Minister Kodheli, Former Minister Mediu, Dr. Starova, Dr. Luciolli, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Like many of you, I grew up as a boy in a world obsessed with the Cold War. In school, we practiced hiding under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack. In Cub Scouts we wore military-style blue uniforms and learned survival skills. At university, I studied Russian, the language of the enemy, and Soviet foreign policy. We learned that NATO was the only institution that stood between us and communist domination of Europe and the globe.
The world today is more complex, but arguably just as dangerous. The threats posed by Russian aggression in Ukraine and by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria represent a new challenge for NATO, for Europe and for the global world order. As a NATO ally and an EU aspirant, Albania plays an important role in defending the alliance, but also in defending our common Euro-Atlantic values.
First, Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and its continued support for separatists in eastern Ukraine are a clear threat to a Europe whole, free, and at peace. I believe America and Europe have two main priorities in Ukraine – giving the democratically-elected government in Kyiv the economic breathing space to implement the reforms they have promised, and responding appropriately to Russian aggression.
I also want to make clear that the Article 5 commitment in the NATO Charter is ironclad, and we will continue to ensure the Alliance remains ready and capable for crisis response and cooperative security. In order to be prepared we need as an alliance to continue to invest in our defenses and not cut defense spending in the face of aggression. Albania is not alone among NATO allies in confronting economic challenges at home. At the same time, Albanians understand well that freedom and security come at a price. I am confident that Albania is committed to meeting its NATO goals for defense spending.
Lastly, we continue to encourage a diplomatic solution in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine have violated their commitments in the Minsk agreement. As a result, we believe that sanctions need to remain fully in force until Russia complies with its obligations to end the violence and bloodshed.
ISIS and Foreign Fighters
Allow me to turn to the threat to Europe posed by ISIS and the return of fighters from Syria and Iraq. Albania was one of the first members of the Global Coalition to Confront ISIS. Its actions in support of the effort to counter ISIS have been remarkable, particularly its contribution of weapons and munitions to the Kurdistan Regional Government security forces.
ISIS is not confined to Syria and Iraq. It is not just an army—it is an ideology. And it is for that reason that it poses such a threat to Europe and beyond. The effects of ISIS’s influence extend into every country in NATO. We all now face the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters who may wish to bring violence to our countries. Albania has already recognized the potential dangers of these individuals, and has strengthened laws outlawing the participation of Albanian citizens in armed conflicts abroad. The Albanian State Police have expanded their counterterrorism unit to monitor and investigate potential terrorists more easily. The United States supports these efforts and is working with Albania as it continues to develop its counterterrorism capacity.
Before I end, I just want to say a few words about regional cooperation against ISIS. Every country in the region has joined the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, united in the view that this threat requires us to put differences aside and work together to address this problem. The very nature of this challenge requires an international response. Addressing the problem of returned foreign fighters requires solid information sharing between countries as well as improved control of international borders.
Similarly, pursuing a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine hinges on our collective interest in supporting the democratically-elected Ukrainian government and in effectively strengthening our capacity for crisis response and implementing strong sanctions against Russia. This requires political leadership. It requires a willingness to work with neighboring countries. It requires investing in defenses.
And it requires the belief that NATO is more than a military alliance. NATO is, at its core, a commitment to shared values.