SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK SEC. HAGEL: Admiral, thank you. Good afternoon.
I appreciate the opportunity to be back here at NATO, and I want to thank Secretary General Stoltenberg and General Breedlove and their staffs for their leadership at this defining time for the alliance.
At this first NATO defense ministerial of the year, as well as my final ministerial as secretary of defense, I'd like to begin by taking a moment to reflect on NATO's challenges and achievements over the last year and what they mean for the future of the alliance.
A year ago this month, only a few hundred miles from NATO's eastern frontier, Russia began its illegal occupation of Crimea and ongoing military aggression in Ukraine.
In a matter of weeks, all 28 NATO allies stepped up to respond. The alliance quadrupled its patrols over the Baltics and reinforced its presence in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. It strengthened its standing naval forces and expanded its maritime presence in the Baltic, Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
The alliance and its members conducted 200 European exercises last year and agreed to establish new headquarters in the east, and we have established a new high-readiness task force that will be poised for deployment within days, not just to its eastern frontier but wherever it is needed.
In Afghanistan, just over a month ago, NATO partners and allies ended our combat mission, the longest and most complex in the alliance's history. We transitioned security responsibility to a unity government emerging from the first peaceful democratic transition in Afghan history.
Our coalition has trained more than 370,000 members of the Afghan national security forces, helping the Afghan economy to expand more than sixfold since the fall of the Taliban, helping create unprecedented opportunity and hope for the people of Afghanistan.
To address the threats along NATO's southern frontier, allies are on the front lines combating violent extremism, extremism that has brought tragic violence to Paris and Ottawa.
NATO allies and partners also make up the backbone of the coalition against ISIL. They have provided critical support for operations in North Africa, and NATO continues to help build peace and security in the Balkans.
The alliance's ability to meet all these challenges at once, to the east, to the south and out of the area, is NATO's charge for the future. This means being prepared for the full spectrum of missions and building NATO's military capability and readiness, which has been the focus of our discussions today.
Earlier this morning I participated in a meeting of the alliance's nuclear planning group, which oversees NATO's nuclear deterrence policy, because allied nuclear forces continue to have a critical role underpinning the alliance's collective security.
We have these meetings on a regular basis. But our discussions today were particularly important in light of Moscow's violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, its violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and its increasingly aggressive military actions, such as its recent flight of nuclear-capable bombers near British airspace over the English Channel.
In a meeting of the NATO-Georgia council later this morning we reaffirmed the alliance's commitment to strengthening Georgia's ties with NATO. Georgia has been one of the alliances most committed partners and we are making progress at implementing the package of steps we agreed to at Wales.
We remain committed to maintaining NATO's open-door policy for all NATO aspirants, as we look forward to a vote on Montenegro's membership later this year.
Later this afternoon, we will discuss one of the centerpieces of the Wales summit, the readiness action plan, a program that Secretary General Stoltenberg has rightly called the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.
Since the Wales summit, the United States Congress has approved the $1 billion that President Obama requested for our European Reassurance initiative, a major contribution to the readiness action plan.
This initiative will enable us to continue providing a persistent presence of U.S. air, land and maritime forces along the alliance's eastern flank. And we also upgrade infrastructure and pre-position equipment and supplies.
We intend to contribute staff officers to each of NATO's new command-and-control centers in Eastern Europe.
I also look forward to discussing the alliance's progress towards standing up the new interim very high readiness joint task force, which is a core element of the readiness action plan.
I want to thank France, Germany, the United Kingdom and other nations for their significant contributions to this task force, as we seek further commitments from other allies.
In the course of all these discussions, I'm strongly urging all allies to reaffirm the defense investment pledge our leaders made at Wales, because this pledge will underwrite the long-term investments in capability, readiness and combat power that NATO must make to live up to its commitments.
Throughout my career as secretary of defense and as a United States senator, I have been deeply committed to strengthening this alliance. I've seen this institution evolve and adapt-- adapt to rapidly shifting strategic demands. To the end of the Cold War, NATO focused on the imperative of territorial defense and deterring Soviet aggression.
In its second phase, in the 1990s and during the first part of the 21st century, the alliance adapted, responding to conflict in the Balkans, and conducting major out-of-area military operations in Afghanistan and Libya.
Now, in its third phase, the alliance and its members must be prepared to address all of these challenges at once, territorial defense and hybrid warfare on its eastern frontier, stability operations on its southern periphery, and out-of-area operations, such as our training mission in Afghanistan, and coalition counter-ISIL operations in Iraq.
However, I am very concerned by the suggestion that this alliance can choose to focus on only one of these areas as our top priority. And I worry about the potential for division between our northern and southern allies.
This is a time for unity, shared purpose and wise, long-term investments across the spectrum of military capability. We must address all the challenges to this alliance, altogether, and all at once.
This means a demanding future. But I believe this alliance is up to the task, because at moments of truth, NATO has mustered the will to revitalize itself and even transform itself to meet the challenges of the day and defend our deeply held and shared values.
Since this alliance was founded 66 years ago, NATO has never been aimed at any country, but instead only at armed aggression. It is the most successful collective security alliance in history. NATO was built and still stands on a fundamental premise that President Truman noted when the United States signed the North Atlantic Treaty.
And he said then, "We do not believe that these are blind tides of history which sweep men one way or another. Instead, people with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny."
"We could choose war," President Truman said, or, through this alliance, "we could choose peace."
This vision, courage and commitment is the enduring legacy of those who fought -- who fought the most destructive war the world has ever known. And they went on to build an alliance to assure that mankind would never again endure the kind of suffering and destruction that they had lived through.
NATO remains the only global anchor of collective security in the world today. And it must continually adapt to the challenges of our time and be strengthened with leadership commitment and resources.
This is a legacy that all our nations must honor and uphold for many generations to come. Thank you.
STAFF: Thank you, sir.
Our first question will be from Lita Baldor, Associated Press.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there's obviously been a lot of reports recently about proposals to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine. Where do you stand on that? Should the U.S. or other nations provide defensive weapons to Ukraine? And what do you think the result would be, what kind of reaction would you think you would get from Russia? Would Russia react, do you think, with greater strident?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I've been consistent on your question. I think what assistance we provide, the United States, NATO partners, Ukraine has to be continually reviewed. And we are reviewing the kind of assistance we're looking at for Ukraine.
You know that we have -- the United States has committed nearly $320 million in assistance to Ukraine for this year, 2015. I think of the $1 billion in the European initiative, about $120 [million] of that is for Ukraine.
There have been other areas where we have assisted and will continue to assist.
So that is constantly under review. And it should be.
As to the second part of your question, consequences. I mean, actions have consequences, decisions have consequences. Inaction has consequences. And it is all part of the total scope of thinking through decisions that we make along with our partners in every case, not just Ukraine.
STAFF: Next question will come from (inaudible) from the (inaudible).
Q: I have a question about the reassurance measures for Eastern Europe. What kind of developments would you like to see with that initiative? And, also, what kind of plans does Washington have with their Operation Atlantic Resolve? Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: The initiative that the president put forward last year, the $1 billion European Reassurance initiative that I referenced, is one part of that. But I think the larger scope of answering your question resides not just in NATO, but in our relationships with all of our partners in Europe.
Peace, stability are critical for economic progress, for development, for hope for mankind, for all the people in this area of the world. And it isn't just one instrument of influence or power that a nation uses, but it's collaborating with all -- all the nations of the region and using institutions.
So I think there's -- there's a collaboration of effort always that goes into how we try to make a more peaceful, stable, secure world.
I've said many times that these are missions, objectives, efforts that are far bigger than just one nation. The United States, by most metrics applied to the power of a country, is the most powerful country in the world.
But the United States can't solve the problems of the world. No one nation can. It requires partnerships. It requires common interests through institutions, through bilateral relationships.
So it's all of these things working together. I mentioned some of the specifics on the Ukrainian issue. It is -- it's in a collaboration in working with all countries to build a better world.
STAFF: The next question will be from Dave Alexander of Reuters.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Doesn't the failure to provide more effective defensive weapons to Ukraine actually encourage more Russian aggression, both in Ukraine and elsewhere?
SEC. HAGEL: I think that's a fair question, a question that we have to ask. We constantly ask.
But, going back to what I said earlier about the entire scope of what's going on in Russia, last week, I think most of you are aware, that the Russian bond was designated as junk bonds.
Now, this is -- this is an incredible thing, to have a considerable country, a very wealthy country, like Russia have its government bonds put in the junk category.
What is happening in Russia, not just the price of oil and natural gas coming down, but inflation, a lack of investment, people pulling out of Russia. Their currency, their ruble, at a considerable all-time low. These are also reflections of what's happening to Russia as a result of its aggression.
So, your question about defensive weapons and continuation of escalating those defensive weapons or more is one part of it, but it isn't the only -- it isn't the only determining dynamic that goes into how this is eventually resolved.
And I think we shouldn't forget, either, what President Obama has said, what the leaders of European nations have said, NATO nations have said. This issue is not going to be resolved militarily. This is going to -- this issue, the Russian aggression in Ukraine, is going to have to be resolved differently.
And the military piece is a piece, it's a reality, and what the Russians are doing as they are arming the separatists, as they continue to build up inventories along that border, those are realities. What's happening in Crimea is a reality.
But we, all the powers involved, have to make decisions based on where we think the best, most effective path is for the longer term resolution of this issue.
STAFF: Our final question today will come from (inaudible), the Kabul Times.
Q: Thank you very much. (Inaudible) from Kabul Times.
In your time as secretary of defense, how have you seen the situation in Afghanistan evolve? How do you assess the situation now? And where do you think is it going with new mission, like the Resolute Support?
And a U.S. military operation has stopped in 2014. Do you think that Afghan national security force have ability to defend the country?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you.
I think, to start with, the progress made in Afghanistan since 2001, by any measurement, has been tremendous. I mentioned in my statement that we just witnessed, recently, the first peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan's history.
I was in the first group of United States senators to go into Afghanistan in January of 2002, a few months after we had gone in -- into Afghanistan.
And that was my first experience. And since that January 2002 delegation was there, by the way, that delegation was led by now-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain. And I've been back many, many, many times over the years since then, not just as secretary of defense, but as a United States senator.
So, I start from that perspective on what I've seen. More -- more young people in school. More rights for women. More possibilities, more commerce. More institution-building than Afghan has ever seen, to govern themselves, that many countries, including many of the NATO countries, others have participated in.
So, I think you've got to frame this up in the longer term, where -- where all this started? What did it look like 14 years ago? Where are we today?
Now, are there still considerable threats in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Your question about the Afghan security forces, are they capable to be able to defend their country, that's a question that still remains to be seen. I think the progress they have made, the capabilities they have developed, is impressive. And I think they will be capable of defending that country.
We have two years in the glide slope out with our Resolute Support mission, as we, the United States and our Resolute Support mission partners, many of those are NATO partners, as we continue to train, advise, assist the Afghans, especially in the area of institution building, which gets very little attention.
So, I think any measurement you want to apply to where Afghanistan is today versus where it was -- and I think also the progress every year gets better -- is significant.
Sure questions remain. Threats remain. This is gonna be awhile before I think Afghanistan is going to be where they want to be. But the will of the Afghan people has been really pretty special and enormous in turning their country around so that their people have rights, have freedoms, have possibilities for their children, education.
And you think, again, of the historical framing of that country over many, many years, and a lot of war. I'm encouraged.
STAFF: Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much. That's all the time we have today.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. Thank you.