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White House Officials on Obama’s Trip to Estonia, NATO Summit

29 August 2014

Office of the Press Secretary
Washington, D.C.
August 29, 2014


Via Telephone
2:34 P.M. EDT

MS. HAYDEN: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us. Given that you were able to hear from the President yesterday on the record about his trip, and given that I know a lot of folks are traveling, getting ready for this long holiday weekend, we thought we would do this preview call today as a call instead of doing it in person. So thanks for joining.

This call is on the record with no embargo. Obviously, I’m here, and I have with me Charles Kupchan, who is the Senior Director for Europe here at the National Security Council. And we’ll just want to go over with you the schedule for the President’s upcoming trip, provide a little more of the context and the substance he’s going to be discussing, and then open it up to your questions. And I think we’ll try to keep this fairly brief.

So with that, I’ll just start with the schedule. On Tuesday, September 2nd, the President will depart Washington and travel to the Republic of Estonia. He’ll arrive in Tallinn late Tuesday night. He will have no events that night.

The following day, September 3rd -- that’s Wednesday -- the President will start his day doing a meet-and-greet with the U.S. Embassy in Estonia, the employees who work there and their family members. Following that meet-and-greet, he will have an official arrival ceremony at the palace and be greeted by President Ilves of Estonia. Later that morning, the President is also going to be signing the guestbook and do an official photo, and head to a bilateral meeting with the President at the palace. Then in the afternoon, the President will visit the Bank of Estonia to have a joint press conference with President Ilves. Following that press conference, the President will meet with the Prime Minister of Estonia, Prime Minister Rõivas, to talk about bilateral ties, our strategic and regional cooperation, and transatlantic partnership.

Later that afternoon, the President will visit the Kadriorg Art Museum, where he is going to have a chance to meet with not just the Estonian leadership but, frankly, the three Baltic Presidents -- so the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In the evening after that, the President is going to be delivering remarks at the Nordea Conference Hall -- I’m sorry, Concert Hall, to students, young professionals, and civil society and political leaders. After that speech, the President will be visiting the Tallinn airport hangar, where he’ll have a chance to meet and greet and speak with U.S. and Estonian troops. That will be his last event in Estonia, and that night he will travel on to Newport, Wales, where he will stay overnight. He’ll have no events there that night.

The next day, September 4th -- that’s Thursday -- the President will start the day with a visit to a school in Wales with Prime Minister Cameron. It’s a chance for him to meet with Prime Minister Cameron and meet with students. Then later in the afternoon, the President will participate in the official family photo with other leaders attending the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manner Resort in Newport. The President, after that, will join NATO leaders for the first session, the first working session, which will be on Afghanistan. Following that session, they will proceed to a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. And at the end of the day there will be a working dinner on security challenges at the historic Cardiff Castle. That will end the events for that day, and the President will stay overnight in Wales.

Then, for the last day of this trip, Friday, September 5th, the day will start with the President viewing a fly-over ceremony. He will then participate in working sessions with other NATO leaders, one on the future of NATO and the other on the transatlantic bond. The President will then have a press conference and he will depart Wales back for Washington, arriving back to the White House late in the evening of September 5th.

So that’s a basic rundown of the schedule. We would expect that while at the NATO Summit there may be some bilateral meetings that the President will be able to do. We don’t have those nailed down in a position that we could give you the details, but we’ll certainly update you as those get added to the schedule. With that, I’ll turn it over to Charles to talk you a little bit more about the substance.

MR. KUPCHAN: Thanks a lot, Caitlin. What I’ll do is begin by identifying what I think our top-line goals are for the coming week, and then drill down a little bit on the specific kinds of initiatives that will be discussed both in Estonia and at the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales.

I would say that overall there are three broad agenda items that shape the trip. One is to respond to Russian actions in Ukraine by providing political and security assistance to Ukraine, and by bolstering NATO’s overall reassurance efforts, both in NATO territory and beyond NATO territory.

The second is to effectively transition from the ISAF mission in Afghanistan to the resolute support mission in Afghanistan. And that essentially means that U.S. troops and their partners will be moving from being in a position of leading the fight in active combat kinetic operations to one that is much more focused on advising and training.

And then the third overall objective is to advance NATO’s role as a global security hub, building out the partnerships that it’s built in Afghanistan, and using new means of training, of institution-building to contribute to security on a very broad basis. And this hopefully will include support at NATO for engaging in the Iraq and Syrian theater, and potentially for a new NATO effort in Africa, as well.

Let me now drill down a little bit and identify some of the more specific issues that will be under discussion in Estonia and at the NATO Summit.

First, on the security assistance for Ukraine, obviously we’re at a time when the situation on the ground in Ukraine is fluid. There will be a NATO-Ukraine Commission at the summit. The representative from Ukraine will be President Petro Poroshenko. And the discussion there will run the full gamut of ways in which the NATO alliance both collectively and individually by its member states can strengthen Ukrainian security. We will be looking at material support, economic as well as security. We’ll be looking at modernization projects. We’ll be looking at the ability to do more training, to provide and strengthen cyber defense in Ukraine. In other words, essentially trying to help Ukraine at this difficult moment in its efforts to stand up as a stable democracy.

The second thing is to beef up the reassurance effort, to extend it forward as long as necessary, and to marry what NATO is calling the rapid action plan with the -- or the readiness action plan with what we call ERI. And these essentially are efforts by the member states and NATO collectively to increase readiness times of NATO forces; to rotate troops through frontline states -- and this is where Estonia comes into play -- where we already have a rotation of American troops at present, where we have efforts to extend and expand Baltic air policing.

So we will be discussing a whole range of issues that are about looking at the needs of NATO member states, what we can do to deal with hybrid warfare and other asymmetric threats. And so this will involve training, it will involve exercising, it will involve discussion about what kinds of infrastructure we need in the Baltics, in Poland, in Romania and in other states on the eastern frontier to deal with the world in which they face new concerns about Russian intentions.

And then finally, the reassurance effort will also reaffirm NATO’s open door, the prospect of new members down the line. This will not be an enlargement summit, but we will move forward with packages of assistance to Georgia, and also move forward further down the road, the prospects for Montenegro’s membership in the alliance.

On Afghanistan, as I mentioned, we’ll be moving from ISAF to resolute support. The main issues there are going to be, one, resourcing the mission, making sure that that mission has the necessary financial support from member states and partners, and also making sure that the force levels that we see needed for training the Afghans and for providing advice, that those force levels are met by contributions from NATO members and from partners.

And so the main effort there is really, number one, the resources, and two, getting the warm bodies ready. And obviously, we’re in a fluid situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and we are trying to work out exactly who will be the representative of Afghanistan at the opening session, which focuses on this issue.

The first session, the ISAF mission -- the ISAF session will also discuss partnerships moving forward. In other words, we’re moving into a world in which NATO will be less salient in Afghanistan, but in which we want to capitalize on the lessons that we’ve learned, the partnerships that we’ve built -- what we’re calling the interoperability platform that has emerged where NATO members have learned to work with a very wide range of countries across the globe. And so we will be developing a partnership program to make sure that our relationships with these partners move forward.

Finally, two other issues I want to lay down. One is that on the question of what is NATO doing to further its role as a hub of global security, one is the partnership issue that I just mentioned, and the other is to build out what we’re calling a defense capacity building initiative. And this will essentially involve using NATO assets, using NATO capability, using NATO know-how to offer assistance to help other countries and other regions do for themselves what NATO has done for the Euro-Atlantic community.

So we’re thinking here of everything from small advisory teams to training missions. And one of the issues that will be under discussion at NATO is where do we establish such programs, what will the footprint of this effort be. And I think the President is forward leaning on getting NATO more involved in the Middle East and, in particular, dealing with the threat from ISIL, dealing with the humanitarian urgencies in the region. And so one can expect NATO to make advances on that front.

The final issue -- everything that I’ve been discussing over the last few minutes involves resources. It involves defense spending, it involves the readiness of NATO members to step up to the plate. And the President has wanted to ensure that this summit showcase the readiness of all NATO members to contribute to collective efforts. And therefore there will be a pledge of one sort or another at the summit in which we hope to get all NATO members to move in the direction of increasing their defense resources and contributing in a fair and proportional way to the effort to beef up collective defense and to lock in NATO’s role as a hub of global security.

I’ll stop there and turn it back to Caitlin.

MS. HAYDEN: Great. One thing I’d note as well, as we talk about what the President is going to be doing on this trip -- I would just note that both Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel will be on the trip with the President and they will, in addition to participating in the summit meetings, they’ll have a chance to have some of their own meetings as well. So I think there will be a lot of business going on, particularly in Wales. So their Departments can certainly talk to you about their schedules, but I just wanted to note that.

Q: Thank you very much. Can you give us an idea of whether you think Vladimir Putin is positioning for future cease-fire talks or if there really is a threat of more than what has been described as an incursion, and whether more unilateral sanctions would be initiated prior to the NATO meeting or would this be more of a collective conversation about future sanctions imminently? Thank you.

MR. KUPCHAN: It’s difficult to know what is in Putin’s mind. It’s clear that he, in the last few weeks, has been upping the ante by increasing the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine and by expanding the footprint of Russian operations in Ukraine.

At the same time, it’s clear that, number one, the sanctions are biting. Number two, that Russia is isolated politically -- just look at some of the statements that have been coming out over the last 24 hours from the United States, from European allies, from NATO. And number three, that the posture of Russia in Ukraine is causing divisions and challenges to Putin at home. And our strategy here is to try to get to a situation in which Putin sees an off-ramp as a more attractive option than continuing to pursue a course of military intervention in Ukraine.

Increasing the economic pain in Russia is part of that strategy, and the European Union has a council meeting on the 30th, and there will be a discussion at that meeting of turning up the heat on Mr. Putin. There will be a steady dialogue between the United States and its European partners on this issue. That dialogue has already begun, it will continue through the EU meeting over the weekend. It will continue into the NATO Summit.

And so we see the whole question of economic sanctions and raising the economic pain as part and parcel of the discussions that will be underway at NATO in terms of our reassurance package and creating a situation in which Russia faces increasing pressure to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Q: Hi. I saw this morning that Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said that he was calling for a bill to reconsider the non-aligned status of Ukraine and NATO, and to move on the path of membership. I wondered what the U.S. position was on that and whether it would be discussed at the summit. Thank you.

MR. KUPCHAN: Our policy on the question of the future of NATO enlargement is essentially that the door is open and that countries that are willing to contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic space are welcome to apply for membership, and they will be considered on the merits. At this point in time, the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine is not under discussion in the alliance, but I think the general posture of the United States and its allies is that the door is open and that this conversation will continue.

Q: Thanks for doing the call. How would you characterize the message that we’ll hear from the President when he stops in Estonia? Will it be a message to the people of the Baltic nations? Will it be a message to Putin or some sort of combination?

MS. HAYDEN: I think when the President is in Estonia -- I mean, his goal is to reaffirm our commitment to not just the Baltics but the defense of our NATO allies, our commitment to the Article 5 at NATO. And so, look, when the President speaks I think it’s a chance for him to talk to many different audiences, both in the Baltics, in Russia, in Ukraine, our European partners, and folks back here in the U.S. as well. So I think he’ll be reiterating that message to everyone. I don’t know if Charles has anything he wants to add.

MR. KUPCHAN: I would simply add that it is clearly not accidental that the President has decided to stop in Estonia on the way to the NATO Summit. The two stops are essentially part of the same effort to send a message to the Russians that their behavior is unacceptable. You have in Estonia a large Russian population, and therefore part of the message that the President will be sending is, we stand with you; Article 5 constitutes an ironclad guarantee of your security; Russia, don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine.

Q: Thanks. Just referring to this pledge for NATO funding, is this going to be binding? Is there any reason why countries that have been lagging on their contributions can be expected to make up for it now? There’s a lot of economic dislocations still in Europe following the financial crisis. I mean, will there be any consequences for NATO members that don’t satisfy the percentage of GDP requirements for NATO membership?

MR. KUPCHAN: Well, as you probably know, there is a NATO benchmark that members should spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, and there are also some guidelines as to how that money should be spent. In general, we prefer that countries spend on equipment, on research and development, on things that produce future capability as opposed to spending a lot on manpower. And so those are the two issues that will be under consideration and under debate.

We don’t yet have a final text of the pledge worked out, and so I can’t give you a precise answer. But essentially what we are looking to do is to create a commitment that countries will work toward meeting specified benchmarks in a certain timeframe. And in light of what is happening in Europe, in light of the fact that Article 5 defense guarantees are more salient today, more urgent today than they’ve been at any time since the end of the Cold War, we are reasonably optimistic that we will get agreement among the 28 allies to rally behind a commitment toward increased defense spending.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you about the level of participation from Afghanistan. Do you think the new president would be able to make it up for the summit? And is the President -- has he any flexibility on Afghanistan options in terms of troops? Because the situation in Afghanistan is very fluid right now, you don’t know what (inaudible) in the next couple of months. Thank you.

MS. HAYDEN: I think we couldn’t quite hear the last part of your question. The first part I thought was about who would be attending from the Afghan side. I didn’t hear the second. Do you mind repeating it for us?

Q: Yes, the second part was, is the President -- or does the President have any flexibility on his Afghanistan policy in terms of the number of troops that he had announced earlier, given that the situation in Afghanistan is very fluid right now, we don’t know which way Afghanistan is (inaudible).

MS. HAYDEN: Sure, thank you. On who will attend from Afghanistan, I think I’d refer you to the Afghan government on that. We are I think still waiting to see who intends to travel. As you know, the election process is still continuing there. But obviously, this is a subject of much discussion at the summit so we look forward to finding that out.

In terms of the President’s strategy, at this point we’re carrying forward with the strategy the President announced. Very important to that strategy will be the signing of the bilateral security agreement, which both candidates have said that they would intend to do.

As is always the case, depending on the conditions on the ground, the President reserves the right to make adjustments to his policy. But right now, the policy is and the plan is as the President laid it out, so I’m not expecting to announce any changes at this stage. And again, part of what we’ll be discussing at the summit is how the United States and our allies will continue to support Afghanistan as we move forward into this new mission.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on something that Charles said just before about -- in light of what’s happening, Article 5 defense guarantees are ever more salient. So just wanted to ask you if the President sees this summit as a way of pressing forward maybe things that might not have been possible at NATO just a few months ago, and what those things might be; you talked about the funding pledge. I wonder in terms of the readiness plan or any other kind of items you think are -- the allies might be more willing to rally around now, what he can get out of this given what we’re seeing going on in Ukraine.

MR. KUPCHAN: Yes. I think that that’s the -- because this summit takes place against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine, the discussion takes on added urgency. And the leaders of NATO have greater latitude in moving forward on defense spending, on making commitments to new contributions, because they are now in democracies where their publics are much more attuned to possible threats that are emerging from Russia.

And so I think what you’ll see is progress on the defense spending side, progress particularly on increasing the readiness times of NATO forces. Because I think one of the things that we’ve learned from the situation in Ukraine is that oftentimes in this new world that we live in, NATO or individual countries may be facing not armored columns coming across their border, which you can usually see in advance, but guys coming across in masks, you don’t know who they are -- what we could call hybrid warfare, or asymmetric warfare. And that requires a very different kind of military response than NATO has traditionally been focused on.

So I think one of the issues that we hope to see progress on at the summit is creating forces within NATO that are able to respond in a very short timeframe, and not necessarily with the kinds of heavy weaponry that you would need to have to confront an armored division, but that are capable in areas of, let’s say, special forces of cyberwarfare, of counter-insurgency.

So part of the trick here is not just getting forces ready to respond to the new threats that NATO faces, but structured to confront those threats. And I think that we’re just -- we’re in a much more permissive environment on making these kinds of reforms than we were before there was a return of geopolitical conflict to Europe.

Q: I have a question about -- what’s the President’s position on positioning permanent NATO troops or NATO bases in the Eastern European countries -- for example, in Estonia -- or prepositioning some equipment in those areas as some of these analysts and some of the Estonian politicians they have called for?

MR. KUPCHAN: I think that the discussions in Wales will focus intently on the kinds of measures that need to be taken to reassure Estonia and its neighbors, and that we will see more military activity in your part of the world, including training exercises, defense reform, defense capacity building, increasing rotation of NATO troops through Estonia and through the region in which Estonia resides. I doubt that we will see movement toward the creation of what one would call permanent forward bases. As you probably know, there is something called the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and that act addressed the question of the setting up of permanent bases, and NATO is in a situation right now in which it is refraining from moving in that direction.

So I think that the important words will be “persistent” rather than “permanent” -- that is to say we will see persistent rotation, persistent exercises to ensure that Estonia and that other countries in Central and Eastern Europe are provided the reassurance from NATO and the presence of NATO needed to meet their security needs.

MS. HAYDEN: Thanks, everyone, for joining and we look forward to seeing many of you on the trip. Have a good weekend. Thanks.

END 3:05 P.M. EDT