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Press Conference with Secretary Gates from Talinn, Estonia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
November 13, 2008
            SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. Let me begin by thanking the leaders and people of Estonia for hosting this event.
 
            Over the past two days we've had a number of good, productive meetings on Ukraine's preparation on the path toward NATO membership. Ukraine currently participates in all NATO-led missions and continues to build expeditionary forces compatible with alliance requirements and goals. 
 
            While Ukraine's track record is impressive, they cannot rest on past achievements. They must speed the pace of security-sector reform, specifically addressing the defense budget shortfalls and urgently needed improvements in planning and prioritization. Despite political uncertainty, the leadership in Kiev must continue to show the sustained commitment required to join the alliance. 
 
            In addition to the NATO-Ukraine meeting, one of the main reasons for my trip here has been to support countries in this region that wish to integrate more fully with the West, be they NATO members or aspirants. These nations are, quite understandably, on edge due to Russia's incursion into Georgia last summer. 
 
            Russia's more recent behavior has been troubling as well. Within hours of the conclusion of the American election, Russian President Medvedev responded by threatening to place missiles in Kaliningrad -- hardly the welcome a new American administration deserves. Such provocative remarks are unnecessary and misguided.
 
            As we've tried to make clear, Russia has nothing to fear from a defensive missile shield or, for that matter, the presence of democratic nations on its periphery. Rather than engaging in the kind of rhetoric associated with a bygone era, the United States would prefer that Russia works with us to combat mutual security threats. We will continue to seek a constructive, positive relationship with the Russian government.
 
            In closing, I would like to reaffirm America's unwavering support for our Baltic partners and the NATO aspirations of Ukraine, as well as our abiding commitment to the principle of collective security on behalf of all alliance members.
 
            Thank you.
 
            STAFF: We have time for a few questions before we head back to Washington. Tom?
 
            Q     (Name off mike) from The New York Times. What will the U.S. government do between now and the foreign ministers' meeting in December to convince those allies who are reluctant to extend MAP to Ukraine to do it? And if the foreign ministers do not formally extend MAP to Ukraine, how can that be viewed as anything but weakness and disarray in the alliance? Thank you.
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think that the situation on both Ukraine and Georgia is unique, in the respect that the heads of government of the alliance unanimously granted membership to NATO or promised membership in NATO to both countries at Bucharest in April. And so now it is a matter of how we move that process forward.
 
            There are various pathways to membership. Some have not gone through MAP at all; some are still in MAP. It's an application process. In a way, the application's already been signed and sealed at Bucharest. So how we move the process forward, I think, will probably be the subject of consultations among, particularly, foreign ministers, between now and that meeting in early December.
 
            Q     And how it would be viewed in Moscow if MAP is not extended?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the key action that was taken was the action taken at Bucharest in April, and I think that there is an inevitability about it, and the question now is how the process unfolds. I think that if the Russians see the failure to adopt MAP in December as a victory that would be a mistake, because of the actions that were taken in Bucharest.
 
            It's also clear, as the secretary-general made clear, that as he identified, that Ukraine still has some distance to go in being ready for membership in the alliance. They need to do more in terms of generating public support for joining the alliance at home. They clearly need to further their defense reform efforts in terms of resources, prioritization, planning and so on. 
 
            So I think in many respects, the question is, what is the path to membership -- the membership that has already been promised in Bucharest. And it's clear that there are some steps in particular for Ukraine that have to be taken before they are ready for membership.
 
            STAFF: Anybody from the Estonian or Ukrainian press? 
 
            Okay. David?
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, as you may know, President Medvedev says in a Le Figaro interview today that he could be willing to forgo placing missiles near the Polish border if the U.S. were to scrap the missile shield. Do you see that as a credible offer, and if not, what would you -- could you elaborate on what you hope to see as the way forward?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, no, I don't think that's a credible offer. 
 
            The -- we have once again codified and put forward to the Russians the detailed proposals that Secretary Rice and I have made for partnering with Russia in missile defense. Quite frankly, I'm not clear what the missiles would be for in Kaliningrad. After all, the only real emerging threat to Russia's periphery is in Iran. And I don't think the Iskander missile has the range to get there from Kaliningrad. 
 
            So I think this is an issue apparently between ourselves and the Russians. Why they would threaten to point missiles at European nations seems quite puzzling to me. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, yesterday, you said that Russia had nothing to fear from countries integrating more fully with the West. 
 
            Should Europe fear a Russia that is, as you say, threatening to point missiles at other countries, in Europe, and a Russia that appears to be more isolated from the U.S. than it has been in a long time? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I think that I would go back to the comments I made at Wehrkunde, a year ago February. 
 
            We do not want a relationship with Russia headed toward the past. We want a relationship with Russia that points to the future. And that actually means greater integration of Russia with the rest of Europe as well as with the United States. 
 
            It means a Europe whole and free that we talked about, in 1989-1990, that extends into and includes Russia. There's no desire to exclude Russia from these relationships. And we just hope that the evolution of politics and economics, in Russia, moves Russia toward resuming the movement toward integration with Western institutions. 
 
            There is no desire to exclude Russia whatsoever. We want them to be a part of this family. And we're going through a period when they've chosen to take a different kind of line. I'd like to believe that it's transitory and that we'll resume a more productive and positive relationship going forward. 
 
            Q     (Remarks in Ukrainian.) 
 
            SEC. GATES: We will have bilateral defense consultations with the Ukrainian military and Ministry of Defense in December. I anticipate that this will be a subject. We've actually discussed it in some detail. I've met my Ukrainian counterpart now three times in the last six weeks. And we discussed it in Washington, we discussed it in Macedonia, and there was a very brief discussion of it yesterday when we met.
 
            There are provisions for the U.S. to transfer ships to other countries. There is, apparently, a Ukrainian interest in this. It is an involved and, frankly, expensive process. It requires congressional approval in the United States to do this. And the costs of transferring the ships and refurbishing them are fairly substantial. And given the level of resource issues for the Ukrainian military, it's a question whether that is the best investment for them.
 
            We're open to those discussions and prepared to move forward, but there needs to be a clear understanding that it is a complicated and an expensive process.
 
            STAFF: Peter?
 
            Q     Peter Spiegel with the Los Angeles Times. The secretary-general, just before you, described this as a stock-taking meeting. I wonder if you could take stock, particularly of our allies -- (off mike) -- West European allies. Have you noticed any change in attitude, since the Georgia incursion and the Russian bellicosity of late, about their attitudes towards Ukrainian and Georgian ascension to MAP?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, not really. I think that the countries that were eager to move forward promptly with MAP are still in that position, and those that are not ready are still not ready. So I think that subsequent to the Russian incursion in Georgia, there certainly has -- as I have said on several occasions, I think all the countries, regardless of the public positions they've taken, look at Russia through a different set of lenses now. But I think in terms of their concrete policies, and particularly with respect to NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, I personally have not detected much shift in that.
 
            STAFF: Yeah?
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- News Agency of Ukraine. Secretary, recently EU leadership stated that Russia already fulfilled its obligations to withdraw all troops from occupied Georgian territory. Do you share that view? And what do you see the way forward in the Georgian settlement? Thank you.
 
            SEC. GATES: This is more Secretary Rice's area than mine, but I think that it's very important for Russia to fulfill all of the terms that they agreed to in the proposals put forward by President Sarkozy. My impression is that they are in the process of doing that. 
 
            I think it's -- I think that the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was ill advised -- I think something that is highlighted by the fact that, as best I can recall, only one country in the world has joined in that recognition. 
 
            So I think -- I think we probably have a protracted process in front of us in terms of the ultimate resolution of these issues. But my impression is that the Russians are in the process of at least conforming with the Sarkozy proposals.
 
            Thank you all very much.
 
            Q     Thank you.
 
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