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Press Conference by Secretary Carter at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium

Oct. 8, 2015
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming here today. It's a pleasure for me to be back here in Brussels and an honor to be with so many friends from NATO.

Our agenda today reflected the extraordinary breadth and depth of the modern NATO mission. This morning, we held meetings of NATO's nuclear planning group. We held discussions regarding Afghanistan and Russian activities in Syria. We held a meeting on how NATO is adapting to address future threats. And after this press conference, I'll be attending a meeting of the NATO Georgia Commission.

We've had, as we always do, direct, substantive conversations about how we can better address the common challenges we face and to reaffirm the enduring principles and great strength we share as members of the alliance and as individual partners.

This week, it was my pleasure to visit Minister Morenes in Spain and Minister Pinotti in Italy. In both nations, I witnessed U.S. troops working and training with their counterparts to meet the challenges facing NATO's southern flank, including the ripple effects of ISIL and state instability in North Africa and the Middle East. I also met two weeks ago with Norwegian Minister Soreide to discuss the challenges in the north and east. And tomorrow, I will visit Secretary Fallon in the United Kingdom, where the government recently announced that it will meet the pledge that all NATO allies made last year in Wales to invest two percent of GDP in defense -- sorry. I should say no less than two percent of GDP in defense. That is an important and welcome step forward because NATO's adaptation for the future requires investment, and a strong alliance requires that we meet our commitments to one another.

The 20th century NATO playbook was successful in creating a Europe whole, free and at peace, but the same playbook would not be well-matched to the needs of the 21st century. Together, we must write a new playbook which includes preparing to counter new challenges like cyber and hybrid warfare, better integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence as well as adjusting our posture and presence to adapt and respond to new challenges and new threats.

With regard to Afghanistan, the United States is taking three actions. The first was the president's decision, made in March, to maintain 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of this year. The second is to formulate options for 2016 and beyond and make adjustments to the planned U.S. presence in Afghanistan based on current circumstances. And I was pleased, very pleased, to hear ministers of defense from our NATO allies reaffirm their commitment, discussing not whether, but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan. And of course, that is also the view of the United States.

Third, when I submit my 2017 budget for the U.S. Department of Defense, I will include critical financial support to the Afghan national defense and security forces to help it sustain its current force levels of 352,000 troops in 2017 and beyond. The U.S. welcomes the strong support our allies expressed for their contribution to overall NATO funding, as well as the NATO presence for years to come.

We also had productive conversations today regarding Russia's actions in Syria. Instead of engaging in a political transition in Syria, which is what is needed to make -- excuse me -- which is needed in his long-suffering country, Russia has chosen to double-down on their longstanding relationship with Assad, committing additional military hardware capabilities and personnel.

Now, the Russians originally said they were going in to fight ISIL and al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations. However, within days of deploying their forces, the Russians began striking targets that are not any of these groups. I have said repeatedly over the last week that we, the United States, believed this is a fundamental strategic mistake and that it will inflame and prolong the Syrian civil war.

We have not and will not agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue this misguided strategy. We've seen increasingly unprofessional behavior from Russian forces. They violated Turkish airspace, which as all of us here made clear earlier this week, and strongly affirmed today here in Brussels, is NATO airspace.

They've shot cruise missiles from a ship in the Caspian Sea without warning. They've come within just a few miles of one of our unmanned aerial vehicles. They have initiated a joint ground offensive with the Syrian regime, shattering the facade that they're there to fight ISIL. This will have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attack upon Russia. And I also expect that in coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer casualties in Syria.

The United States' approach in Syria is going forward -- excuse me -- the United States' approach in Syria going forward is as follows. We will continue to prosecute the counter-ISIL air campaign at the same pace and in the same battle space as we have since it started in Syria. We will continue to support the moderate Syrian opposition. We will seek an agreement with the Russians on professional safety procedures for coalition pilots. And we will leave the door open for Russia to rejoin the track toward a political transition in Damascus.

We will also continue to make it clear that if Russia wants to end its international isolation, it must stop its aggression in eastern Ukraine, end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and live up to its commitments under the Minsk agreements. We must not let ourselves be distracted by Russian activities in Syria at the expense of holding them to task under Minsk. This was also the strong sense of the NATO meeting earlier today.

As I said in Madrid earlier this week, it remains our hope that Russia will see that tethering itself to a sinking ship is a losing strategy because Russia has the opportunity to change course and do the right thing. I don't know if they will. From the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Pacific, through South Asia, into the Caucasus and around to the Baltics, Russia has continued to wrap itself in a shroud of isolation. And only the Kremlin can decide to change that.

There's a reason why the NATO alliance is stronger than ever, while Russia acts alone. As evidence today, our member nations share common values reflected in the way we conduct ourselves.

We know what each other stands for, how we do things and why. We treat each other as equals, and we take each other's interests into account. It's clear that we do things better when we do them together. That is the core of the NATO alliance and the community of nations it brings together, and that is what we shall all continue to do.

Thank you, and now, I'll take some questions.

STAFF: First question for the secretary, Tom Watkins here. If you wait for the microphone.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thomas Watkins, Agence France-Presse.

What discussion -- excuse me -- what discussions are you having today about the U.S. leaving additional troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016? And how much pressure are your NATO partners putting on you to make a decision about U.S. treatments -- troop -- about U.S. troop commitments beyond what has already been announced?

SEC. CARTER: Well, we discussed today both troop levels and also -- and this is important, and I mentioned this funding for the Afghan Security Forces both in 2016 and in the years thereafter.

And I think there's complete agreement within the alliance of the need to continue to do both of those; provide the funding that allows the Afghan Security Forces, which after all, is the force that is now the principle one charged with security in Afghanistan. Give it the resources it needs to sustain itself.

And secondly, that presence of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan next year and in the years thereafter -- which it seems reasonable to forecast -- would be useful there.

The -- I have asked all of the NATO partners to remain flexible and to consider the possibility of making adjustments into the plan, which is now two and a half years old, for the presence in Afghanistan in the coming years. So, I think it's widely understood that we need to do an assessment. It's widely understood that the United States is doing an assessment, and as other countries have, a number of countries today indicated a willingness to change their own plans and posture.

Almost all of them -- in fact, I think all of them who spoke to the issue, indicated a willingness to continue with the mission in Afghanistan, which is very much the United States' position. And capitalize upon the great work that we have done for these many years in the past.

STAFF: (Inaudible). Sorry, in the second row, there.



Q: (Inaudible) -- Ukraine. Sir, if Russia keeps distraction, attention from Ukraine, and attacking by Syria -- and you have ability to keep up war on two fronts, will NATO and the USA keep supporting the Ukraine?

SEC. CARTER: Well, first of all, there was no distraction today at this meeting. We discussed both topics. The resolve of the entire group, as it is the American resolve, is, as the phrase -- as the phrase frequently goes in NATO, to address both the southern front and the eastern front simultaneously.

So, in no sense was there a feeling in this alliance, and certainly it's not the U.S. view that this is a -- that Russian activities in Syria area a distraction from Ukraine. If anything, they're a reminder of erratic and self-defeating behavior and the need for the NATO alliance and its other partners in Europe to stand strong and stand united and stand steady. So there was no distraction.

STAFF: Helene Cooper.

Q: Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, are you satisfied that now is a good time to remove these Patriot batteries from Turkey? Are you worried at all about spillover effect from the Russian incursions in Syria and Turkey? And finally, you -- your words just now were very sweeping. You talked of Russia shrouding -- cloaking itself in a shroud of isolation. Are we on the brink of a new cold war?

SEC. CARTER: Let's see. With respect to the first part of your question, Helene, and I'm sorry. You're going to have to repeat the first part again for me.

Q: Are you comfortable that this is a good time to remove the Patriot batteries from Turkey?

SEC. CARTER: Well, the decision to remove the U.S. Patriot battery from Turkey was one made many months ago. It has a purpose, which is to bring the unit back where it's going to be modernized. So that's a longstanding issue.

There remain Patriots belonging to NATO nations in Turkey. I just discussed with the Spanish defense minister over the last couple of days Spain's intentions, for example, to retain their Patriot battery in Turkey. So there will remain Patriot batteries in Turkey.

And with respect to the new cold war, the isolation of Russia is a phenomenon that I think Russia's going to have to reckon with. In the long run, this -- what you see here at NATO are scores of nations who have decided that their security is better pursued in concert, than independently. That's what the NATO alliance stands for.

My own view is, and having worked with Russia very constructively in other contexts over the years, is that that would be a better future for Russia's security as well. But it's one thing for me to think that, and it's quite another one for the Kremlin to think that. And as I said in my opening statement, that's only a decision that the Kremlin can make, but this is self-isolating behavior.

STAFF: We've got time probably for two more.


Q: Yes. (Inaudible), Jane's Defense Weekly.

NATO has a strategy for its eastern frontier, political and military -- it's multi-strand. It does not for the south. A simple reinforcement of the NRF is not a strategy. That's a capability. So, what is the -- you've also been here to discuss some kind of strategy for the south. What is it? Thank you.

SEC. CARTER: We did discuss NATO's cooperation with the European Union. And in fact, Federica Mogherini joined us for lunch today. And I think there's widespread consensus in the alliance, and I think the secretary-general said as much, that NATO should be supportive of the EU-led effort. That includes a maritime dimension, which is very important, a maritime surveillance dimension that's very important. So there are ways in which military instruments can compliment the EU-led effort in the Mediterranean and to help the continent to deal with this really terrible and heart-wrenching refugee issue in a humane and practical way.

So there is a NATO view that it can compliment the EU-led mission in the Mediterranean. We're discussing exactly how we can do that, but I think the fundamental strategy is to align ourselves with the EU strategy and to bring military instruments where they can appropriately compliment that strategy to strengthen and reinforce it.

STAFF: Last question, Craig Whitlock, front row here.

Q: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Did the United States and its allies get caught flat-footed by Russia's intervention in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad? And why are you so certain that Russia's strategy here is a losing one?

SEC. CARTER: Well, what's for -- what is clear is that Russia said one thing and did another. Now that by itself, unfortunately, isn't new, and so it's always important to wait and see and hear what the Russians do rather than what they say because there's a pattern of saying one thing and doing another. And in this case, they said they were going in to fight ISIL, but that doesn't match up with the targets they're hitting.

And they have professed over the -- over time to seek a political transition from Bashar Assad to a more widely-based Syrian government that can preserve the structures of a decent society which for the Syrian people, which they richly deserve. So I think in this case, as in all cases, we have to watch behavior and not take at face value what Russia says because our experience here, Ukraine and elsewhere is that sometimes, the deeds and the words don't match up.

STAFF: All right. Thanks everybody. Mr. Secretary.

SEC. CARTER: Thanks. Appreciate it. Good to be with you all.