Background Press Call on President Biden’s Meetings at NATO
11:53 A.M. CET
MODERATOR: Well, good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining the White House background call on the President’s trip to Europe. As a reminder of the ground rules, this call will be on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.”
For your awareness but not for your reporting, the three officials joining us on our call today are [senior administration officials].
We will have two sections of the call today. The first will be a recap of the President’s time at NATO, which will be embargoed until the call concludes. The second section, which previews the G7 and EU meetings, will be embargoed until this afternoon at 2:15 p.m. Central European Time, or 9:15 a.m. Eastern Time.
With that, I’ll turn it over to our first speaker, [senior administration official], for the first section of the call.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. And good morning, almost good afternoon, to everyone. I just stepped out of the listening room where I have been for the last hour or so, and I’m happy to share a little bit of color from what’s been happening in the meeting.
So, Secretary General Stoltenberg opened the meeting. I’m sure all of you saw his open remarks, which were open to press. Then the leaders went into a closed session.
As I think everyone is tracking, President Zelenskyy was beamed in via video link from Ukraine to address the group. He spoke very eloquently, as he has to a number of national parliaments in recent weeks, with a message very much focused on the efforts of the Ukrainian military and people to defend their country, to defend their citizens, and also to defend our shared democratic values.
He repeated his requests for continued and increased Western security assistance. But notably, there was not a request for a no-fly zone. There was also not a request for NATO membership in his remarks.
Following his intervention, he departed on the video link, and the members moved into a closed session among the Alliance.
After him, the President was the first speaker. He set out the three-pronged approach that we have taken throughout this this crisis, noting that today marks the one-month anniversary of the launch of Russian military aggression against Ukraine.
First, he talked about everything that we have done to impose costs on Russia, including the very significant package of sanctions.
Second, he reiterated our strong support for Ukraine, both in terms of security assistance — increased and continued security assistance, as well as humanitarian assistance that we were continuing to provide to those both in Ukraine and to those fleeing the violence.
And third, a very strong message of support for NATO — reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Article 5 and the steps that the United States, in partnership with other Allies, had taken in recent weeks to reinforce the security of the eastern flank.
As part of that, speaking more generally: In terms of the Alliance, he talked about force posture adjustments, as I mentioned. He welcomed the similar moves that we have seen from a number of countries to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank. He welcomed the increased defense spending pledges that we have seen from a number of countries, as well as the ongoing robust exercises that are continuing.
Finally, he looked ahead to the Madrid summit, which will be in about two and a half months in late June, and laid out a number of issues that the Alliance is going to have to grapple with in advance of that summit, given the changed security context that we see ourselves in and as the Alliance is finalizing the strategic concept that will be addressing a number of these changes in security architecture.
By the time I left the room, I think about six leaders had spoken. So, just to give you a sense of the mood: First, there was a very strong sense that we are facing a significant, historical moment, and very strong support from all of the leaders who spoke about the need to defend our democracy, the need to defend our shared values, and a strong sense that NATO was appropriately poised to be able to do that.
Second and relatedly, there was a very strong message of unity — notes of how united the NATO Alliance was, notes of unity across the transatlantic alliance; very strong support for NATO, for its Article 5 commitments; a number of leaders speaking about increases in their own defense spending; and also notes about changes that various countries have made in terms of force posture, particularly with what we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks with a significant movement of NATO forces to NATO’s eastern flank to defend the security of Allies there.
Third, very strong admiration for the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian people in terms of everything they are doing to defend their country from Russian aggression.
There was also very strong pledges of support from across the Allies that I heard speak about their readiness to continue, as well as increase, their security assistance to Ukraine.
Related to that, many of the leaders also spoke about the importance of economic sanctions and the need for us to continue imposing robust economic costs on Russia in response to its aggression.
Related to that: On the Ukrainian people, very strong support for refugees; a lot of appreciation to the eastern flank Allies that have been bearing the brunt of the crisis; and continued pledges by Allies to continue contributing financially to the humanitarian assistance, as well as, of course, a number of these countries taking in refugees themselves.
And just a final note: There was also a reference by many of the speakers to China and a recognition that China needs to live up to its responsibilities within the international community as a U.N. Security Council member, that we need to continue to call on China not to support Russia in its aggression against Ukraine, and that we need China to call for a peaceful end to the conflict as a responsible member of the international community.
So the mood overall has been sober, it’s been resolute, and it’s been incredibly united.
So let me stop there with my opening comments.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, [senior administration official]. With that, we’ll open it up to a couple of questions on the NATO portion before we move on to the second portion of the call, which will be EU and G7 specific.
If I can ask everyone who has a question to please indicate you have one using the “raise hand” feature.
Josh Wingrove from Bloomberg. I saw your hand up first.
Q Thank you very much. Hello from the travel pool. Thank you for doing this. Can you give me a sense of what President Zelenskyy did ask for if he didn’t mention NATO membership and didn’t mention the closure?
And also, NBC is reporting that 100,000 refugees — the U.S. will announce a pledge to take in 100,000 refugees. Is there anything you can tell us on that in particular that we could publish before any later embargo?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you for that.
So, on your question about refugees, I don’t want to steal any thunder from my colleague, so let me defer that to the later part of the call where [senior administration official] is going to have more information specifically on some of our refugees and humanitarian assistance.
In terms of President Zelenskyy’s comments, I will let the Ukrainian government speak for themselves in terms of what specifically Zelenskyy conveyed to leaders in what was a closed, private session to leaders.
What I can say is that President Biden was very clear in his remarks about the security assistance that the U.S. has continued to provide, underscoring the $2 billion that we have provided over the last year, underscoring the billion dollars in new security assistance to Ukraine that we have just announced; talked in some specifics, as he has done previously, about the additional types of assistance that we have been providing to Ukraine.
And then, just more broadly, I would say that we have started consulting with Allies on providing anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. There may be some technical challenges with making that happen, but that is something that we are consulting with Allies and starting to work on.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next, we go to Kevin Liptak with CNN.
Q Hi. Thank you. Yesterday, Jake said that discussion of Russia’s potential use of chemical or biological or nuclear weapons would come up in all these discussions. I wonder if you could say whether that came up at NATO today and what the leaders — what was — if there was a consensus among the leaders about whether NATO would be obliged to respond to the use of those kinds of weapons should that take place.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, there were some references to that. I think there is a recognition that NATO needs to continue a lot of the good, ongoing work to be prepared to respond to various contingencies. It’s something that NATO, as a military alliance, is already postured to do, and it’s something that they recognize that they need to continue to do given the various scenarios that could emerge as part of this conflict.
The United States is already taking steps both nationally, as well as through NATO, to enhance the readiness and capability of our defense forces to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear incidents. Frankly, for NATO, this is an important part of strengthening our longer-term defense and deterrence postures.
NATO has a Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force, which is an element of the NATO Response Force, which is prepared to deploy at SACEUR’s direction. This includes specially trained and equipped forces who are able to deal with these types of incidents if there are attacks against NATO populations, territory, or forces.
And NATO Allies are also continuing to consult, as well as to take national decisions, to be able to provide on a bilateral basis protective equipment and medical countermeasures to help Ukraine detect, identify, and respond to these types of threats.
So, in sum, yes, it was a subject that came up in discussion today and I assume is a continuing part of the ongoing discussion.
Second, there are broader conversations within NATO about how to respond to these types of incidents.
And third, some NATO Allies are already taking national decisions to be able to respond to, potentially, Ukrainian needs on these threats as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. And then we’ll do one more question from Chris Megerian with AP. After that, we’ll move on to the second portion.
Q Hi, everybody. I wanted to see if you could talk any more about force posture adjustments. What specifically are we speaking about?
And then on China, when you said that China needs to do more, what specifically do you want to see them do more or see them stop doing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that. So, in terms of force posture, there was considerable discussion by leaders about the number of changes that have already been made across the Alliance. I think what we’ve seen within the last couple of weeks with NATO Allies acting with great unity and speed to deploy additional defensive forces and capabilities in response to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine.
NATO activated its response plans. It deployed the NATO Response Force. It increased NATO’s readiness. And there’s now approximately 40,000 Allied forces under direct NATO command with particular emphasis on the eastern flank.
As part of that, the United States has already deployed thousands of additional forces to Europe. There’s now approximately 100,000 U.S. forces on land, in the air, at sea, training, exercising, and ready to defer — or to deter and defend against any threat.
So, in the parts of the meeting that I was in, there was a lot of recognition about the steps that the U.S. has taken and, frankly, that a large number of other Allies have taken to move their forces to the eastern flank as well.
And in terms of China, I would refer to what I had said earlier in terms of similar messages that Stoltenberg himself actually has given within the last couple of days as well: that there is a desire for China to live up to its responsibilities within the international community, clearly a strong desire for Russia [China] not to provide economic or military assistance to Russia in furtherance of its aggression against Ukraine, and for China to join with other responsible members of the international community in calling on Russia to end its violence.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. And with that, that concludes the first portion of the call, which, as a reminder, is embargoed until this call concludes.
12:08 P.M. CET