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'Why Ukraine Matters' Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Halifax International Security Forum (As Delivered)

Mark, thanks for that generous introduction. It is great to be here with you all. And it's always great to visit our outstanding Canadian allies—although I'm glad this conference isn't held in February.


Americans and Canadians share a deep commitment to freedom, human rights, and human dignity. So we're here in Halifax not just because of our common interests. We're here because of our shared values.

Now, the city of Halifax is an extraordinary natural harbor. And this conference has always provided a wonderful harbor of its own—for fellow democracies to come together and work through the great security challenges of the day.

And as partners in that work, I'm especially pleased that we're joined by an outstanding and bipartisan delegation from the United States Congress.

It's also great to see so many friends and colleagues, including my counterparts and friends from our allied and partner countries.

And I'm especially moved that we're joined today by several leaders of the embattled nation of Ukraine, including the Deputy Prime Minister.  

Let's give them a hand.


And let's also give it up for my friend and Canadian counterpart, Anita Anand.


Minister Anand is always thoughtful, and clear-eyed, and dynamic. And Anita, I'm delighted to be here in Nova Scotia, the province where you were born and raised.

Now, it's great to be in Canada for my first visit as Secretary of Defense.

Canada has long been an extraordinary ally to the United States. Canadian troops are standing strong today with our NATO allies in Latvia. Canadians flew with us to save innocent lives in Kosovo and fought by our sides in Afghanistan after 9/11. And the world has witnessed the valor of Canada's troops again and again—from Vimy Ridge to Juno Beach, and from Korea to Kuwait.

And you know, I saw their courage firsthand during my own time in uniform, when brave Canadian forces joined the coalition to fight the terror of ISIS.

And so you're more than allies.

You are more than friends.

You're family.

Now, let me say just a word or two about the rest of my week.

Later today, my team and I are flying on from here to visit our valued strategic partners in Indonesia—which is the world's third-largest democracy and a strong advocate for the rules-based international order.

And then I'm headed to Cambodia, where I'll discuss the region's most pressing security challenges with our allies and partners at the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meetings-Plus.

And this will be my fifth visit to the Indo-Pacific as Secretary of Defense—and my third visit to Southeast Asia.

And that's because the Indo-Pacific is key to an open, secure, and prosperous world. And the U.S. Defense Department's pacing challenge is an increasingly assertive China—a China that's trying to refashion both the region and the international system to suit its authoritarian preferences.

And so, keeping the international system open and secure is at the heart of everything that we do. But today, that stable system, that open system, is under threat—and not just from the generational challenge of the People's Republic of China but from a tragic, devastating war in the heart of Europe.

And that's what I'd like to discuss today.

Now, we start from a position of moral clarity.

Ladies and gentlemen, Russia chose war.

Russia chose aggression.

But Ukraine chose to fight back.

And Ukraine chose to defend itself.

And the world came together to help.

President Biden has rallied nations of goodwill, as he put it, "to stand against the global politics of fear and coercion." And ever since Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, countries from around the world have rallied behind some clear first principles.

And those first principles are that countries don't get to invade their peaceful neighbors.

Autocrats don't get to redraw borders by force.

And the imperial ambition of bullies doesn't outweigh the sovereign rights of U.N. member states.

That's something that countries all around the world agree on, from Finland to Japan, from Morocco to New Zealand.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine will help determine the course of global security in this young century. And those of us in North America don't have the option of sitting this one out.

Stability and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic are at stake. You know, the U.S. trading relationship with the European Union is the largest in the world. So when an aggressor manufactures a huge security crisis in Europe, it hits home for everyday Americans and Canadians.

When President Franklin Roosevelt visited Canada in 1938, he gave a speech at Queen's University, where Minister Anand would later study and teach law. And FDR said, "We in the Americas are no longer a faraway continent," one whose security can stand isolated from conflicts across the seas.

And the tragic and troubling explosion in Poland this week reminded the whole world of the recklessness of Putin's war of choice. 

So today, I'd like to talk about four reasons why Ukraine matters to all of us.

First, Putin's war of choice is a direct threat to European security.

Second, Russian aggression is a clear challenge to our NATO allies.

Third, Russia's deliberate cruelty is an attack on our shared values—and on the rule of law.

And finally, Russia's invasion tears at the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure.

So our support for Ukraine's self-defense is an investment in our own security and prosperity as well.

But first, let's be clear. Putin's invasion has caused the worst crisis in [European] security since the end of the Second World War.

You know, Putin tried to conquer the largest country in Europe outside of his own. And a member of the U.N. Security Council tried to deny democracy to more than 43 million people.

So that's why our recently released National Defense Strategy calls out Russia as "an acute threat."

And Russia's neighbors in Europe have watched its aggression with rising alarm. They fully understand that February 24th changed the world. And they are grappling with the instability, and the destruction, and the human misery, the flood of refugees, and the other dangers that an even more reckless and aggressive Russia presents.

Yet we've seen an incredible response from our friends in Europe, as well as others all around the globe.

Allies and partners have raced to bolster Ukraine's air defenses. They've pushed hard to train Ukrainian troops on new defensive systems. They've provided thousands of UAV systems, more than 3,000 anti-tank systems, and vast, vast amounts of ammunition. And they've rushed to invest in their own industrial production to meet their security needs even while giving Ukraine the capabilities to defend itself in the hard months and years ahead.

Now, that brings me to my second reason why Ukraine matters.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has posed a historic challenge to our NATO allies, including Canada.

We've updated our posture to ensure that NATO's defense and deterrence are ready for the dangers ahead.

In the words of my good friend and colleague, Secretary General Stoltenberg, NATO's purpose is "to prevent war and preserve peace." And NATO has done this for 70 years.

And the foundation of this great defensive alliance is Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article Five declares that an armed attack against one or more allies "shall be considered an attack against them all."

That's our commitment.

And it is ironclad.

As the National Defense Strategy says, we'll continue to focus on deterring Russian attacks on our NATO allies and reinforcing our treaty commitments. And we'll work with our outstanding allies to increase interoperability, and to share intelligence, and to improve our resilience against attack and coercion.

And so since February, we've moved swiftly and surely to reinforce our NATO allies.

NATO has strengthened its forward defenses and enhanced its forces on its Eastern Flank.

And since February, we've deployed or extended more than 20,000 additional U.S. forces to Europe, bringing our current total to more than 100,000 American service members across Europe.

In Poland, we have permanently forward-stationed the V Corps Headquarters Forward Command Post, an Army garrison headquarters, and a field-support battalion. And those are the first permanent U.S. forces on NATO's Eastern Flank.

And we're looking forward to welcoming Finland and Sweden—which, as you know, are two highly capable democracies—to NATO's ranks.

Ladies and gentlemen, NATO is a defensive alliance. It does not seek confrontation with Russia. It poses no threat to Russia.

Make no mistake: we will not be dragged into Putin's war of choice.

But we will stand by Ukraine as it fights to defend itself.

And we will defend every inch of NATO territory.

And we will continue to strengthen NATO's collective defense and deterrence.

Through two World Wars and the Cold War, we've learned that our security requires defending not just our side of the Atlantic but also a larger, transatlantic community of freedom.

And as Russia has looked to others for help, it has actually caused new security concerns for allies and partners beyond NATO.

Russia has turned to Iran and North Korea to help its assault on Ukraine—including using Iranian drones to kill Ukrainian citizens. And Iran is gaining important battlefield experience. And this kind of irresponsible behavior from Iran and the DPRK is a serious concern for our allies and partners in the Middle East and in the Indo-Pacific.

Now, that brings me to my third reason why Ukraine matters.

You see, there are still rules in war.

And if a big power can flaunt those rules, it encourages others to defy international law and international norms.

So we are determined to defend those rules—and especially the bedrock principle of noncombatant immunity. Because the more that it's eroded, the more dangerous our world becomes.

You see, Russia isn't just waging a war of aggression. It's also deliberately attacking civilian targets and civilian infrastructure with no military purpose whatsoever.

Now, these aren't just lapses.

These aren't exceptions to the rules.

These are atrocities. 

And Russian military barrages have left innocent Ukrainians without heat, and water, and electricity.

And we've seen schools attacked. We've seen children killed. Hospitals bombed. And centers of Ukrainian history and culture reduced to rubble.

And Russia has killed thousands of civilians in Ukraine, according to the U.N. And more than 7 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to other countries.

And all this comes after disturbingly radical statements from Russia's leaders.

You know, days before his invasion, Putin declared that, "Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia."

Now, that's an alarming preview of Putin's vision—a vision of a world in which autocrats decide which countries are real, and which countries can be snuffed out.

And as President Biden said at the U.N. General Assembly, "This war is about extinguishing Ukraine's right to exist as a state, plain and simple." And then he added, "Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe in, that should make your blood run cold."

And it has.

And that's why so many nations of goodwill have stepped up to fight for Ukraine's right to defend itself. And that's why the world rejected Russia's bogus referenda, its claims to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory, and its hollow assertions that Ukraine is somehow a part of Russia.

And that's why 141 countries—let me say that again, 141 countries—in the U.N. General Assembly stood together to condemn Russia's lawless war of choice.

Now, the ripples of Russia's invasion have traveled far, far beyond Europe. And Putin's war has underscored the challenge that we face in the Indo-Pacific, where the PRC is also pushing for something very far from our vision of a free, and stable, and open international system.

Beijing, like Moscow, seeks a world where might makes right, where disputes are resolved by force, and where autocrats can stamp out the flame of freedom. 

As President Biden said this week after his meeting with President Xi, "There need not be a Cold War." But we remain clear-eyed about the China challenge.

The PRC's military activities in the Taiwan Strait are growing increasingly provocative, with PLA aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers on a near-daily basis. We've seen a sharp increase in the number of dangerous PLA intercepts of U.S. and allied forces—including Canadian aircraft—that were operating lawfully in international airspace over the South and East China Seas.

Now, these troubling trends highlight the imperative of working with our unparalleled network of allies and partners across both the Atlantic and the Pacific to deter aggression. So we are drawing on the lessons from Ukraine to further bolster the self-defense capabilities of our Indo-Pacific partners. And we're helping them to become more agile and resilient. And we're working towards an open and secure future that advances our shared interests and our shared values. 

Now, the shorthand for that type of open, and decent, and stable world is the rules-based international order. Now, I know that phrase doesn't necessarily get everyone's pulse racing.


But the rules-based international order isn't some piece of abstract political-science jargon.

It is one of the towering achievements of human government.

It's the structure of international institutions, alliances, laws, and norms built at staggering cost by the allies—including and especially the United States—in the awful aftermath of World War II.

The World War II allies came together, in Winston Churchill's words, "to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime."

The price of stopping Nazi Germany and the Axis was almost unimaginable. More than 400,000 American service members and more than 44,000 Canadians alone died in that war. And tens of millions of civilians around the world were lost to war and genocide.

But the allies prevailed—including the mighty contribution of the Soviet military, which suffered a shattering cost of an estimated 8 million dead or more.

And the allies came together to build a better world out of the devastation. And as it happens, the vision of that world was first painted here in Canada.

In 1941, Churchill crossed the Atlantic to meet President Roosevelt in Newfoundland. And the principles that FDR and Churchill laid out in the Atlantic Charter still ring true today.

That charter condemns aggression. It rejects territorial changes against the free will of the peoples concerned. And it respects the right of all peoples, big and small, to choose their own governments.

Now, those principles still help ground the rules-based international order.

It is an order where small states have the same rights as large ones.

Where prosperity is shared by all peoples, and not hoarded by empires or autocrats.

Where nuclear weapons are responsibly controlled, and not used to threaten the world.

Where disputes are resolved by negotiations, and not bloodshed.

It's a world where sovereignty is respected, and not trampled.

Where civilians are protected, and not targeted.

And a world where borders are honored, and not redrawn by force.

The price of establishing the post-World War II order was far too high to just walk away from. We have security obligations that we cannot walk away from.

U.S. leadership helped to build the rules-based international order, and U.S. leadership is vital to sustain it.

And the people of the world don't want to go back—to endure a grim new era of upheaval, and chaos, and war.

And Russia's invasion offers a preview of a possible world of tyranny and turmoil that none of us want to live in.

And it's an invitation to an increasingly insecure world haunted by the shadow of nuclear proliferation.

Because Putin's fellow autocrats are watching. And they could well conclude that getting nuclear weapons would give them a hunting license of their own. And that could drive a dangerous spiral of nuclear proliferation. 

Putin's war of choice shows the whole world the dangers of disorder.

That's the security challenge that we face. It is urgent, and it is historic. But we're going to meet it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the basic principles of democracy are under siege around the world. But we meet here among friends who share our democratic values.

At home, that means that we cherish free and fair elections. And the rule of law. And a free, independent, and vigorous press. And the right to worship. The freedom to say what you think, to believe in what's in your heart, to rally for the causes that stir your soul.

And abroad, it means that we rededicate ourselves to the proposition that free government, free minds, and free peoples will always be stronger than the autocrats who believe that their grip on power is all that matters.

And so the world has seen something extraordinary over these tragic months of unnecessary war.

You see, Russia thought that it could easily conquer Ukraine—but the Ukrainians are defending themselves magnificently.

Russia thought that the West would splinter—but our allies and partners stand united and firm.

Russia thought that democracy was a spent force—but free people everywhere have rallied behind Ukraine's right to self-defense. 

Now, we know that hard times may lie ahead as Ukraine faces a harsh winter. And as Russia's position on the battlefield erodes, Putin may resort again to profoundly irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling.

But we will meet these challenges—together.

And we will continue to draw inspiration from the Ukrainian people.

You know, just days ago, a father in Kyiv waited calmly to fill up a container of water for his wife and their newborn baby. His family was living without heat, during rolling blackouts.

And he said that however bad the winter might be, it was better than giving in to tyranny.

Now that's the spirit of Ukraine.

That's the spirit that won the Battle of Kyiv, that retook Snake Island, and freed Kherson and Kharkhiv.

And it shows the moral power of a free people fighting to defend their lives, their country, and their unalienable rights.

You know, the Russians have a massive military and impressive weapons. But it hasn't helped them prevail in a campaign of conquest and cruelty.

And the reason is simple.

You see, war isn't just about the weapons.

It's about the cause.

And it's about those who fight for it.

As President Biden has said, "Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia—for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness."

And the Canadian Parliament heard a similar message from another American president back in May of 1961, when John F. Kennedy made his first foreign trip of his presidency. 

Our alliance, he declared, "is born not of fear, but of hope."

And ladies and gentlemen, we are the guardians of that alliance born of hope.

And I believe that our support for the forces of freedom in Ukraine will hold fast, in any season or any storm.

Free people always refuse to replace an open order of rules and rights with one dictated by force and fear.

And that's why Ukraine matters.

Because rules matter.

Sovereignty matters.

And freedom matters.