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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur Press Briefing in Tallinn, Estonia

DEFENSE MINISTER HANNO PEVKUR: Thank you very much. Dear journalists, dear Lloyd, it seems that in this week, I've seen you more than my wife.

So -- but I hope that my wife will understand the situation we are living in, and this is exactly why we need to meet so often. So ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to welcome United States defense secretary here in Estonia with his delegation, and of course, we are more than happy to welcome everyone who are coming here today.

Lloyd's visit is a testament to the close cooperation and strategic partnership, what we have between our countries, but the timing is also very, very significant. Next week, Estonia will celebrate its Independence Day. We must not forget that it is thanks to the committed allies like the United States that small countries like Estonia can even flourish as independent, sovereign states.

Our security continues to be guaranteed by our membership in NATO, the most powerful alliance in history. Last year at the NATO Madrid Summit, allies made historic decisions to make the alliance even stronger. Allies committed to establishing a credible forward defense posture on NATO's eastern flank in order to ensure that every inch of allied territory is defended without delay.

As part of this commitment, President Biden announced the decision to enhance the U.S. rotational presence in the Baltic states. Call that promise delivered. A U.S. HIMARS platoon and an infantry company are now training side-by-side with Estonian defense forces, increasing interoperability and strengthening the security of Estonia and NATO. However, since Russia has not given up its imperial ambitions and continues to pose the biggest and most direct threat to allied security, Estonia expects to see more rapid progress in the upcoming Vilnius Summit.

The 24th of February will also be the day that we mark one year since Russia's full-scale brutal war and invasion of Ukraine. I'm glad that Estonia and the United States share the determination for Ukraine to win this war against the aggressor, to expel Russian forces and its proxies from Ukraine and restore Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Ukraine has shown incredible courage in defending its people, territory and our common values, and while we know that freedom will always triumph over tyranny, Russia's war in Ukraine is a stark reminder that freedom is never free. That is why the United States and Estonia are among the biggest providers of military aid to Ukraine. The United States in particular has demonstrated outstanding leadership and strategic foresight since the very beginning.

Dear Lloyd, I would like to thank you also personally for that. With the United States as the biggest contributor in absolute terms, Estonia is in relative terms. As a result of the Tallinn pledge commitment, Estonia's military assistance to Ukraine recently exceeded one percent of our GDP.

Still, we can and must do more. I have three key proposals as to how.

First, all European partners and NATO allies must spend more than two percent, ideally closer to 2.5 percent of their GDP on defense. More can only be given when there is more to give.

Second, the international coalition should reach at least 100 billion Euros in combined military aid to Ukraine by the end of 2023. We can talk about how substance also matters, but trust me, there is at least $100 billion worth of things Ukraine needs already at this moment.

Third, the European Union should urgently support the Ukrainian defense with one million artillery rounds, a proposal recently put forward by Estonia.

At the same time, Estonia will continue to accelerate the development of its own national defense. The new Estonian national security strategy foresees a new standard of at least three percent of GDP for defense.

Host nation support to allies is planned to come on top of this. We will continue upgraded allied infrastructure and expand training opportunities to support U.S. and other allied deployments to Estonia. Because we recognize that it is best to do practice defending in Estonia, in Estonia.

Last but not least, I am grateful to the U.S. and also to Secretary Austin for the substantial financial aid that the United States has provided to Estonia. It has been vital to the acceleration of our capability and development. With that said, I pass the word to Secretary Austin.

Dear Lloyd, please, the floor is yours.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, good afternoon, everyone. And, Minister Pevkur, thanks for hosting me in this beautiful city. This is my first visit to Tallinn as the Secretary of Defense. I'm grateful for your warm welcome, especially in this February weather.

I was delighted to be able to host you in Washington last year. And I'm glad that today we could continue our dialogue on bilateral defense partnership and regional security. I was also delighted that I had the chance to meet earlier today with Prime Minister Kallas.

So I want to make one thing very clear to the Estonian people today. The United States remains steadfastly committed to the freedom and sovereignty of our Baltic allies. And we stand united with you to deter and defend against any threat to our shared security.

Now, I'm visiting at a critical time for Europe and for the world. As Minister Pevkur stated earlier, next week will mark a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of its peaceful neighbor Ukraine. And we mourn the lives lost so needlessly in Putin's cruel and unprovoked war of choice.

As the Ukrainian people fight so bravely to defend their sovereignty, they remind us that we can never take freedom for granted. Now, Estonians understand that very well. And Estonians know how important it is for all countries to stand up for a free and sovereign Ukraine. You've experienced the Kremlin's aggression firsthand. And you've shown tremendous leadership in supporting Ukraine today.

As a share of your economic size, Estonia has provided more military aid to Ukraine than any other country in the world. You've made hard decisions to get Ukrainians the assistance that they need to defend themselves. So thank you for your leadership. It is truly a shining example to all countries. And Estonia's leadership reminds us that even small countries can make a big difference.

Now, Estonia is also making contributions further afield. And I welcome Estonia's plans to increase its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq. Estonia continues to make critical investments in its own defense. Your strong defense spending and procurement of new capabilities are crucial in deterring attacks against NATO.

The United States stands beside you as a friend and as an ally. You can see that commitment in our recent deployment of U.S. forces in Estonia, including the HIMARS multiple launch rocket system and our infantry.

Now, Mr. Minister, we've just come from an important meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group and a successful NATO defense ministerial. Putin thought that he could divide NATO. But his aggression achieved just the opposite. The NATO alliance is more united and stronger than I've ever seen it.

Now, we had a very highly productive discussion today on strengthening our collective defense in response to Russia's reckless assault on Ukraine. NATO is strengthening its deterrence and defense in the eastern part of the alliance. The United States is also enhancing its presence along the alliance's eastern flank, and we'll maintain a persistent rotational presence in the Baltics. So I'm confident that our two proud democracies will work together to meet any challenge, and together, we'll continue to strengthen trans-Atlantic security and to defend the rules-based international order that keeps us all safe.

So thank you very much, and so now, we'll take a couple of questions.

STAFF: (Inaudible), please.

Q: Thank you. Johannes Tralla from Estonian Public Broadcasting. Question to Secretary Austin: What should the U.S. and Estonia do together to further reduce the possibility of Russian aggression? And should things go sour, how can we be sure that U.S. troops will fight with Estonia from the very first moment? But I'm also curious. Why has it been difficult to say that Russia has to lose the war in Ukraine? And when do you see that happening?

SEC. AUSTIN: So the first part of the question is what can we do together to deter aggression in the future? I think the first thing that we can do is what we're already doing, and that is working together along with allies and partners to provide Ukraine the much-needed security assistance that it requires to be able to be successful in defending its sovereign territory. Now, we've seen them make good use of the capabilities that we provided to this point. They won the Battle of Kharkiv. They won the Battle of Kyiv. They won the Battle of Kherson. They've inflicted significant damage on Russia's lands forth -- land forces, and they've held their own in a very contested battle in the Donbas.

And so this fight will continue to evolve, and we will do everything we can working together to ensure that we're providing them the means to be successful. And I think we've all been very, very impressed by what we've seen from the Ukrainian forces. Their leadership has held together. Their forces have remained committed to being successful in defending their sovereign territory. So that's the first part of the question.

The second part of the question, I think, was whether or not we would be here in the event of an attack on Estonia. You know, I'll -- I'll just point to the -- what our president, President Biden has said a number of times, and what I've also said. Our commitment to Article V is ironclad. We take that very seriously and will live up to our commitments.

We also said, you know, back at Madrid, our president made the decision to rotate forces in and out of the Baltics on a consistent basis in a heel-to-toe fashion so that we had the, you know, consistent presence. We've lived up to that, and we'll continue to live up to it.

And the final thing I would just point out to you is that prior to Russia's invasion, you know, I met with your Minister of Defense and I told him that if Russia invaded Ukraine, we would deploy forces to Estonia the next day, and we did. We were the first to be here and we meant every word that we've said, and we'll live up to our commitments going forward. So we are committed to Article V, and you can -- bet on that. 

STAFF: Do you want to add anything?

MIN. PEVKUR: Well, I believe we can have time with Johannes all the time, so I'd rather give the opportunity to the others.

STAFF: So we have time for one U.S. question for both ministers.

Q: Hi. Ellie Watson, CBS. First for Secretary Austin, you said yesterday countries are working to move equipment, like more armored vehicles, into Ukraine, but much of it is not there yet, and the NATO Secretary General said the Russian offensive has already started. Do you believe the Russian offensive has begun? And when does the window close to get all of the -- this equipment in order to make a difference?

And for the Minister, is it already too late for all of this equipment to get in in order to make a difference ahead of spring? If Russia is not stopped in Ukraine this year, is Estonia next?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well thanks, Ellie. In terms of whether or not Russia has started its offensive, what we're seeing, as you've heard me say before, is Russia continue to introduce large numbers of troops into the theater. Those troops are ill-equipped and ill-trained, and because of that, they're incurring a lot of casualties, and we expect that that will continue. We've also seen them increase their artillery fires in the Bakhmut area, and Bakhmut's been a contested area for some time. We expect to see that continue, as well.

In terms of whether or not we can get equipment there in a timely fashion, this is something that we're working on each and every day, and so for the equipment that's coming into theater, we'll bring it in. We'll train troops on that equipment -- and we're training troops, by the way, in a number of different places. For example, this -- Sweden is providing CB90s, which is an armored personnel carrier, and they'll train troops on those vehicles in Sweden. Germany's providing Marders. They're training troops on the employment of the Marders, and also maneuver training in Germany. We're training troops on how to properly employ the Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Stryker vehicles in Germany, as well. But we're also training them on -- maneuver and it -- the integration of fire -- fires and combined arms training.

So a number of things are coming together. We've really laid out a detailed plan on how we're going to bring things in support of Ukraine and provide them that gear. So this is a work in progress, but it's something that our leaders are working on very, very diligently. And again, Ukraine -- it's Ukraine's fight. We're going to provide them all the support that we can possibly provide them so that they can have the best chance of being successful in the upcoming offensive.

MIN. PEVKUR: Thank you very much for that question, and definitely, it's very good to continue from where Lloyd just stopped, you know, that this is exactly what we need to do; that we need to help Ukraine as long as needed and for as much as needed. So this is for first.

Secondly, you know, you asked that, is it too late? It's never too late. When there is a hope and when there is a last man standing, there is a chance to win this war. And as long we, as international allies, international partners of Ukraine can deliver them what they need, then we see how courageous Ukrainians are. How big is the motivation of Ukrainians, that they will never, never give up of -- their land or of their country. So they will fight for their land, for their people, and they will fight as long their country's free again. So it's not too late. And it will never be too late. That's our first.

Is Estonia next? Well, for that, we are doing our maximum to prevent it. So deterrence is, you know, one key word here. And this is exactly why NATO is coming out with the new regional plans, which hopefully will be approved also in Vilnius Summit in July.

This is exactly why we have bilateral, excellent cooperation with the United States, with the United Kingdom, France; Denmark, who is here; Germans are giving us their assets to provide air patrolling, et cetera, et cetera. This is exactly what NATO was established for, to be as one if needed.

So I'm more than sure that we can give enough deterrence and give the signal to Russians that, "Don't play with us."

Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you. This concludes our press conference.