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SACEUR Special Briefing via Telephone - COVID-19

Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S.-European Media Hub in Brussels, Belgium. I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world, and thank all of you for joining this discussion.

Today we are very pleased to be joined by General Tod Wolters, U.S. European Command Commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. General Wolters will discuss EUCOM’s role in supporting NATO efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the command’s overall posture at this time.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from the general, and then we’ll try to get to as many of your questions as we can in the next 25 minutes or so. We’ll try to get to as many questions as possible. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.

With that, I will turn it over to General Wolters.

General Wolters: Hey, Justin, good afternoon. And number one, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. And number two, thanks for pouring out your heart and soul to orchestrate all of this. I know it’s very difficult during these trying times.

For the audience, as you well know, based off what Justin just said, I’ve got the distinct privilege of wearing two hats. One is the Commander of U.S. European Command, and the other as the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. I’ll speak underneath both those hats, and make sure, if we have any discrepancies based off which hat I’m talking from, I’ll clarify that with you.

With respect to the COVID pandemic, first and foremost, our sincere condolences to all who have suffered from the tragic loss of life as a result of COVID-19. We grieve with you.

Even as the NATO military forces continue to deliver effective deterrence and defense – and we are laser-focused on that delivery – we are still conducting operations, our forces remain ready, and all of this is crucial as work continues to progress.

Allies continue to stand close together and support each other, especially during these trying times, and we do so through different NATO arrangements, and we’ve done so and will continue to do so via bilateral arrangements.

Allied armed forces across the Alliance are also playing an essential role in supporting national civilian efforts. For NATO we continue to use the Rapid Air Mobility initiative in cooperation with the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, and that’s EUROCONTROL. This allows for expeditious delivery of life-saving equipment and personnel to the critical point of need.

Also, using multiple means such as the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency, Strategic Airlift International Solution, which is SALIS, and Strategic Airlift Capability, we’re able to lift and shift critical assets and get them to the vital point of need. Again, that vital point of need varies in time and location.

Our shared values across all of the NATO Alliance are what keeps us going through these difficult times. I truly believe that this pandemic has brought us closer together.

Let me take just a second to share with you what United States forces have done in our area versus COVID-19. At this point I’m speaking to you with my U.S.-EUCOM hat. Across the European theater we provided for over $500,000 in essential equipment and medical supplies from the U.S. Department of Defense stocks within Italy alone. We’ve leveraged long-standing bilateral relationships to coordinate access to supplies in Luxembourg. Under NATO’s lead we’ve joined with allies to lift much-needed medical supplies from the Pacific to Romania.

On the 10th of April the U.S. President authorized contributions of $4.7 million to fund locally procured personal protective equipment requirements. U.S. European Command has 10 quick reaction projects in execution, delivering $150,000 in PPE to 8 different locations. And as we speak, we’ve got eight more projects in the works.

Just this week we transferred three Americans from Kabul, Afghanistan to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and onward to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for the treatment of COVID-19. This was a first for our U.S. Department of Defense from Afghanistan to Europe.

None of these events would have been possible without the trust and confidence and coordination between allies and partners. This is proof that the Alliance remains ready and capable to support one another in these tough, tough times of need.

Lastly, before I close, I want to underscore the importance of credible information. As military forces, we have an obligation to be truthful, timely, and accurate in what we say and what we do, and that’s exactly what we continue to do here, from a U.S. perspective, and certainly from a European perspective. It’s part of our democratic values system. Transparency is vital right now. Neutralizing misinformation and delivering accurate and truthful facts is paramount. Our partnership and trust with one another is steadfast, and it will remain so long after COVID-19 is over with.

With that, I look forward to answering your questions.

Moderator: Thank you for those remarks, General. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

We’re going to start with a question that was submitted to us in advance. It’s from Andrei Sitov with the TASS News Agency in Russia. His question is, “Moscow calls for a commitment on the part of both Russia and NATO to significantly limit the scope of military exercises and trainings for the duration of the pandemic. They seem to take the idea very seriously. Is this something that NATO would be willing to consider? If no, why not? What needs to happen for this to become a reality?”

General Wolters: Justin, thanks for the question. The first thing I’ll say is, as the Allied Command Operations Commander representing NATO, we and our commanders remain laser-focused on preserving our capability to adequately deter and defend in Europe. And we remain laser-focused in that area, and we certainly possess the capability to effectively deter and defend today. And that is mission one.

Our second concern is, obviously, the health of all the citizens that we swore to protect, and we remain laser-focused in that area. In so doing, we will ensure that, as a NATO, we preserve our incredible capability to effectively deter and defend, and we will not take our eye off the ball with respect to that capability. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes from Ivana Dragicevic with N1 TV in Croatia. Please go ahead, Ivana.

Question: Thank you very much, General, for this opportunity. I spoke last week with Deputy Secretary General Geoana, and he said that you will be presenting to ministers of defense some innovative solutions for them to consider and maybe adopt. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? Thank you very much.

General Wolters: That’s a great question, and you’re so right. One of the things that we will most likely be tasked to do by NATO towards our SHAPE headquarters is to provide inputs in the near and long term for a pandemic response plan, and a part of having an effective plan is to make sure that we go back and after-action review all that has taken place with respect to lessons learned from pandemic coronavirus 19. So we will gather all of the facts, and ensure that we can marshal our planners together, and look for ways that we can be more credible in serving our citizens from a military perspective, while we always focus on deterring and defending, and also from a health perspective, to ensure that all of our citizens are in good shape when it’s all said and done.

There will be thousands and thousands of inputs to that plan, and we want that plan to be comprehensive in its service to the health of our citizens. And our pledge to NATO is we will do that. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you very much, General. I’m going to pass along another question that came to us submitted in advance. This is from Julian Barnes with The New York Times. His question is, “Can you describe Russian disinformation efforts that have taken advantage of the pandemic to try and divide the NATO Alliance?”

General Wolters: Thanks, Justin. We’ve heard information in open press that addresses some of the medical goods that have been delivered by certain NATO nations to other NATO nations. And Russia has attempted to insert themselves in that information transaction and downplay the importance of one nation in NATO providing PPE equipment to another. And that in itself is a form of disinformation.

We’ve also seen cases where Russia has delivered goods to European nations, and there have been many open press reports that those goods are flawed.

What we owe our citizens is to ensure that we tell the truth. And part of a misinformation campaign starts with the trust and confidence that citizens have in what you transmit. And we want to make sure that we continue to stick with our democratic values and stay very, very laser-focused on the facts so that our forces understand exactly what we’re doing, and anybody that attempts to provide malign influence to our forces must understand that we’re in the business of passing on the facts, not falsehoods. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you, General. Our next question comes from Luigi Ippolito with Corriere della Sera. Please go ahead, Luigi.

Question: Yes. Thank you, General. It’s basically a follow-up to the previous question. You know that the medical supplies that Russians have sent to Italy have been accompanied by military Russian personnel, and also intelligence personnel. Do you think that the presence of these kinds of operatives on NATO territory represents a security risk for NATO? And should the Italian Government have been more cautious in accepting this kind of so-called help?

General Wolters: Thanks for the question, and I can tell you that I remain very, very focused on those transactions. And again, that’s a decision, with respect to the Italian Government, that you would have to take up with them. I am very aware of those transactions. It is of concern. I pay very close attention to Russian malign influence. I pay very close attention to Russian influence. And we have to make sure that we have all the facts. It is a concern. We remain very, very vigilant in NATO with respect to those transactions, and we continue to monitor to the highest degree.

Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you, General. We’re going to take another question submitted to us in advance. This is from Jakub Borowski with the Polish Press Agency in Poland. He asks, “Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some exercises have been modified or canceled. Are there plans to change, postpone, or cancel other exercises scheduled this year – for example, BALTOPS?”

General Wolters: Thanks, Justin. As for now, BALTOPS is still ongoing and it’s a classic case where we have an exercise on the horizon in the June and July timeframe, and with each passing second of the day we’re taking a look at each and every one of our activities to make sure that we can preserve, potentially, as many as possible, and when we think it’s feasible based off the size of the exercise, the complexity of the exercise, the location of the exercise, obviously the time of the exercise, we’re willing to make adjustments. And a lot of that has to do with what are the learning objectives, what is our ability to adequately get everybody together of sound mind and comfort to where they can remain laser-focused on the mission.

So we will be – we will be constantly adjusting the scope and scale of our exercises, as we have been for the last 70 to 80 days, to make sure if there is an ability to execute the exercise in its totality, we will attempt to keep it on track, and if there is no ability to do so, we’ll look at cancellation or postponement, and depending upon, again, the size, the cost, the location, we will continue to adjudicate.

My goal is also, as the SHAPE commander from a NATO perspective, to ensure that those exercises that unfortunately we’ve had to cancel or postpone, we’ll go back and take a look at all the critical objectives that we wanted to garner out of each and one of those – each and every one of those exercises and make sure that our field commanders is aware of what we suspect would have been the lessons learned for those exercises, and we’ll go through a strong commanders conference to make sure that any potential lessons learned, we’ll try to pull out of them what we thought we would have pulled out of them to make sure that we can remind all of our forces of all the things that are involved to ensure that we can adequately deter and defend. And again, that’s the purpose of having those exercises – to improve our deterrence and defense posture.

Thanks, Justin.

Moderator: Thank you very much, General. Our next question is from Lara Seligman with Politico in the United States. Please go ahead.

Question: Hi, General Wolters. It’s good to hear from you. I am wondering if you could tell me anything more about the incident in the last couple of days about a Russian Su-35 harassing a Navy P-8 over the Mediterranean. I’m wondering if you believe that this is part of Moscow taking advantage of the pandemic to harass our planes. What do you think is their aim in doing something like this? Thank you.

General Wolters: Well, Lara, number one, it’s good to hear your voice and I’m glad you’re doing good and continue to stay healthy. I know that you’re very familiar with what happened between the Su and the P-8. It was obviously unfortunate. As you can imagine, I’ve looked at footage, I’ve studied the intent, and my conclusion at this point is that it was probably something that was more along the lines of unprofessional as opposed to deliberate. We have an investigation that’s ongoing. As you well know, we do that in every case and our U.S. Mission in Moscow has obviously already initiated a conversation with the powers that be in Moscow to make sure that they’re very, very aware of our dissatisfaction with the event.

But we’ll continue to take a closer look at it, Lara, but at this point I can tell you that it’s been characterized as unsafe and unprofessional, and that’s exactly what it looks to be at this point.

Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you very much, General. Our next question comes to us from Nick Turse with The Intercept. Please go ahead, Nick.

Question: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk today, General. You mentioned that EUCOM is still conducting operations. Can you talk in a little more detail about how the pandemic has influenced the conduct of U.S. military operations in Europe and offer a few concrete examples of any changes you’ve instituted or measures you’ve taken to facilitate missions being carried out?

General Wolters: Nick, that’s a great question, and as you well know, we’re adjusting every day. The classic U.S. example that I can pass on to you that displays what we probably have lost from a training perspective goes back to DEFENDER-Europe 20. And as you recall, it involved 18 nations. As a result of reducing the number of U.S. troops that we brought from CONUS to Europe, we had a reduction of – in sheer size of the nations that were involved. So instead of having 18 nations involved with DEFENDER-Europe 20, it’s much, much less than that.

But with each and every passing day, we’re looking for the opportunity to take those 5,700 to 6,200 U.S. soldiers that we have on European soil to make sure that they get as much of the pre-prescribed DEFENDER-Europe 20 training as they can possibly get. Will they get it all? No, and it’ll be with a smaller footprint. But we’re trying as hard as we can to squeeze out every second of the day and ensure that each and every one of the troops that we have invested already in DEFENDER-Europe 20 can maximize their training.

We’re doing that in all of the other exercises, and as you would well imagine, Nick, the critical missions that we have ongoing from the U.S. perspective and from the NATO perspective continue to remain intact. And as – in NATO, as we look at NATO air policing, as we look at the standing naval maritime groups, as we look at the enhanced forward presence with the battalion-sized battle groups that are in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, all those missions remain on track as does KFOR and Resolute Support.

So we’re working very, very hard to squeeze as much as we can out of what we have available, but we have preserved all of the operational missions, and those exercises that we’ve had to postpone or cancel, we’re looking at the innovative ways that we can squeeze as much learning out of each and every one of those events as possible.

Thanks, Nick. Good question.

Moderator: Very good. Thanks, General. Our next question comes from Danila Galperovich with Voice of America.

Question: Hello. Good morning, General. Thank you very much for doing this. I would like to return to the question of disinformation. NATO defense ministers expressed concern and the secretary general yesterday did the same, but what practical measures NATO has against this disinformation to deter disinformation? Because for now, we hear only an expression of concern and just demand for honest journalism.

And another question. The secretary general yesterday told that Russia is keeping its pace in military activity and continuing to support separatists in Ukraine. What NATO could do for Ukrainian partners in this time? Thank you.

General Wolters: So first let me go back to your first question first, with respect to disinformation. Part of all this is the trait called “telling the truth.” So when we discover, because we’re very aware and we’re paying attention, that somebody – a malign influencer outside of Europe – is attempting to pass on disinformation, we have to have a sensing system that recognizes that falsehood and is prepared to counter that disinformation with the truth and with the facts. So that’s part of it.

The other part of this disinformation is your ability to effectively deter, and part of that has to do with your field commanders and your operators and your maintainers and your mission supporters and your medical specialists understanding what it is their forces are effectively doing to improve health and to improve our ability to deter and defend. And we have asked all those uniformed military members and their supporting casts to be knowledgeable and equipped to tell the truth also about their great accomplishments, because that in itself is telling the truth and it’s part of more effective deterrence and defense, and it’s also part of improving the mental disposition and health of our forces.

So it’s two-pronged: number one, recognize when you have malign influencers and they’re telling falsehoods, and point those out and correct that to 100 percent; and number two, taking the time to talk about your operations, your activities, your investments, what you’re doing from a health perspective to positively influence the good outcome of all your forces.

With respect to the second part of your question, which has to do with operations in the vicinity of the Ukraine, we’re very, very focused on deterrence and defense along Eastern Europe, and our NATO nations that are part and parcel and abut those boundaries are very, very focused on deterrence and defense, and none of our ability has been impaired with respect to how well we command and control and how well we provide indications and warnings in those areas.

Thank you.

Moderator: General, thank you very much for taking the time. I know you’re very busy and so, unfortunately, we’re going to have to wrap it there. But do you have any closing remarks that you’d like to offer?

General Wolters: Again, Justin, to the team, thanks for taking the time to do this. And I have to foot-stomp that last question, which was very, very sage. Telling the truth is part of our democratic values system, and we’re doing a good job of that. We’re laser-focused at the Supreme Headquarters for Allied Powers Europe to make sure that we can effectively deter and defend and protect the sovereignty in air, land, sea, space, and cyber for all of our nations, and we’ll continue to remain laser-focused on deterring and defending.

Thank you, Justin. Out here.

Moderator: General, thank you very much for joining us. I hope we can get you back in the future. And thanks to all the reporters who are on the line for joining today’s call.

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