The message coming from the NATO alliance and from Washington, including the president, is that a no-fly zone is not on the table right now, according to Ambassador Julianne Smith, US permanent representative to NATO.
“That’s not something that the alliance is looking at,” she said on Tuesday at a media briefing.
The collective goal of the United States and its allies “is to end this war, to get Russia to leave Ukraine, to get Russia to stop these attacks on both the Ukrainian military and these indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” Smith said. “We don’t want to expand this conflict. We do not want to see it spread above and beyond the current context. And so the feeling is that if we were to consider something like a no-fly zone, that would take us in the wrong direction.”
There is also a broader question about the utility of considering this type of option, she said, noting that Russia recently attacked a military training facility in western Ukraine, about 15 km. (nine miles) from the Polish border.
“What we learned from that was that Russia actually was able to instigate that attack from a Russian bomber in Russian airspace, begging the question about whether a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace would actually have a major impact on Russia’s ability to attack Ukrainian territory.”
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador Julianne Smith U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Ambassador Smith: Great, First, let me thank everybody for dialing in and joining the call today. Always happy to hear from folks and answer questions. At the top, I guess what I’ll just say, of course, is, as many of you know, the Secretary of Defense, Secretary Austin, will be landing in Brussels later this evening. We have laid on a snap defense ministerial. This is an ongoing signal, I think, of the Administration’s interest in engaging Allies at the highest levels on what’s happening inside Ukraine. So, we’re thrilled to welcome back the Secretary this evening and have him here tomorrow for two sessions.
We’ll cover the situation in Ukraine, but we’ll also be talking about some longer-term questions about how NATO should be positioning itself in the future. There are some questions on the table right now about the degree to which the Alliance should be looking at medium and longer-term posture changes. There’s been a lot of posture changes. Many NATO Allies have moved posture into Eastern Europe, and we can get into that later, over the last few weeks. But there are additional questions on the table about what type of posture the Alliance should take going forward. So we’ll be tackling some of that while ministers are here.
We’ll also be engaging with our partners; Finland and Sweden will join us at the table and will also be joined by the Ukrainian minister of defense. That’s my understanding.
Question: What is the bright line for a direct U.S. military response to Russia should any Russian aggressions, intended or not, spill into NATO territory?
Ambassador Smith: NATO has a very clear line already enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, and that is of course that an attack on one is considered an attack on all. You’ve also heard the President as well as other members of the administration, such as Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin, talk about the fact that the U.S. commitment to Article 5, to our Allies, is rock-solid and that we will defend every inch of NATO territory. We’ve also had – I would say in recent weeks, what’s interesting is we’ve utilized and relied on a different article in the Washington Treaty, and that is Article 4.
We’ve actually had some Article 4 consultations. A group of countries in Central and Eastern Europe came forward right after February 24th and put in a formal request for Article 4 consultations. We’ve had those and, frankly, they’re ongoing to respond to their concerns about how the situation in and around their territory is evolving and changing, and that article in particular is useful because it allows the Alliance to come together at 30 and hear from the Ally or Allies in question and to determine what steps, if any, the Alliance needs to take in that moment to respond to any sort of changing security environment that they’re facing. Obviously, countries in Central and Eastern Europe do believe that this is a time for a conversation about potential changes to NATO force posture in their neighborhood, and as I noted at the top, that’s going to be part of the discussion that we’ll be having tomorrow at the ministerial.
Question: Ambassador, I have a question about what was called a no-fly zone. It’s clear what was said, that NATO will not impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but my question is on another way and especially providing Ukraine with weapons. And I mean, first of all, fighter jets – I’ve heard from many U.S. officials that providing Ukraine with Soviet military jets, MiG-29 from Poland, would not be efficient militarily. Can you explain why it would not be efficient militarily while Ukrainian officials say that no, it will be a big help for Ukraine to defend its skies against airstrikes? And the second part: Is the U.S. also considering providing air-defense capabilities more than just man-portable air-defense capabilities, more than just Stingers, some bigger high and medium air-defense capabilities?
Ambassador Smith: Okay, So, we’ve got a couple of things going on there. So, let’s start with your comment on the no-fly zone. So, you’re right, the message coming from the NATO Alliance and from folks back in Washington, including the President, is that a no-fly zone is not on the table right now. That’s not something that the Alliance is looking at. I think our collective goal, the United States in consultation with its Allies, our goal right now is to end this war – to get Russia to leave Ukraine, to get Russia to stop these attacks on both the Ukrainian military and these indiscriminate attacks on civilians. We don’t want to expand this conflict. We do not want to see it spread above and beyond the current context. And so the feeling is that if we were to consider something like a no-fly zone, that would take us in the wrong direction.
There is also a broader question here about the utility of considering that type of option. If you take, for example, the recent attack that we saw by the Russians on this military training facility in western Ukraine that was about – my understanding is it’s about 15 kilometers from the Polish border – what we learned from that was that Russia actually was able to instigate that attack from a Russian bomber in Russian airspace, begging the question about whether or not a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace would actually have a major impact on Russia’s ability to attack Ukrainian territory. So that’s a broader set of questions.
But again, I think when you think about the Alliance’s position on escalation and our interest in not escalating this conflict right now, where the Alliance has landed is to take that option off the table.
On the jets, I mean, what I can say broadly is, look, every member of this Alliance right now is trying to think about what more it can do. The remarkable story of the last couple of weeks, first and foremost, is that every member of this Alliance, every single one has already stepped forward and offered assistance. That assistance takes many forms. Several Allies are offering lethal assistance; some are offering humanitarian; most of them are offering both.
In the case of Poland, they obviously had some requests through their contacts in Kyiv. They heard loud and clear the request for these Soviet-era MiGs that they have in Poland. We had a debate about that particular option. At the end of the day, you heard the U.S. weigh in and say that they felt that this particular option was untenable. There were a number of – and there still are – open-ended questions about the mechanics of actually moving these planes from Poland to Ukraine. There are open-ended questions about pilots, about fuel, about missiles. And so, at this point, this is ultimately Poland’s decision, but to the extent that the U.S. has a view on this. Again, you’ve heard directly from the Pentagon on this matter that folks did not believe that at this point, this was the best option, and this was an option that had all of the details adequately sorted to actually make this transfer happen. So, that’s on that front.
On your last bit about air defense, look, the U.S. has already provided – really since the President came to the Oval Office in early 2021 – $1.2 billion worth of security assistance to Ukraine. Just in the last two weeks, we have provided $550 million in security assistance, and that mostly takes the form of anti-armor or anti-tank weapons. You’ve heard the President and the Secretary of Defense talk about the fact that we are continually assessing what additional needs our friends in Kyiv have. We will continue looking at what other aspects of or other forms of air defense we might be able to provide to Ukraine. And of course, you’ve no doubt seen the news that Congress just recently approved an additional $13.6 billion of support for Ukraine. So, this is an evolving story. It’s hard to take a snapshot on any given day because it’s clear that not only the United States but NATO Allies are continuing to look for additional ways that they can address Ukraine’s air-defense needs.
Question: Ambassador, you spoke earlier about Article 5, which I believe, talks about an attack on NATO. But looking in the past few days, we’ve had these issues with UAVs, drones entering NATO airspace – Poland, Romania. Where do you draw the line? What if it’s a brief incursion into airspace, or something that looks potentially accidental, a UAV straying and crashing? How do you decide what is an act of aggression and what is a mistake in the middle of an armed conflict?
Ambassador Smith: Well, look, each NATO Ally has the right to come forward, come into NATO Headquarters and invoke Article 5 anytime it believes – for a variety of reasons – that its security environment, threat environment has changed and that they have, quote, “been attacked”. The work that NATO has done in recent years is to think in more detail about ways in which Article 5 could be applied in new domains. We’ve had some interesting conversations over the years about cyber, as many of you know.
So, look, I mean, we could sit here all day and go through different scenarios. I really don’t want to take, like, each individual scenario. What I think our Allies fundamentally understand and has been messaged to them in very clear terms is that we all take that commitment, our Article 5 commitment, seriously, and we are all prepared to come to the aid of a country should they feel the need to invoke Article 5.
So, that is kind of the atmospherics here inside the NATO Alliance. What’s been very reassuring in recent weeks is to see the Alliance come together to reiterate and stress again our collective commitment to Article 5, and to reassure all members that should they feel compelled to turn to Article 5, the Alliance will be there for that Ally.
Question: Okay, I have two questions. First one: Yesterday, the Bulgarian President, Mr. Rumen Radev, demanded the sky over Bulgaria to be guarded only by Bulgarian fighter planes with Bulgarian personnel. So, would you comment that, having into account that the Netherlands and Spain had sent their planes to help us?
And second question: After the latest taking into account the latest developments in Ukraine, can we expect more U.S. or NATO deployment, NATO or U.S. troops’ deployment in this – at the southeastern flank of NATO, especially in Bulgaria and Turkey?
Ambassador Smith: Well, the United States has already deployed thousands of U.S. troops, both troops that were previously stationed in Europe – so we moved some troops from Germany to Romania, for example – but we’ve also deployed a number of troops from CONUS, from the United States, over to Eastern Europe into Poland. There’ll be a smaller presence in Bulgaria, as you no doubt heard about. And the good news is the United States does not stand alone in this regard. We’ve had several Allies come forward – the Danes, the Dutch, the French, the Spaniards, our friends in the UK; I mean, I could go on and on, Italy – almost all of the NATO Allies come forward to offer additional force posture. They’ve offered ships and troops and fighter jets to those countries on the eastern flank to reassure and deter. Those help with – those nations deter any potential threats on their or against their territory.
So, this has been a remarkable story in the last couple of weeks. Actually, NATO started moving force posture into Eastern Europe before Russia went into Ukraine. We reached a point where collectively, the Alliance began to start moving troops weeks before February 24th, and since then it has moved additional posture. So again, this is an evolving story; it’s not over by any means. I think one of the reasons we’re having ministers meet here in Brussels tomorrow is to talk about other steps that collectively, we can take to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, and whether or not we need to map out in more detail a medium and longer-term plan. So, stay tuned on that front.
On your point about the president back home stating that his preference would be to have Bulgaria’s skies patrolled strictly by Bulgarian fighter jets and Bulgarian pilots, that’s obviously a decision for Sofia, for Bulgaria to determine on its own. Each NATO Ally can decide to accept offers of support from other NATO Allies, or they can say, look, we think we’ve got it covered. And I’ll leave it to your government to make that determination. But the good news, as you noted, is that Allies are standing by to help. And if Bulgaria reaches a point where it would like additional assistance in some of those missions, whether it’s air policing or something else, I have no doubt that the NATO Allies will come forward and provide that assistance should it be needed.
Question: What do you think of the EU’s efforts to have China act as a mediator in the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Does this represent a difference with Washington’s diplomatic approach?
Ambassador Smith: Well, maybe this would be a good time to say something about Jake Sullivan’s engagement that he had yesterday with Chinese officials in Rome. You may have seen some of the reporting on this. It was a lengthy meeting in Rome, I believe almost a full day. I’ve heard it was very serious, very intense discussions. They obviously were focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the National Security Advisor stressed the importance of maintaining an open line with the U.S. and China on this particular conflict.
But I think the goal of that engagement was to really send a pretty clear message that the United States is keen to see every country around the world – and that includes the PRC – to make clear in this moment where they stand with respect to this conflict in Ukraine, and that they need to stand on the side of the rules-based order. This is not a time for countries to sit on the sidelines. This is not a time for countries to pretend like they can stay neutral on this particular conflict. And so, I think the point of that was to send a very clear message to Jake’s, Jake Sullivan’s Chinese interlocutors on that particular point.
Question: In 2014, NATO countries agreed to spend more for the defense, aiming for that 2 percent target of GDP. Is it time for NATO to go beyond that 2 percent target?
Ambassador Smith: Well, maybe we could back up for just a minute and think about how we got to this point. So, after Russia went into Crimea, after its illegal annexation in 2014, NATO Allies came together and sketched out a plan to reinforce its – our collective defense. And over the last years, the recent years, I mean really over the last eight years, the Allies have come together and they’ve done just that. We have put multinational battle groups in Poland and the Baltic states, and also in 2014, Allies came together at the Wales summit and issued the Wales Pledge to move towards spending a minimum of 2 percent of GDP, and 20 percent of their annual defense spending on new equipment. And it’s generally a good-news story. I mean, Allies have made significant progress on that pledge. You’ve heard the NATO Secretary General talk about this, the fact that really, since 2014, we’ve seen increased defense spending both across Europe and in Canada with a total of $270 billion spent extra – extra dollars spent since that moment in 2014.
We’ve also put a number of tools in our toolkit to have a much stronger response to Russian aggression, and I think one of the ways that you can see that is the speed with which NATO was able to respond to Russia’s invasion or further invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, is watching those tools come together. We had plans in place in the desk drawer that we were able to activate. We had the NATO Response Force ready to be activated, and we’ve since deployed elements of the NATO Response Force. All of that came in the wake of what happened in Crimea. And so generally, I think what we’re seeing here is the Alliance coming together after 2014, making these commitments to not only spend more but to have more force posture in Central and Eastern Europe and develop new policy tools, and all of this has come together to craft this NATO-wide response over the last couple of weeks.
On burden sharing more broadly, I would say this war in Ukraine has actually brought out – brought forward considerable change as well. You’ve all heard the news about Germany now committing to spend 2 percent. We’ve heard other Allies talk about possibly accelerating their plans to get to the Wales Pledge, and we applaud that. We applaud those efforts. We support them. We’re excited to hear Allies taking another look at how they might accelerate those plans to make sure that in this moment, burden sharing is not an issue for this Alliance and that by 2024 we will see the majority of Allies hit that target.
Question: Are you willing to consider a humanitarian air lift to Kyiv and to Ukraine? And second question: There are three prime ministers of NATO member states that are going to Kyiv. Would you consider, if they are targeted, a violation of Article 5?
Ambassador Smith: Well, I guess all I can say on the humanitarian air lift is, look, we are collectively – both in our cooperation with the EU and both in cooperation with our Allies here at NATO and in other forums, whether we’re talking at the United Nations with Allies or whether or not we’re talking in the G7 with Allies – the U.S. is continually looking for ways to find humanitarian corridors, safe passage for those looking to leave the violence.
Now, Russia has indicated a few times that it’s interested in looking at specific proposals. Sadly, we’ve seen no commitment on their part to help the people in need right now. Quite the contrary, we’ve seen very troubling reports about these indiscriminate attacks on civilians, making it more difficult for people to leave these areas where the violence is the worst. And so we will continue looking for ways to assist people and work through multilateral forums and institutions to see how collectively we can come together with our Allies to ensure the safety of folks looking to exit.
So this is something that again is a broad goal on the part of the United States and its Allies, and we will continue calling on the Russians, first and foremost, to stop the attacks – stop the attacks on civilians, to put a ceasefire in place – and hope that they will respond to those calls from the international community.
And with the three heads of state headed to Kyiv, certainly support all of the engagement we’ve seen with Allies in recent weeks to either indirectly, through virtual channels or now an in-person visit, offer concrete support to our friends in Kyiv.
Ambassador Smith: Not really, just thanks again to everybody for joining us, and always happy to do things like this, and we will no doubt try to get another one of these on the calendar in the days and weeks ahead. Thanks so much.