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Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Acting Minister of National Defence of the Republic of Lithuania Gabrielius Landsbergis Joint Press Conference

Feb. 19, 2022

MINISTER GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: (through translator): Colleagues, Mr. Secretary, it is a very joyful day. We're very pleased to welcome the U.S. Secretary of Defense here in Vilnius, Lithuanian. We probably wouldn't find a more important day than this that was chosen for the Secretary's visits. We are facing an unprecedented situation where Russia has built -- has mobilized more than 130,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and in Belarus.

And this situation is a direct threat -- direct military threat to Ukraine. But it also poses a threat to the entire region. Russia is ready to rewrite the European security architecture; the architecture which was based on agreements, on treaties and on diplomacy.

Russia is showing that it is choosing the way that is based on force. And this way to countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is especially dangerous one because our security depends on keeping our agreements. 

Therefore today we need to send a very clear and an unambiguous signal to Russia and say that rewriting Europe's security architecture will not go unnoticed by NATO. And the rewritten security order will be faced by a very clear and strong response. That response will be given to Russia through sanctions. Response will be given to Ukraine in the form of assistance.

And we also discussed today that the Baltic countries are also expecting a response. We expect stronger assistance and additional capabilities to protect the three Baltic countries. 

And at the end I can say that we should leave a space at the table of diplomacy to those who want to be at that table. But we should -- but if that seat at the table remains empty, we need to state clearly that we are ready to defend ourselves. Thank you.

STAFF: Secretary Austin, the floor is yours.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well good afternoon, everyone. Minister Landsbergis, I want to thank you for hosting me today and please pass along my best wishes to Minister Anušauskas and my regrets that he couldn't join us today. And I hope -- I wish him a speedy recovery. 

I'm very happy to be in Vilnius on my first trip to this region as Secretary of Defense. And I'm glad that our colleagues from Estonia and Latvia will be able to join us a bit later as well. 

For months now, Russia has been building up its military forces in and around Ukraine, including in Belarus. They are uncoiling and now poised to strike. And that's exactly why I'm here today. I want everyone in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia to know and I want President Putin and the Kremlin to know that the United States of America stands with our allies. 

As I made clear in Brussels this week, we take our obligations to NATO and to our allies seriously. Our committed to Article V is ironclad. We have sent additional U.S. forces eastward to reinforce NATO allies and we have thousands on-call ready to deploy if NATO activates its response forces. 

And we're grateful to Lithuania for hosting several hundred U.S. troops here, a posture that I believe is important. Together we are improving our combined readiness and adding NATO's deterrence and defense capabilities. We're also dedicated to working with our partners in the Ukrainian armed forces to further strengthen their defense capabilities. And for years, we've been working closely with Lithuania and other allies and partners to support Ukrainian defense reform and to enhance Ukraine's ability to defend itself.

I'm pleased that other nations have stepped up to assist Ukraine now in its time of need, not only Lithuania but also Estonia and Latvia and Poland have demonstrated leadership by providing anti-air and anti-armor capabilities to Ukraine. Your actions speak volumes.

Rather than sowing division among allies, which we know Mr. Putin would like to see, NATO has shored up its defense and deterrence posture. Russia's actions have only further united the alliance. Mr. Putin says he doesn't want to see a strong NATO on his western flank. And as I've said before, that is exactly what he's getting.

But conflict is not inevitable. Mr. Putin can choose a different path. And the United States, in lockstep with our allies and partner -- partners have offered him an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic solution. We hope that he takes it. We hope that he steps back from the brink of conflict and we hope that he deescalates.

No matter what, the United States will stand with our allies and partners. And together, we will work to overcome any challenge to European peace and stability. Thank you and now we'll take a couple of questions.

STAFF (through translator): Thank you, U.S. secretary. We will now have time for questions and this press -- press conference, we're going to have four questions. Two will be asked by the Lithuanian media and two by the U.S. media. So you are now welcome to ask your questions. When you are given the microphone, please introduce yourself, indicate the media you're representing and please tell us who you are addressing your question to.

Q: Thank you. Good afternoon my name is Saulius Jakučionis, and I work in Baltic News Service…News Agency. I have a question for defense secretary regarding the news I've heard on possible additional American capabilities here. Lithuanian President Nauseda met with Vice President Harris in Munich and said that U.S. is considering to reinforce Baltic states and that he expects a decision soon. 

After the meeting with you today, he said he expects a U.S. permanent rotational battalion on Lithuanian soil. So Minister Landsbergis just said that he expects additional capabilities as well, so my question really is did you make the decision yet? And what kind of reinforcement will Lithuania will get and when? And question for Minister -- Minister Landsbergis will be do you think that war in Ukraine is inevitable? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks for your question. As I said, we are very grateful for Lithuania's tremendous hospitality in hosting the hundreds of troops that we have currently working here and training here. I don't have any -- any announcements to make today in terms of troop presence. But as I said, I've been saying all long, we will continue to assess situations and consult with our allies. And as the security environment evolves we'll consult with our allies and make any necessary adjustments. But, again, no announcements to make today.

MIN. LANDSBERGIS: I will answer in English. The war is always avoidable. But it's up to Russia now and Mr. Putin to decide which path he wants to choose. Upon the intelligence that we have, that was shared with us and based on the already public announcements by several political leaders across the globe it is clear that Russia has all the capacity that it needs in order to wage full-scale war against Ukraine.

So to answer your question, they're ready but they can go back. 

STAFF: Thank you, next question please. 

Q: I think that President Biden said last night that he believed that Putin had made a decision to invade Ukraine. You just said that you thought Putin was uncoiling and was poised to strike. But you also voiced hope that he might not go through with it. Isn't there a contradiction there? And also if you do believe he poised to strike can you give us and insight to when you think that's going to happen? We were in a day or two away? 

And to the Minister, you called for U.S. troops to strengthen the Baltic defenses. How many do you think are required? What kinds of capabilities should they have and should they be permanent? And on the broader point, how would a Russian invasion of Ukraine change the calculus, the security assumptions in the Baltic states?

SEC. AUSTIN: First of all in terms of -- thanks for the questions, Phil, but in terms of timing we said all along that he has the capability in the area to move any time that he chooses. Now I agree with President Biden that he has made his decision. And if you just look at what we're looking at in the region, significant combat forces forward. Those forces are now beginning to uncoil and move closer to the border.

And that facilitates their onward movement. And the type of forces, not only combat forces but logistics, combat aviation, field hospitals. All those things are in the command and controls modes. All those things are in the area and so having done this before, I can tell you that that's exactly what you need to attack and the stance that you need to be in to attack.

Now whether or not that's in opposition to us continuing to try to pursue a diplomatic solution, I don't think so. And, Phil, I would point to you that back in 1994 we were poised to conduct an operation into Haiti and Lieutenant Colonel Austin was actually in an airplane with the 82nd Airborne Division with a parachute on his back about ready to jump in and we were airborne. And somehow en-route a diplomatic solution was reached and -- and we turned that -- that operation around.

So I believe that we should continue to try up until the very last minute, until it's no longer possible. But I think -- I think if you look at the stance that he is in today, it's apparent that he has made a decision and that they're -- they're -- they're moving into the right positions to be able to conduct an -- an attack.

MIN. LANDSBERGIS: Well, I mentioned that in my initial remarks that what we are seeing is not just yet another Russian possible act of aggressions of the like that we've seen since 2008 and then later in 2014, but it's actually the rewriting of the European security order. Therefore, our reaction is also not just what is happening on the Ukrainian border, but how the region is starting to look, and it's already very different.

The troop buildup in Belarus, it's directly threatening to the whole region, to the countries -- the Baltic countries, to Poland. And therefore we have to be very -- very serious not just about the deterrence but also about the possible -- possibility of defense. And we have to show that we are ready in case Russia builds on its supposed successes. And we're ready to defend Baltic states and Poland and other countries in the region.

While the numbers are a tactical issue, and I think that after the 2014 when Ukraine was first attacked, the Baltic region was reinforced with -- Lithuania was reinforced with additional U.S. troops, German troops, other Baltic countries with other allies. And I think we are already at -- at the point where we have to tell that adversary that we are reinforcing Baltic countries, that this is already a reaction, that this is already happening, that there is a reaction to what -- what he started, to what Russia started.

STAFF: Thank you for the question. Third question.

Q: Thanks for this opportunity. It’s Vaidas Saldžiūnas, I’m from Delfi. Just a follow-up on the reinforcement questions, and like what the president said about Russian intention -- intentions to escalate towards war in Ukraine, and what the Russians made clear, their answers to the United States, that basically they respect the U.S. opinion most of all, not NATO but the U.S. opinion, they don't want U.S. forces here in the region for the Lithuania.

Just wondering where does U.S. stand here? Will you support Lithuanian expectations to see not just reinforcements, but further presence in Lithuania by Poland, especially given what’s mentioned about the Belarusian factor with the Russian force posture there with the 30,000 troops within 100 clicks from here, at Lida Airport, were they deploying helicopters there yesterday? 

Or would you just be content with support units like NATO's EFP group is doing in Lithuania and other Baltic countries sending air defense artillery, et cetera, just to enable your armored defense battalion based in Lithuania to operate more effectively?

And second question, if I may clarify one thing, that both Russia and the United States seem to be at least eager to talk about and maybe to agree upon arms control, specifically, the INF range missiles deploying to Europe. Now U.S., NATO have officially indicated that those missiles would be deployed to Europe. Could you give us clarity? Is that still the plan? To move conventional INF range missiles obviously to Europe if Russia moves forward with their plans against Ukraine or is that still on the negotiating table? And if so, what makes you trust Russia is they violated the INF Treaty in the first place?

SEC. AUSTIN: So just to recap here, the first question is whether or not we're going to -- we're going to position forces here on a permanent basis, if we're considering that because of the signal that that sends to Russia.

And the second question, as I heard you, was whether or not we are -- we intend to revisit INF issues if Russia attacks?

On the first issue, again I don't have any announcements to make today in terms of permanent basing of forces. These were things that we continue to assess. I would like to leave you with two things on this issue. Number one we consider Lithuania to be an incredibly important partner. Number two, we are absolutely committed to Article V. And so any attack against Lithuanian is an attack against us all. 

And so you and your countrymen should rest assured that our President is absolutely serious about his statements here. 

And the second -- regarding the second question in terms of whether or not we would entertain any changes to positioning of nuclear forces, I don't want to get involved with any hypotheticals. But again if and when he attacks and I think us and all of our allies, all of our NATO allies and the rest of our European partners in the region really have to kind of take a look at what the strategic set now looks like and what's necessary to ensure that we're able to deter but most importantly defend NATO countries should something happen.

So, again, these are very, as you know, very complex matters. Certainly things that we would not entertain in a vacuum, things that we would consult with our allies and partners on, but I won't -- I won't address any hypotheticals today.

STAFF: (through translator): The final, fourth question, please.

Q: Thank you, both, for doing this. Mr. Secretary, the President said he believes that Russia will target Kiev. So have you ordered U.S. troops to help the U.S. diplomatic presence move to Lviv or elsewhere? And then can I get your reaction to Russia's nuclear drills they are having today?

And then also, Mr. Minister, you said something about the Baltic countries expecting a response. Can you elaborate what response from Russia are you expecting as you look at what's going on in Belarus and in and around Ukraine?

And then specifically when you talk about reinforcements, what military capability do you most need?

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Carla. On the first question regarding protection of U.S. citizens in Kiev; number one the President has been clear about that fact that we don't -- he does not intend to introduce U.S. forces into Ukraine. On the second question -- back on that question, Secretary of State Blinken has been very emphatic, most recently here, warning American citizens that now is the time to leave, and we -- and we'll continue to do that. And we hope that American citizens will take heed.

On the second question regarding the strategic forces exercise that we're currently seeing, the concerning issue is that Putin now has 150,000 or so forces deployed in the border region of Ukraine and forces in Belarus as well. This has created a lot of tension that we're trying to resolve through diplomacy and we're -- we're asking him to deescalate.

But the management of those forces and the -- and -- and, you know, the prevention of -- of accidental events occurring is -- is difficult when you have that many forces that are kind of leaning forward. When you layer on top of that a very sophisticated exercise with strategic nuclear forces, that makes things complicated to a degree that you could have an accident or a mistake that could be made.

And so it would make sense to try to separate those two events, if at all possible. But that does create concern not only with me but with all of my colleagues around the globe, so we'll see what happens here.

Q: Can I follow up with, with when the president said that he thinks that he thinks that Kiev will be attacked. Is it safe to keep U.S. diplomats there? Is it safe to delay moving them out?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, we always do an assessment of -- of the situation. We always have plans to -- if it -- if the indicators and warning are such that, you know, we need to move people to, you know, out of the country from that location, then we'll do that. And I can guarantee that our diplomats, our military personnel have drilled this very, very hard.

And so based upon the great information that our intel community is providing us, we believe that we'll be able to make -- we'll be able to see those indications and warning and take action.

STAFF: Thank you all for the questions.

MIN. LANDSBERGIS: I've -- I've said in my initial remarks that we are -- what we are seeing is that one of the motives behind Putin's actions currently could be his -- what he would see as successes from the previous incursions in 2014 and 2008. That means that in his calculations, it is a possibility that the western reaction was too -- too slow and too -- too small for him to be stopped.

That's -- that means that he's building on his previous successes. And if he would believe that his current activity is also successful, then -- if you ask yourself a question then who's next, who's -- who could be the next target? And this is why you see so many worried people in -- in here and in Lithuania because that's a natural progression.

Therefore, you know, when we're saying that to battle for Ukraine, it's a battle for Europe. If he's not stopped there, he will go further. And -- so, we cannot let Putin have this success. Ukraine needs to be helped. And I'm -- I'm grateful that with the U.S. administrations assistance, we are doing our part in here in Lithuania and other Baltic states. We count ourselves as an example of what needs to be done and we hope that other countries would follow this example.

But to add to that, we need to make sure that he sees that his actions are creating a response in the Baltic region as well. And we are reinforced, we are strengthened, and we do not allow him to even think about looking this -- at this direction. If we're talking about -- about specifics, we had a conversation. We shared some ideas about which sectors could be reinforced the most. But most of the time we're talking about permanent troop presence, permanent U.S. troop presence, here in -- in the territory of Lithuania. Thank you.

STAFF (through translator): Thank you very much. Thank you everyone for the questions. Thank you. The press conference is over.

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