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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. Breedlove in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Presenters: NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander, U.S. European Command, General Philip Breedlove
September 16, 2014

GENERAL PHILIP BREEDLOVE: So thank you for allowing me to come back to the podium. It's been a pretty busy and, quite frankly, historical two months since I was here last. As you know, a lot has changed in Europe, particularly in our east.

The security environment has changed and has forced us, along with NATO, to re-evaluate relationships and specifically our relationship with Russia. The upside is that it also gave us an opportunity to reaffirm to each other in the alliance our steadfast commitment to mutual defense.

As I stated the last time I was here, it is indeed a momentous time in Europe. But the support of our partners and allies in Europe and NATO, we will face these challenges like we have in the past -- together -- and work toward our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

Over the last 70 years from the Cold War, to recent operations in Kosovo and Libya, the U.S. and NATO adapted and overcame huge obstacles and challenges on our path to these successes. In the process, we individually and collectively became stronger, and collectively with our allies and partners, we will blunt and counter any aggression or threat directed at our alliance. The public can be assured that with their support we will continue to succeed.

As many of you know, I spoke at the Atlantic Council yesterday about how NATO is going to change as endorsed at our Wales Summit. If you ask me, I'll be glad to go over those high points in discussing things you want to discuss.

Europe, despite the great work of our predecessors over the last 70 years, has become a region under tension. Russia has forcefully changed borders of several countries by violating their territorial sovereignty. Russia has illegally annexed a part of one of them, something we will never acknowledge. Russia has also used asymmetric hybrid warfare to further illicit transgressions, which is a danger to their neighbors and the safety and security of Europe.

Further, Russian claims and propaganda alike spread of false regional names that no longer exist and have no legal standing, nor international recognition, endanger not only the state that they affect, but the people who live with them -- or in them, excuse me.

Additionally, Europe faces, with the United States, the prospect of foreign fighters bringing their distorted worldview and terrorist skills back to their native countries. The U.S., as the president has stated, will take active measures with coalition partners to prevent any scenario like that from playing out. U.S. European Command and nations in my AOR [area of responsibility] will play a significant role in these coalition and U.S. efforts to rid the world of this threat and the scourge of ISIL.

So that's all I have for an opening statement, and I'm ready for your questions.

Q: General, Courtney Kube from NBC News. Can you give us an update on how many Russian troops you still see arrayed along the border with Ukraine, how many you believe are in Ukraine, and then your assessment of this almost week-and-a-half-old cease-fire. Is it holding? Is it tenuous?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Right. So as you know, numbers are a hard thing to do. I would rather not pin down numbers. I will -- I will paint a picture for you, which is that from a peak of well over 10 battalion task groups inside of Ukraine, I believe we're now down to elements of probably four battalion task groups inside Ukraine.

The Russians have been removing forces to the east of the Ukrainian border back into Russia, but make no mistake -- those forces are close enough to be quickly brought back to bear if required. They have not left the area that would allow them to be either a course of force or a force used for actual combat, if required.

Inside of Ukraine, we see forces that now are arrayed, I think, with two purposes. One purpose is to keep the flow of support and supply to the separatist forces and the Russian forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk area wide open. So those avenues of support will remain wide open, and I think that the Russian forces are arrayed to ensure that.

Secondarily, I think we see Russian forces arrayed to bring great pressure on Mariupol. So currently, there is a large force that threatens Mariupol. I think it has one of two possibilities for use. It can sit there and be a coercive force to ensure that the negotiations for peace fall out along the lines that Russia wants them to fall out, or it could also be used to take Mariupol, if it was there. But these forces are arrayed to allow them to do either.

So I think it's important to say that, yes, some of the force structure has come down. No, none of it has departed. It is all still available. And the forces that remain inside of Ukraine are arrayed to set conditions to completely support the long-term effort of the separatists in the east and to either coerce or force the hand in Mariupol.

Q: (off-mic)

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I'm sorry. Yes, cease-fire. So I think the word you used is probably a good one. It's tenuous. We see fighting still erupting. We see the separatists firing on positions. And I think the good news in the larger construct, it is more -- much more calm than before, but clearly there are pockets of separatists that may have a different agenda.

Q: Sir, Joe Tabet with Middle East broadcasting network Al Hurra. I would like to ask you, you mentioned in your opening statement the threat of ISIL foreign fighters. As you may know, one of ISIL's terrorists attacked the Jewish museum in Brussels last May. What could NATO do to face that threat, first?

And, secondly, how do you see Turkey's role in facing or countering ISIL?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So to your first question, the example that you just brought up is the one that I use many times when I discuss this. The nations of NATO, including our own nation, have been focused on and thinking about these foreign fighters from our nations and when they might return and what they might do when they return.

And largely, we were sort of thinking in stovepipes, you know? We've got X number of foreign fighters. And when they return, they could be a problem. And I think some of our NATO nations thought along the same way. We've got a certain number. When they come home, they're a problem.

That specific example was a wake-up call, I think, because that foreign fighter returned to his home country, committed the act, and then quickly went across a border into another NATO nation. The freedom of movement in the Schengen zone is a -- is a beautiful thing for a lot of reasons, but it completely allowed this particular individual to move into another nation.

So what did that do, is the nations then understood that they have to worry about more than their own foreign fighters. If a foreign fighter returns to a neighboring nation and then commits an act or plans, it's easy for them to get across borders into neighboring nations. So our NATO nations, I think, saw that this foreign fighter problem was bigger than just a few that they may see forward.

So NATO has agreed to work on this together. It's already working, sharing of information and other things that we can do to enable each other, each other to better understand, characterize, and fight these efforts are already ongoing.

Turkey is a key ally in our alliance. Turkey is on the border with the nation where a lot of these foreign fighters are being trained and utilized. And so they will be absolutely key to stopping that flow or key to being a part of understanding how to address it. And we see great cooperation for Turkey in this respect.

Q: General, Phil Ewing with Politico. I wanted to ask a quick follow-up to Courtney's question and then one on NATO. Can you give us a sense about the operational tempo for the Baltic air policing and other NATO-allied warplanes that are on the eastern border? How often do Russian aircraft come across? How often are there encounters between those forces? And coming out of Wales, the NATO very high readiness force that the member states talked about, can you go through the process going forward about who will decide when about what is in that force, and specifically what units the U.S. could contribute?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Okay. So to your first question about Baltic air policing and what we see there, the operational tempo of Baltic air policing will continue as you see it today as far as the NATO contributions to Baltic air policing. If you remember months ago when we first had Crimea and this brought concern by the nations, SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe], my headquarters was tasked to develop an assurance -- set of assurance measures, and they were to be air, land and sea in the north, center and south. So a comprehensive set of operations.

So the air piece is just one of those assurance measures. And what we have done is stepped up, such that we used to have one Baltic air policing location in Siauliai, and then we opened a second Baltic air policing in Amari in Estonia, and then we added other locations where we flew air policing and normal exercises in Poland and Romania and in other places.

We will maintain the tasking. It was reaffirmed in the summit that we will have assurance measures in the same capacity and type that we have now. We will maintain those assurance measures until we make the permanent adaptations that are described by the rapid -- or the readiness action plan, the RAP, as we call it, that was addressed at the summit. So you can see that our efforts, which really did a good job of assuring our nations, those assurance measures will remain in effect at the current level until we get the adaptation in.

There was a short spike in engagements, but truly, if you look at the trend of Russian flights and engagements in the northeast part of our alliance, they're fairly traditionally normal. We see a lot more activity across the borders in Russian aviation, but those are not the aviation that come along the borders and we have traditionally reacted to as a function of our air policing. Do you understand that difference? Okay.

Your second question was about, who is going to develop the very high readiness piece? So the -- when ACO, allied command operations, or SHAPE, began the paper, which eventually become the RAP, we had -- we had thoughts about how this would work in general. And our idea was to get to the summit and get the decisions that we needed to make those three adaptations, which you've heard me call as the three-legged stool.

One of those legs is that very high readiness force. And we described it more in purpose and function than in detail to the summit, and the summit completely endorsed it, embraced it. So now we start the process that will put the detail on the bones. We have written a second paper, which we will deliver to the MC/CS, the chiefs of defense, next week, which will advance the ball in understanding what the nations believe that force should look like. And we'll have a robust discussion at that meeting about how this force looks in the future.

We have agreed to and a clear understanding of what it needs to be able to do, and how we effect that now will be the details that we'll work out over the next -- next couple of months.

Important to remember that I just said our current assurance measures, which has forward presence in them, will remain in effect until we get to the permanent adaptation of RAP. So we have both an assurance and a deterrence force forward that will remain in place until we effect the change.

Q: Thanks, general. Justin Fishel with Fox News. Today, General Dempsey made some headlines when he talked about the possibility of actually putting U.S. combat troops in a combat role on the ground in Iraq to assist Iraqi security forces and possibly the Peshmerga. I'm wondering if you've gotten any similar commitments or the possibility of such commitments from any NATO allies to actually put their own combat troops on the ground in Iraq.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So as to what the chairman said, I would refer you to the chairman to get a definition from him on what he said and intended. What I will report is, I think you're already aware of. At the summit, a group of NATO nations -- not NATO, but a coalition of willing NATO nations -- met and discussed commitments on a way forward in western Iraq and, to some degree, what might happen in eastern Syria.

And because those deliberations and announcements are not firm and finalized yet, I would refer you individually to the nations to ask them what they're committed to.

Q: General, hi, I'm Paul Shinkman with U.S. News and World Report. I wanted to follow up on something you said yesterday at the Atlantic Council about Russia's role. You said, "I don't think we can ever arrive at a Europe whole, free and at peace without Russia as a partner." Would you expand, please, on why that's so important?

And then leaving aside the politics of it, what role does NATO play in arriving at that conclusion?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So, yes, I did make this statement yesterday, and let me just expound on what that means. I think it's fairly easy to understand that for us to prosper together in the European landmass, that is going to need the cooperation, accommodation, however you want to describe it, of Russia.

The Russian energy part of the equation, transportation part of the equation, manufacturing relationships, agricultural relationships -- if we're ever going to get to a Europe that we describe -- whole, free and at peace -- and a prosperous Europe, we're going to need to be able to work with Russia in those relationships.

We have been trying for many years -- 12 to 14 years -- to develop a partnership with Russia. Clearly, the actions of the last four or five months are not the actions of a partner. So now we have to redefine that. We have to approach how we will go forward. And you see NATO and other nations taking those actions, which set the conditions for how we need to be able to relate in the short term.

But in the long term, we're going to have to reach accommodation of some sort and understanding in order, I think, to move forward for a prosperous Europe. I think Russia has to be a part of a prosperous Europe. And so that's kind of what I said.

So how does NATO fit into that? Well, there are a lot of bilateral relationships in NATO with Russia, which will be a big part of defining the future, both fiscally and militarily. We in NATO are held together, as you know, because we share common values, common morals. And what we would hope is to build a Europe that shares those common values and common morals. Changing international borders by force is not a part of that framework, and that's what we've got to work through in the short term.

Q: General, Andrew Tilghman with Military Times. You mentioned a few minutes ago that the assurance measures will continue. I'm wondering, does that specifically include the rotational presence of the U.S. forces that had been shifted eastward over the past several months? And if so, can you offer any further clarity on your thinking about long-term force levels in EUCOM? I think the last time you were here, you said that before there was any discussion of maybe taking them upwards, you wanted to put a hard stop on the drawdown that had been underway up until earlier this year.

What's the status of that? Is there still some drawdown on the table? Has there been kind of an implicit hard stop put on that? Do you think that we might move -- tick upward in the future?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So the simple answer to your first question about, will the U.S. participation in the rotations in the current force presence continue? The simple answer is yes. We -- as you know, the assurance measures that we effected very quickly involved European-based forces, the 173rd, elements of the 173rd in four locations, the three Baltics and Poland. Those forces will be relieved in October by a U.S.-based force, and we plan to, as I mentioned earlier, we were given the task during the summit to maintain these assurance measures until we were able to put in place the longer-term adaptations that we agreed to in the RAP. And so U.S. forces will be a part of that rotational force that continues, and U.S. forces will be a part of that longer-term adaptation.

What I have said several times about EUCOM forces is the bottom line -- is straightforward. Currently, sequestration is the law of the land. Sequestration will make all of the services get smaller. As the services get smaller, there is pressure on overseas forces.

Currently, there are changes to overseas forces on the books, and this is a physics problem. Those changes are on automatic and will happen unless re-addressed. And so I have talked to leadership here about a function to re-address those decisions, because those sequester decisions were clearly made before Russia-Crimea, and so this -- I see this building now moving towards a review of those decisions.

And the longer-term status in EUCOM, I have been on record before, and that is, I believe that we still have infrastructure that could be brought down. And I support the ECI study that works on that. And I have made my inputs, and I think that they have been well heard.

I do not support any further force structure cuts, and that's why I've asked for a review of those cuts which are on the books and automatic, should we not take action to correct the effects of sequester.

Q: (off-mic) with Inside Defense. I understand you recently met with National Guard state officials, because the National Guard has this relationship with Eastern European countries. What role do you ascribe that program in -- in this bigger context? And how do you -- do you perhaps in that space understand Russian concerns that their immediate neighbors are, you know, tying themselves to the United States, which, in turn, leads to the conflict that we're seeing today?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: First of all, I don't agree with the supposition that you made at the end of your question that these associations lead to the conflict. I don't agree with that.

Q: (off-mic)

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So we do have a magnificent program with the national guards -- Air and Army National Guards -- called the State Partnership Program. In fact, the state partnership program between California and Ukraine is a robust one that we expect to continue long into the future.

But our national guards bring an incredible capability to me as a COCOM forward. Why is that? Because these relationships that are built in these long-term state associations with our nations, they build trust, they build relationships, confidence with these four nations. We have young officers growing up in the state of California who are growing up with young officers in Ukraine. And some of these nations have had these associations for almost two decades.

And so these officers and these militaries have formed long-term relationships which are incredibly valuable. These state partnership programs are well funded. And so as the budget in EUCOM comes down and my ability with our active forces to engage with the nations is challenged, we still have a robust program supported by the national guards. And so these are great programs. I've said it now three times, so I'll stop with that adjective.

But the bottom line -- this is a very strong program that is a large and growing part of our outreach to many nations. And, again, the program with Ukraine will continue into the future. These are the longstanding programs. They are not a result of Russia. They should not be connected in any way, as you sort of alluded to increasing tension. These are long-term programs which should continue.

Q: Hi, general, Jon Harper with Stars and Stripes. You mentioned that you were opposed to further force level cuts in Europe. Have you requested additional forces? Are you looking to beef that up? Or are you just trying to freeze the force cuts?

And, also, with regard to ISIL, last week President Obama said that the U.S. military is preparing to go after targets in Syria. And I was wondering if any additional assets had been moved to Incirlik in Turkey in terms of ISR or strike aircraft to prepare for that kind of operation.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Okay, to the additional forces piece, I'm a realist. We are in an age where our budgets are going down, not up. I do not expect -- and would not spend a lot of energy -- asking for force structure to move back to Europe. I don't think it's realistic to expect. I am very emphatic that we should cease further decrease of forces in Europe.

Now, so how do we address the additional challenges which we see? And that is through rotational forces. And the Army's program of regionally aligned forces, the ability of the national guards to rotate, as we mentioned just before, when the 173rd comes out of this current assurance measures work, a state-side unit will replace them. I think that rotational presence will add the capacities that we need to address the increased challenge.

So the recipe that I see for the future is that we should reduce -- cease reductions in Europe and then, through rotational forces, add capacity and capability as we need to address challenges. Quite frankly, the forces that are forward in Europe now are working at full speed as a part of their normal rotations into Afghan and other requirements and their normal taskings as a part of the global force management scheme.

And what we're going to add on top of that now is a requirement to support the RAP and how we would do that. And so I think that calls for rotational forces and their utility. And I believe that Ray Odierno and our Army staff has a great plan for the land plan and we are working through the others now. I think it's completely doable to raise that -- or to meet that increased requirement through rotational forces.

So thank you all for being here.

Q: (off-mic) Incirlik and Turkey?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Ah. So I'm not going to discuss operational details in support of any actions that are going on in Iraq and western -- or eastern Syria. I think it's inappropriate.

Q: Thank you.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Thank you.

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