While the situation in Ukraine and the Middle East dominated, NATO defense ministers dealt with a range of issues during their defense ministerial in Brussels today.
The ministers discussed progress made in strengthening deterrence in the region and the various NATO missions and operations, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a news conference following the meeting at NATO headquarters.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III attended the meeting and chaired a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group immediately prior to the NATO ministerial.
Stoltenberg said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant briefed the ministers on the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel, and Israel’s ongoing response.
“The allies strongly condemned Hamas’ indefensible attacks on civilians, and called for the immediate release of all hostages,” the secretary general said. “Israel has the right to defend itself. And as the conflict unfolds, the protection of civilians is essential. No nation or organization hostile to Israel should seek to take advantage of the situation, or to escalate the conflict.”
The NATO ministers also addressed alliance missions and operations, including in the Western Balkans and in Iraq. “In response to recent tensions in Kosovo, NATO has deployed hundreds of additional reserve forces to our [Kosovo Force] operation in recent weeks,” he said.
The KFOR is conducting more patrols in the northern part of Kosovo. “These are prudent steps to ensure KFOR has the forces it needs to fulfil its U.N. mandate impartially,” Stoltenberg said.
He said leaders in Serbia and Kosovo must behave responsibly, refrain from destabilizing actions and re-engage in the European Union-sponsored dialogue. “This is the only way to lasting peace in Kosovo,” he said.
In Iraq, the NATO mission is expanding support to Iraqi security institutions, to help prevent the return of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “Terrorism remains the most direct asymmetric threat to the alliance,” he said.
To combat this, Stoltenberg announced that Assistant Secretary General Tom Goffus will serve as special coordinator for counterterrorism. “He will ensure that NATO’s response to terrorism remains strong, effective and coherent,” Stoltenberg said.
Defense ministers also discussed moves to strengthen alliance defenses announced during the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania last summer. NATO leaders agreed on the most robust defense plans since the end of the Cold War, the secretary general said. “We are now taking the next steps: This means assigning the necessary forces, developing new capabilities and adjusting our command and control structures,” he said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rattled the nuclear saber. “Russia’s war on Ukraine is a reminder of the important role NATO’s nuclear weapons play in deterring aggression,” Stoltenberg said. “Next week, NATO will hold its annual nuclear exercise, Steadfast Noon. This is a routine training event that happens every October.”
The exercise will take place over Italy, Croatia and the Mediterranean Sea. “Our exercise will help to ensure the credibility, effectiveness and security of our nuclear deterrent,” he said. “It sends a clear message that NATO will protect and defend all allies.”
The ministers also discussed damage to critical undersea infrastructure in the Baltic Sea. A gas pipeline and a communications cable connecting NATO allies, Finland and Estonia were damaged Oct. 10. The allies will work with Finland and Estonia to establish the facts behind the incident. “If this is proven to be a deliberate attack on critical infrastructure, it would be a serious incident, and it would be met by a united and determined response,” Stoltenberg said.
Finally, the secretary general raised the need to move forward on the ratification of Swedish membership in the alliance. “I’m glad that the Turkish defense minister confirmed that Turkey stands by the agreement from Vilnius to finalize Swedish accession,” he said. “I now expect that the Turkish government will submit the accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly and work with the assembly to ensure speedy ratification.”