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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Slovakia Minister of Defense Jaroslav Nad' Hold A Press Conference, Bratislava, Slovakia, March 17, 2022

STAFF (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming at this special occasion, because this is 20 years since the last visit of the Secretary of Defense. So, what it actually means for Slovakia, that will be discussed by Minister Nad', the Slovak Minister of Defense, and of course we will also hear the comments from Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. So I pass the floor to Jaroslav Nad', the Slovak Secretary. 

SLOVAKIA MINISTER OF DEFENSE JAROSLAV NAD' (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. I would also like to welcome the international journalists. Welcome to Bratislava.

As it was mentioned already, that the visit of the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Lloyd Austin, is the first visit of the U.S. Secretary of Defense in the last 20 years. Before, it was Secretary Rumsfeld that visited Slovakia. I'm very happy that Secretary Austin accepted my invitation that I handed over to him back in October at Pentagon, and he came so that we have an opportunity to discuss, really, a whole range of important issues that are related to the defense of Slovakia, the defense of the eastern flank of the alliance, and also, the situation in Ukraine.

Yes, we discussed, quite significantly, how we are going to seek ways and how we are going to implement necessary measures and the steps in helping our friends in Ukraine. We are taking steps, we, as the Slovak Republic, that we coordinate within the North Atlantic Alliance, and we also take steps that we coordinate bilaterally with the U.S. in order to reinforce or to strengthen the defense of Ukraine. Ukraine deserves that, and through their steps, they showed that they very heroically defend their own country and they need our help, and we will provide such help.

We have discussed the commitment of the membership countries of NATO. We talked about the fact that 2 percent of GDP as the cost of defense is not a level that should be our objectives; rather, it should be just a base. And I can confirm that a number of allies already declared at the ministerial meeting that they envisage to achieve as much as 3 percent, for example. Poland and the countries such as Baltic states or Baltic countries, 2.5 percent.

I'm very thankful to the Secretary that he confirmed the contribution of the U.S. to the alliance battle groups or alliance forces here in Slovakia that will be created in the upcoming days. The capabilities that they will provide is something that we are lacking here in Slovakia, and they will strengthen our defense and will strengthen it in a significant way. As I said, the enhanced forward presence troops, this is a significant contribution to improving the defense of Slovakia.

And yes, we talked also about the modernization of the Slovak Armed Forces, we discussed the need to fulfill our obligations and to achieve capabilities -- that means to build the mechanized brigade and other capabilities.

We also talked about the fact that we have some heritage here in the form of old Russian or Soviet defense systems such as S-3 missile system or MiG-29 fighter jets. We were discussing various options of how to fill in this gap and we decided not to use MiG-29s anymore. We should receive F-16 sometimes in 2024.

Secretary, thank you very much for a very fruitful discussion and also for your visit, which is a clear signal of our friendship, our alliance, and also extending relationships that we have been building, especially recently.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, now the floor is yours.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD AUSTIN - Well, good afternoon, Minister Naď, thank you for hosting me today. I'm honored to be in Slovakia at this critical moment for European security. And I wanted to be here in person as a sign of our unity, and as a strength of America's relationship with Slovakia, both bilaterally and as fellow NATO allies. 

On this visit, I'm also grateful for the opportunity to discuss our shared security interests with President Čaputová and Prime Minister Heger. Now as NATO allies, we stand united in support of Ukraine and its right to defend its sovereign territories. We're committed to helping the brave Ukrainian people as they protect themselves and their freedom from Russia's unjust and unprovoked invasion. And we're working urgently with our partners in the Ukrainian Armed Forces to further strengthen their capabilities to defend themselves.

 As we discussed yesterday in Brussels at this week's NATO Summit, we take our obligations to NATO and to our allies very seriously and our commitment to Article Five is ironclad. We sent additional US forces to reinforce our NATO allies. And we have more on call. Ready to go if NATO activates its response forces. Mr. Minister, we support Slovakia's current planning to host NATO forces to enhance Europe's defense. And I commend Slovakia for its contributions to NATO, for humanitarian and military assistance that you provided to Ukraine, and for the generosity that you've shown to the innocent refugees, fleeing Putin's war of choice. Your actions speak volumes.

 So the United States deeply values its bilateral cooperation with Slovakia, we stand together with Slovakia as a valued member of NATO and we´ll stand together with you to defend our values and our common security. Thank you, and we'll take your questions now. 

Q. ANDREJ BÁLINT, RTVS - A question to Minister Austin, Ukrainian President V. Zelenskyy called again for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Has there been any recent discussion on this topic at NATO level, and if so, with what conclusion? Thank you. 

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD AUSTIN - Well, from the U.S. perspective, our President, President Biden has been clear that we would not have U.S. forces fighting in Ukraine. Having said that, we'll do everything within our power to support Ukraine in their efforts to defend their territory. We've also stated that enforcing a no fly zone actually means that you're in combat, you're in a fight with Russia. And that's one of the things that we have said, that our President has said that we weren't going to do, getting in a fight with Russia.

 So what this really means is in order to control the skies, you have to shut down the air defenses that are on the ground and some of those air defense systems are in Russia. And, so again, there's no easy or simple way to do this. No, there's no such thing as a no-fly zone light. A no fly zone means that you're in a conflict with Russia. So from a U.S. perspective, our position remains that we're not going to do that.

Q. KATARÍNA BAČOVÁ, TASR: Good afternoon, Bačová, TASR, I would like to ask about the possible option to use Slovak system S-300 to Ukraine. Will the US help to provide a replacement for this system, and wouldn't the provision of this system be the entry of Slovakia or NATO as a whole into this conflict? Thank you.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD AUSTIN: So, yes, what has been successful for the Ukrainian forces is that they've been able to really prevent Russia from establishing air supremacy. And they've done that through effective use of air defense systems. Both medium range and short range air defense systems.

 And so our goal has been to continue to reinforce those things that have worked for the Ukrainian forces. So, we are talking to a number of our allies and partners, to ensure that we get as much capability as we can, to continue to provide help to the Ukrainian forces. 

And so again, we will engage a number of allies and partners, and in terms of what they're able to do and what would be required for backfill, those are discussions that we´ll continue to have, but I don't have any announcements to make here.

Q. ROBERT BURNS, AP: Thank you. I have a question for each if I may. Minister Naď, could you, I´ll ask you directly about S-300´s, is your country willing to provide those to Ukraine and only if you are able to receive some sort of replacement system that would not degrade your air defenses. Is that something that is continuing to be under discussion with the United States? 

And may I ask also a question of Secretary Austin. Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that you would be discussing this subject with other allies and partners, are there alternatives in this, in this area? In other words, the problem being the Russians have increasingly used long range missiles to attack population centers in Ukraine, as you mentioned, are there alternatives to the S-300 to help Ukraine in that long range air defense arena? That would be my question. Thank you. 

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD AUSTIN: You´re right, Bob, the systems that are being used to by the Russians to engage Ukrainian forces currently, they're using a lot of rockets and missiles and artillery. And so, there are a number of things that can be used to counter that. We've seen that drones have been very effective. We've also seen having the ability to conduct counter fire, with rockets and in artillery is also very effective. 

And so I think increasingly, we'll see the Ukrainian forces turn to those methods to counter that. The rockets, are actually cruise missiles that you mentioned, that were fired from aerial platforms, I think you know that those were fired from actually inside of Russia, so a no-fly zone would not have prevented that activity. 

MINISTER OF DEFENSE OF THE SLOVAK REPUBLIC JAROSLAV NAĎ: If I may Mr. Burns, thank you for your question. 

Well, we've been in discussion with United States, with Ukraine, and also with other allies on possibility to deploy or to send or to give S-300 system to Ukrainians. And we are willing to do so. We're willing to do so immediately when we have a proper replacement. The only strategic air defense system that we have in Slovakia is S-300 system. 

So what would happen immediately when we decided to give it to Ukrainians is that we actually create a gap, a security gap in NATO. So you know, and I'm, first of all, I'm the Defense Minister of Slovakia. My first responsibility is to take on or to do everything I am capable of to guarantee defense and security of our people in our territory. 

So yes, we've been in discussion, we are in discussion, there are no further comments to make as of now. But yes, should there be a situation that we have a proper replacement or that we have a capability guaranteed for a certain period of time, then we would be willing to discuss the future of S-300 system. 

Q. ROBERT BURNS, AP: May I ask a quick follow up Secretary Austin, Secretary Austin in light of the Minister's comments there about requiring some total replacement, is the U.S. military positioned to provide any either patriots or other replacement air defense systems? 

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD AUSTIN: Thanks Bob, again, I don't have any announcements for you this afternoon. These are things that we will continue to work with all of our allies and certainly this is not just a U.S. issue. It's a NATO issue. 

Q. MOSHEH M. GAINS, NBC: Thank you both for doing this. Mr. Secretary, we've all seen the increasing attacks, especially against population centers that Russia continues to carry out in Ukraine. Are these war crimes? And does this warrant a change in posture for U.S. involvement?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD AUSTIN: Well, certainly we've all been shocked by the brutality that we continue to witness day in and day out. And these attacks that we've seen most recently appear to be focused directly on civilians. 

And of course, if you attack civilians, purposely, target civilians purposely, that is a crime. So, these actions are under review by our State Department, and of course, there’s a process that we'll go through to review all of this but, but we call upon Mr. Putin to cease these horrible actions.

 Again, these are civilians and not combatants, and so they should not be targeted.

STAFF (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Okay. So I would like to thank you for your presence, and, gentlemen, thank you for your answers and we'll wish you a pleasant afternoon. Thank you.