DEFENSE SVEN MIKSER: Ladies and gentlemen, a very good afternoon to everyone. I’m extremely happy to host the U.S. secretary of defense and my — my Baltic colleagues from Latvia and Lithuania here in — in Tallinn today.
I’m particularly happy about this meeting taking place on our victory day. Today, we remember those brave men and women who fought for Estonia’s independence and actually in victory almost 100 years ago in our war for independence.
Our tradition is fighting for democracy and freedom. This will to fight for democracy and freedom has always been strong, and that is something we share with our close friends and allies, and I wish everyone a — a very happy victory day.
At our meeting with Secretary Carter, I thanked him and the U.S. government for the military assistance we’ve been receiving and political support we have been receiving from — from the U.S. We have very long-term and close ties, but during the last year and half, our cooperation, especially on the military front, has been closer than ever.
We today have a company of U.S. soldiers training in Estonia together with our troops. We’ve had them bringing their equipment, including tanks and — and fighting vehicles. They’ve been putting our firing ranges to — to test.
Today we also have — U.S. military helping us to bring new training areas, modernize our existing training areas, improving out infrastructure as part of the European Reassurance Initiative that also means a lot — a lot to us.
Today, we talked at some length about the new security situation in Europe that has been a byproduct of the — of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
We have reasons to believe that Russia views the Baltic region as one of NATO’s most vulnerable areas, a place where NATO’s resolve and commitment could be tested, and therefore it’s — it’s absolutely imperative that — that we do our part to — to both build up our military capability that is necessary to — to respond those new challenges but also express a very coherent position vis-a-vis Russia and — and deliver a clear message that — that we are united in our resolve to defend each and every allied nation.
Estonia and other — and our Baltic neighbors, we are ready to host a persistent rotational U.S. military presence in our region. We are ready to host pre-positioned equipment in our region. We are doing our — our — our bit so as to be able to provide best host nation support possible. We continue to consult with key European allies, ensuring proper European posture in the new forward presence as well.
As for Estonia, I can say that we have been — we have completed all the necessary legal procedures, we have exchanged notes with the U.S. government, so — so we are ready to host U.S. prepositioned stocks as of today or tomorrow.
We continue to do our homework in Estonia. We — we have — we are — we are very much committed to keeping our defense spending at the — at the level of two percent of our GDP. We have been doing so for the past several years, and we intend to keep it at — at least at that level and — and on top of that, to provide additional finances if — if necessary for — for hosting allied troops on our — on our soil.
We just recently concluded the largest-ever military exercise. We operate a — a military that is largely a reserve force, and we just recently concluded a reserve mobilization exercise, which involved around 13,000 participants, which is quite significant, considering we are just a country of 1.3 million people.
And we — we also continue to hold regular cabinet-level political exercises so as to be able to respond to all today’s and — and — and tomorrow’s challenges, including hybrid scenarios.
So I think it’s important that — that each and every ally in Europe do their own homework properly. It’s also important that — that when we are talking about today’s and tomorrow’s new — new challenges and security situation in the region, that we are ready, or we have long-term answers to — to long-term challenges and we are strong and united if we stick together.
And with that — (inaudible) — hand it over to Secretary Carter.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Thank you.
Mr. Mikser, good to be with you, sir. Thank you for hosting us today.
Mr. Oleskas, good to be with you, sir. Appreciate the opportunity to be with you.
Also — and Secretary Sarts, thank you for coming here today.
Appreciate all of you and — and everyone out here in this press conference.
While I’m in Tallinn and since I’m in Tallinn, I want to take the opportunity to thank Estonia for everything it’s doing in NATO.
The country meets the alliance’s defense spending goal established last summer — already meets that goal, and that’s good, it hosts the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, and it hosts the first NATO Force Integration Unit.
On behalf of the United States, thank you.
It’s a privilege to be here also to observe Victory Day, which marks the 1919 victory in the Battle of Vonnu, to commemorate the service and sacrifice of generations of Estonians in the cause of freedom.
When President Obama visited here in September, he said to the people of Estonia, and I quote, “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
That’s because the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance are absolutely committed to defending the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, just as we are committed to defending all NATO allies.
The words of Article 5 are unambiguous. “An attack on one is an attack on all.”
We just had an informative session with the ministers, and unfortunately, we had to spend time talking about Russia’s recent attempts to turn back the clock in Europe, especially here in the Baltic region. And we each agreed that while we do not seek a cold, let alone hot war with Russia, we will defend our allies, the rule-based international order and the positive future it affords us all.
To do so, as I said yesterday in Berlin and made clear in Munster yesterday afternoon with our commitment to the VJTF, Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, of NATO, we’ll rely in NATO in this new era on a new playbook. With that new playbook, we’ll be smart about our posture and presence so that we’re more agile, mobile and responsive.
One example. American rotational forces need to move more quickly and easily to participate in training and exercises here. That’s why I’m pleased to announce, and I discussed with my colleagues earlier today, that we will temporarily stage one armored brigade combat team’s vehicles and associated equipment in countries in Central and Eastern Europe. This prepositioned European activity set includes tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery.
Estonia, as well Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, have agreed to host company to battalion-sized elements of this equipment, which will be moved around the region for training and exercises.
We must also prepare NATO and our allies for cyber challenges, particularly from Russia. That’s why today, I visited NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, and I’m pleased to announce a new American initiative to bolster the center’s role in leading our partners towards improved cyber defense.
The Department of Defense will work with the center of excellence to help nations in three main areas: First, development of cyber defense strategies, second, critical infrastructure protection planning and third, cyber defense posture assessments.
Our commitment to the VJTF, our European activity set, our cyber cooperation, the minister referenced work together in hybrid warfare, are just a few of the ways that we are working in a new way, according to a new playbook, to deter Russia, reassure our allies, ensure interoperability and move forward in time, not backward in time, together as an alliance.
We’ll continue to look for others this week and in the months and years ahead, because of the commitments we’ve made to Estonia, to Lithuania, to Latvia and the positive future we all want to achieve for this continent.
Thank you, and now I offer my — the floor to my colleague —
LITHUANIAN MINISTER OF DEFENSE JUOZAS OLESKAS: Thank you, secretary.
First of all, I would like to thank my colleague, Sven, for hosting this meeting and Secretary Ashton Carter for visiting us and showing solidarity with us in this situation.
For today, our meeting here emphasizes five main messages. On behalf of the Lithuanian government, we are grateful to the United States of America for ongoing assurance measures and funds throughout the European — assurance message is — that is a visible message to our societies that the United States stands firmly by.
Second, allies need a long-term adaptation strategy to be able to respond to fundamental changes in European security. That is considered as a main deliverable to the Warsaw summit in 2016.
Robust and credible allied deterrence in terms of military — (inaudible) — force on the prepositioning of equipment is critical to security of the Baltic region.
Lithuania, by all means, are ready to accommodate allied force and equipment already today.
Thank you once again for U.S. leadership and a robust presence in — in our countries.
We will continue intensive investment into our armed forces and defense, including preparations to respond to any hybrid warfare scenarios. 1.5 percent of GDP defense budget next year is a strong financial — (inaudible). However, it’s not final. I express to continue moving far ahead of our road map to reach two percent of GDP defense budget by 2020.
Last but not least, Lithuania is going to put all our efforts to support Ukraine military as well as take part in joint, multilateral training and defense sector reforms initiative.
LATVIAN STATE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JANIS SARTS: Well, good morning, everybody.
First and foremost, let me congratulate Estonia on your victory day and just say that what was true less than 100 years ago — when we fight together, we win — is true today. And today, when we stand here, we’re not here only for each other to fight our fights, but we have 26 other friends or 25 other friends.
And let me here thank United States for the very important support that you have been rendering to us in this time when European security order has been challenged by Russia and is continued to be challenged by Russia.
First and foremost, we really appreciate U.S. troops’ rotational presence here in the Baltic states, and we really welcome your announcement of prepositioning of equipment in our region.
We will do our best to ensure that both the troop presence as well as equipment presence goes smoothly and we have better and more prepared force together to fight the challenges in the region.
Of course, security in this region, first and foremost, is our own responsibility. To that end, our government has decided that we’ll increase our defense spending to two percent by 2018. We will increase our resilience towards hybrid challenges, including by developing our strategic communications capabilities.
We will increase our defense capabilities to respond to the challenges as they are emerging in this region. But also, we’ll do our job to help others, starting with Ukraine as well as in other regions in Europe to keep the stability and peace.
MIN. MIKSER: Thank you.
So now I open the floor to questions. And I have the spokesperson from — of the secretary of defense, Brent Colburn, helping me here.
First question, Estonia Public Broadcasting.
Q: Thank you. Estonian television, (inaudible).
Mr. Carter, sir, the Baltic states are looking forward to two things, prepositioning equipment and heavy armor for battalion-strength troops and a rotational force of the strength of battalion.
Well, today, the USS San Antonio stands here in Tallinn. Well, I mean, it can accommodate 800 Marines, which is about a battalion. So why not leave them here? The weather is good. (Laughter).
So when will we see the prepositioning and the rotation of a battalion, and is there anything that stands in the way?
SEC. CARTER: Thank you. And thank you all for welcoming our — our sailors and our Marines. They probably would like to stay, at least for — during this season — (laughter) — when the nights are short and the days are long and the evenings, in particular, are very long. And I’ll be visiting with them later this afternoon.
And, you know, you’re right. Their presence here is an example of rotational presence. It happens to come in a ship.
But — but we — we — we were — to get to the second part of your question, we’re talking about something a little bit different today with these activity sets, which is something that’s not going to — that’s going come in here, heavy equipment, to be associated with exercises and training here and elsewhere in the NATO alliance as we see fit — as NATO sees fit, more importantly, the — the significance of this being that it allows us to do more training, more exercises and with more forces than we were — would otherwise do and that we had planned to do before undertaking this initiative, which has been in the works for now a few months and we’re just announcing today but our countries have been working on for some — some weeks and months now.
SEC. SARTS: Well, if I may add a few words, I would say that this announcement is — is — is — is very much appreciated, and — and — and — and very much welcomed.
And — and with the USS San Antonio in harbor today, with its crew of over — over 1,000, the number of — of — of — of U.S. troops in Estonia today is — is over 1,500, so that’s probably the — the highest it’s ever been.
But on the — on the official presence, I believe that no one is talking today about a Cold War-style heavy — heavy, static presence, and I would like to see as large a proportion of U.S. troops being rotated through Estonia and the other Baltic countries as — as possible, so as to get the — the personal knowledge what it takes to defend Estonia and — and give us our — give our troops a chance to — to train together and exercise together with our U.S. — U.S. colleagues, because today, we are — we are — we are talking about a presence that needs to be nimble and flexible and easily reinforceable in — in — in case we need it.
Our next question will come from Phil Stewart with Reuters.
Q: All right, thanks.
Secretary Carter, in — in your statement you qualified this as a temporary deployment. Could you give me a sense of, you know, how long it will last for, the prepositioning of these — of these materiels?
And — and is there any kind of troop presence associated with this in the — in the Baltics particularly but also if you look generally at Europe. You know, you’re — you’re announcing a lot of things in the last few days, you know. Aren’t you getting a sense now that maybe the amount of U.S. forces in Europe really isn’t enough?
And if I could also ask the ministers here, if you could just elaborate a bit, you were speaking about how Russia views this region as perhaps one of the most vulnerable, really.
Where do you see your vulnerabilities, and where do you see perhaps the U.S. could — could help with those more than — than — than we already know about, more than the announcements that have been made so far?
And you spoke about a persistent presence of U.S. forces. What are the gaps right now that you’re all seeing? Is it — is it persistent enough?
For you, Minister Oleskas, or — or for — for you as well. So thank you very much.
SEC. CARTER: The reason I wanted to be clear about the word “temporary” was simply this: We intend to move those equipment sets around as exercises move around.
So I want it to be clear, they’re not static, simply because that’s not their purpose; their purpose is to enable richer training and more mobility to forces in Europe. That’s the whole point.
And so forces that rotate in on equipment sets like this are, first of all, going to get more intensive training and a more — greater variety of locations and second, and my colleague was referring to this, are and will be at a higher state of readiness because they’re actual training on actual equipment in the actual kind of terrain for which they are part of NATO formations.
So this is to us, to all of us, a more effective way of doing things. But I just wanted to be — be clear that our — our presence is persistent, but it’s agile. That’s the whole point.
SEC. SARTS: Well, our military is — let me be very clear — NATO collectively and — and — and — and — and U.S. particular by far are militarily superior to — to Russia today. In — in — in global terms, Russia is no match conventionally to — to U.S. or to — to NATO.
But here in this narrow corner of the world, Putin believes that he enjoys superiority, regional superiority. That makes us vulnerable in a — in a — in a sense.
And we are not talking about entering into a new Cold War type of arms race. We are not trying collectively to — to match Putin, I mean, tank by tank, tank or helicopter by helicopter in — in the Baltic Sea region either.
But the — the — the problem is that Putin sees — sees himself as having a — two advantages, one of space, the other of time.
Basically, he believes that — that he can move things very quickly, he can do things very quickly because he — it’s — it’s very Putin-centric autocratic system, and he take decisions and start implementing them immediately.
And — and secondly, because of the — of the geographic proximity, he has quite significant assets here that are immediately on the — on the other side of the border.
So I would say that in order to — to be adjusted in the situation, we need to have very good situational awareness. We — we need to have a very strong sort of deterrent posture, and — and it has to be — I mean, obviously, the — the deterrent value of any U.S. troops, any other troops on ground here goes well-beyond the — the actual numbers of the troops.
But also, I believe it has to be — the — the posture has to be militarily significant enough to change that calculus to basically neutralize that perceived advantage of space and time. So I think this is — this — this is of essence.
And — and obviously, I mean, I — I — I very much agree with the — with the need for — for — for this deterrent force but NATO force in general being — being able — being very agile and — and — and ready to respond immediately to any threat, because obviously, in the world, there are many, many other threats that — that we as an alliance may need to respond to.
MIN. OLESKAS: I just got that — that we have seen — observed the — the Russian activities in this region and this north region of Russia in particular — (inaudible) — since 2007, 2008.
And this is related with the Russian plan to have — 10-year plan to rearmament and modernize the military forces.
You can see a lot of activities, exercises, snap exercises and offensive known, declared exercises in this region, and I think that the implementation of those decision, precise implementation of the decision for persistent presence — this positioning of equipment, and — and (inaudible) — but we need for — for — for that answer to — to — to Russian activities, because we should show our unity and solidarity to defend this — this part of the NATO land and both — both of state and — and each country of us and our — our citizens and our — (inaudible).
And what we are doing now with the leadership of the United States is exactly what we need, and if we implement all of these things — (inaudible) — quite safe on this — on this part of the world.
SEC. SARTS: Yes, if I may just complement what we’re really looking of — after is credible deterrence, credible deterrence to dissuade any party from taking unnecessary risks against any of the NATO countries. And the deterrence has to be credible, taking into consideration all that has been said about the balance of forces in the region.
SEC. SARTS: I think that was announcement that we’re hearing and the exercises that is to come, and the upcoming Warsaw summit decisions, it will be.
MIN. MIKSER: Next question.
Q: Mike Collier of Agence France Presse.
Does this announcement today of the prepositioning of the brigade effectively answer the request from the Baltic defense chiefs who sent the letter a few weeks ago requesting, well, coincidentally something about brigade size to be positioned in the Baltics?
And bearing in mind what Minister Oleskas just said, do we currently see any evidence of Russian military buildups along the — NATO’s eastern flank?
SEC. CARTER: Well, I think my colleagues are best — positioned to talk about a letter they — they sent.
SEC. SARTS: Well, I — I — I think we are moving in a — very — very much in the right direction with regard to NATO’s new reassurance-deterrence posture in the region. And we’ve come quite some way since the World Summit. Actually, now we are, more or less, halfway from Newport to Warsaw, and it’s the right time to take stock of where we actually are, how far down the road we are.
And I notice the U.S. is doing a lot to contribute to our regional security with the — with the already existing rotate — rotating company-sized unit in each of the three border countries, would be European reassurance initiative funds would be used for the — (inaudible) — improvement of the necessary infrastructure — (inaudible), now with this announcement of the prepositioning via stocks, I think the U.S. quite its part, and obviously it’s important to bear in mind that this new reassurance posture is supposed to be 28 for 28, and it’s not — I mean, the U.S. is my far, the biggest and the strongest ally, but we have European allies as well; so contributing to this new reassurance-deterrence posture of the alliance.
We have the — the policing being operated from the bases in Lithuania and in Estonia with the many European allies contributing to that, and those European allies regularly contributing to exercises to the region, which again, help deliver the message to any potential adversary that allies are here, here for us.
SEC. CARTER: Could I just add — add to that?
I think you should, in addition to what the minister just said, there’s a lot going on here all at the same time. So there is the activity sets, there is the very high-readiness task force, which also responds to the space and time issue, that’s another important ingredient of this. There’s the ERI rotational presence, introduced very quickly by the United States and some other countries last summer, in response to what was going on in Ukraine, and especially the annexation of Crimea.
There are, I’ll note for you all — this week, this is total coincidence, it happens that we’re all together this week, also — but no fewer than 20 named exercises, military exercises involving the United States going on in Europe just this week, of which BALTOPS is one, and the San Antonio, which just tied up a few hours ago in Tallinn is a piece.
There is the NATO Center of Excellence that we were talking about earlier today, and the moves that I announced earlier, that the United States will be using to assist that. Reference was made to hybrid warfare, earlier, another area in which the alliance is looking at its playbook.
So, there’s a lot going on here, and it all fits together to create the time — to address the time and space issue, and also address the new domains that, like cyber, that didn’t exist back in Cold War, NATO, East-West days.
And our final question will come from Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.
Q: Thank you.
Mr. Secretary, I wanted to draw your attention to another issue. In Afghanistan, as I’m sure you’re aware, there is a fairly substantial attack on parliament yesterday, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the increasing threat there. Some of the Afghan officials are now saying that they believe there’s more than 7,000 foreign fighters in the country and there may be hundreds of thousands of people who now associate themselves with the Islamic State.
So, do you believe, first of all, those assessments, is the Islamic State group growing threat in Afghanistan, and what is your assessment now of the Afghan security forces? Are they starting to crumble, and is there something that the U.S. and/or NATO needs to do now to help bolster Afghanistan?
And if any of the other ministers want to sort of chime in on — on that, I’d appreciate it.
SEC. CARTER: Well, the — the — the attacks illustrate that this is a tough and tenacious opponent. I think the response to them also indicates, to get at the other part of your question, the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. They did respond, they responded in a timely manner, they’ve been doing that through a very tough fighting season all summer.
And — with respect to Islamic State, most of what we see in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, most, not all, is the rebranding of people who are already in the fight as ISIL. Now, that doesn’t make it any better, but they’re not new fighters, per say. They are those who have been in the fight, who are taking on the brand of ISIL that does signify to us that this brand issue associated with ISIL is a serious one, which is one of the reasons why we’re so intent upon combating it.
And before I turn the podium over to my colleagues, I just want to commend them. You may not all know this, particularly if you’re from the American press, but each three of my — the other nations represented at this podium is also in Afghanistan.
And that just shows that even though we’ve been talking about the defense of their three countries here for the most part at this afternoon’s press conference, I think the minister earlier said, you know, in — in NATO, we’re all in for one another. And so — and NATO is still all in for Afghanistan as it has been and as it’s shown itself to be and continues to be today, helping, and enabling and supporting the Afghan security forces as they get stronger and stronger to deal with this enemy.
So, I wanted to commend them and their nations for — you know, acting globally. Even as relatively small countries, it’s extremely admirable.
SEC. SARTS: And just ten days ago I just returned back from Afghanistan visiting our groups in — in Afghanistan and Kandahar where we have — still have the special operation forces and our officers. They have brought us in the Kabul and the Herat.
After the modern — (inaudible) — of participating in — in this operating in Afghanistan, starting from 2003. And yes, you mention the yesterday attack, but I would like also mention that the improving of Afghan national security forces. They each succeeded in many operations. There are some where we — they cannot guarantee that their safety and security in the region, but they improving a lot. And I hope with our support, with continue resolution support mission they — they will be become more and more prepared for — for — for the responsibility of security and — and defense.
And we will see how the — the end of the resolution support mission, what will we need for the future.
MIN. MIKSER : Well, I — I was member of Estonia’s delegation to NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly for years, and I acted as a (inaudible) for the NATO P.A.’s defense and security — (inaudible). Happen to write a couple of reports four or five years ago on the development of the Afghan national security forces. And I must say that what we achieved by building up the force was pretty impressive.
Although they — throughout they experienced enormous challenges, I mean, from high attrition rate to illiteracy, and you can go on listing those — those challenges. And obviously, the cost of supporting the national security force was enormous in comparison to what they — what the Afghan government portrays as their own — (inaudible). So, I mean, they continue to need our assistance, both by way of training, but also by way of financial support. Obviously, that kind of needs to be conditioned on their good behavior, but we need to — need to continue.
I mean, we can’t put that issue on the back burner, even though we have a multiple order of challenges in the world, because history has taught us that if you abandon Afghanistan, then a security vacuum might develop that gets back to us, you know, very painful manner.
MIN. OLESKAS: Well, for us, our soldiers are still in Afghanistan, but in Kabul as well as Afghanistan. Yes, it is fighting season, but I would say that the need for the opposing party to embark on high visibility attacks with no basic significant meaning in a way shows that they lack the traditional success in their military operations.
So, I think yes, we have to do better to counter them, but in a way, they’re doing these high-visibility events because there have been success on the ground in the regions, and they can’t claim a big military victory. So, there’s, you know, some good element in this fact. Although, of course, one has to do better, including also our support has to be more measured with the task and the attacks they are seeing right now.
STAFF: Thank you very much. That’s all we time for. The ministers have to rush for their next event. So, thank you, everyone.