So after that I thought I'd just stand up and say, "I accept the nomination." (Laughter.) Fred, thank you very, very much -- very, very generous comments.
Thank you all for the privilege of sharing some thoughts with you at this both timely and very, very important gathering. It's my privilege to be able to be here, and I'm particularly happy to be here with so many of my colleagues, both our foreign ministers and defense ministers who are here. We had a chance to chat briefly out there. We have been meeting regularly along the trail, and I have come to admire and respect each of them for the clarity of their vision and for the way in which they have been really prescient on many of these issues.
I love the new digs and thank all those who are responsible for that. And also, Fred, thanks so much for your leadership and for the tremendous work that is being done at the Atlantic Council lately, the success of this particular conference but also the work, the groundwork you've been laying, and the focus that you have had on the criticality of the NATO relationship, the European relationship, which, as we know, thinking back to comments of the near past about Old Europe and New Europe and other times things that have been floating out there over these last years, this discussion is even more timely and relevant.
This year marks a number of different milestones that are really worth remembering, obviously beginning with the fact that it is 65 years since Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his European counterparts came together to sign the North Atlantic Treaty. And it's been 25 years, amazingly, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that wall, as we all know too well, symbolically and literally divided East and West and Europe.
It's been 15 years, and 10 years, and 5 years since then that NATO has welcomed new partners into the post-Cold War era. And as we have expanded as an organization, as NATO has expanded as an organization, I think it's safe to say we have also expanded democracy, prosperity, and stability in Europe, and we have opened new opportunities in order to be able to advance security even further, and we have spurred economic growth around the globe.
Year after year, importantly, NATO's newest members have proven their mettle in ways that we hoped for but necessarily weren't able to predict with certainty. And so today I can tell you that I've seen it firsthand. Governor Huntsman and others have had occasion to travel, and we know what has been achieved in Afghanistan, where our allies in Central and Eastern Europe have served alongside us and others with distinction -- on occasion not just making a sacrifice, but asking their young soldiers to join in making the ultimate sacrifice. And that perhaps more than anything else can define an alliance.
In addition, over the decades-long history, I think NATO, without any question, has done more to promote security, more to promote prosperity, and more to promote freedom than any other alliance in human history.
But today it serves us well to remember the words of President Eisenhower, who said about NATO when he was talking to our NATO allies, he said, "We can take satisfaction from the past, but no complacency in the present."
As we come together then to reflect on 65 years of partnership, perseverance, and protection, we also have to take a look -- a hard, cold, sober look -- at the clear threats that regrettably still exist -- not because of some inherent continuous push over these last years, but frankly, because of a fairly, it appears, uniquely personally driven set of choices that are being made.
And after two decades of focusing primarily on our expeditionary missions, the crisis in Ukraine now calls us back to the role that this alliance was originally created to perform, and that is to defend alliance territory and advance transatlantic security.
The events in Ukraine are a wake-up call. Our European Allies have spent more than 20 years with us working to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community. It is not as if we really haven't bent over backwards to try to set a new course in the post-Cold War era. And so we've pursued serious bilateral engagement. We invited Russians to join organizations like the WTO, the NATO-Russia Council. But what Russia's actions in Ukraine tell us is that today Putin's Russia is playing by a different set of rules. And through its occupation of Crimea and its subsequent destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, Russia seeks to change the security landscape of Eastern and Central Europe.
So we find ourselves in a defining moment for our transatlantic alliance, and nobody should mistake that. And we are prepared to do what we need to do, and to go the distance, to uphold that alliance. Our strength will come from our unity. And the strength of our alliance always has come from our unity over the course of the 65 years.
So together, we have to push back against those who want to try to change sovereign borders by force.
Together, we have to support those who simply want to try to live as we do or as others do. I remember being in Kyiv and a man came up to me near the Maidan and said to me. "You know, I just came back from Australia, and I had to come back here and I have to be part of this, and I have to work so that people here could live the way I saw people living in Australia." In today's era of mobile devices and smartphones, everybody is in touch with everybody all of the time. And that sense of aspiration and hope and possibility is something that fills the imaginations of young people all around the planet.
So together, we have to support those folks who want to live free, making their choices about their own future. Together, we have to continue our strong support for Ukraine. And we can do that through economic assistance and we can do it through support for free and fair elections, for constitutional reform, for anti-corruption and for demobilization efforts.
And most important, together, we have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable. We will defend every single piece of it. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty must mean something, and our allies on the front lines need and deserve no less.
Now, obviously, there have to be consequences for those who want to put to test what has been the norm of international relations and the goal, if you will, of international behavior ever since World War II.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Geneva with my counterparts from Russia, from the EU, and from Ukraine. We agreed on a number of steps that needed to be taken in order to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. I will tell you we had a very candid conversation, and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed with all of us that we needed to be reciprocal in the steps that we need to take; both sides needed to do things in order to move forward.
Well, I will tell you that I was that afternoon directly in touch with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and gave him the full download on those things that were legitimate expectations out of that, and he went to work immediately -- immediately.
And so it was that from day one, Ukraine undertook to implement both the spirit and the substance of what was laid out in Geneva. He immediately agreed to help to vacate buildings, and he set out to do so, and they did vacate some buildings. They immediately began to remove barricades from the Maidan. Even now in the last 24 hours or so, they've vacated an entire building in the Maidan, because that was a specific complaint of Russia.
They proposed a specific amnesty bill in the legislature in order to follow through on the amnesty for protestors so that they could leave buildings with a sense of security about the justice system. They withheld their legitimate right to use their power of the state to remove people from buildings; instead stood back and canceled their CT operation over the course of the Easter weekend.
They actually took a trip -- the prime minister himself -- out to the region to indicate a willingness to listen to people in order to shape the constitutional reform, and in every respect began to open up the dialogues which even today they are pursuing throughout the region in order to discuss constitutional reform. That's what Ukraine did starting on day one.
Meanwhile, I have to say to you, not one single step has been taken by Russia in any public way that seriously attempts to live by the spirit or the law of what was signed in that agreement. They have not announced publicly to their people that they need to come out of the buildings. They haven't engaged with the OSCE in order to negotiate people out of the buildings. Every time you have a conversation, it's pointing the finger at what the Ukrainians haven't done, without even tallying up what they have done or acknowledging their own zero in the column with respect to what they have undertaken.
In fact, it's fair to say they have escalated the crisis even further. There is strong evidence that I laid out several days ago of the degree to which Russian engagement exists directly in the east and has been building up over some period of time. Yet, what do we hear, regrettably? What we hear are the outrageous claims from certain people that the CIA somehow invented the internet in order to control the world, or that the forces occupying buildings, armed to the teeth, all wearing brand new military uniforms with the same lack of insignia, with the same faces in some cases of people who were identified as being in Crimea and in Georgia -- they somehow want to assert to people that these people, moving in disciplined military formation to take over buildings and then bring the local separatists in to occupy the building while they move on to another building in an orderly, absolutely discernable, trackable fashion -- they assert that these people are merely local activists seeking to exercise their legitimate rights.
As we have made clear, those kinds of claims are absurd. They defy any common sense. They defy the facts. And worse, they're an indicator of the disingenuous dissembling, the policy of complete fiction that is being pursued in an effort to pursue their own goals and their own ends.
The Russians claim the government in Kyiv is illegitimate, but it's a government that came to power with the vast supermajority of the Rada voting for it, including President Yanukovych's own party, who deserted him because he deserted his country. And if your fear is illegitimacy, then you would step out of the way and encourage an election, which is set for about three and a half weeks from now, on the 25th of May, and you would encourage that election to take place in order to provide the legitimacy.
But instead, they're doing everything in their power to undermine free and fair elections. They claim eastern Ukraine is too violent for monitors from the OSCE to be there; but when it comes to the armed, pro-Russian separatists -- the ones who are actually perpetrating the violence -- they do absolutely nothing to prevent them from taking those prisoners and hostages they've taken, in order to free them, and they allow them to be paraded in front of the press. And we see no evidence -- no evidence at all -- that Russia has actually pressured any of these groups in order to release any of these people or change course.
I say this with a certain element of sorrow, because of all of the effort and energy that has been expended to try to create a structure by which we would behave -- all of us -- differently, representing the best hopes and aspirations of all people on the face of this planet. That's what all of our predecessors worked so hard to achieve, setting up a structure of rule of law and international law and multilateral mechanisms by which we try to resolve these kinds of differences.
So as a result, for all of these reasons, yesterday the United States announced again -- President Obama announced -- additional sanctions on more Russian individuals and entities. And we've also restricted export licenses for high-tech items that could be used to bolster Russia's military capabilities.
Now these steps and other steps that we and our partners have taken over the past few months are already forcing Russia to pay a steep price for its efforts to create this instability. And I mean that. You just have to look at the ratings on the bonds, you look at the capital outflow, you look at the GDP numbers that are trending downwards. This is having an impact. And as long as Russia decides to continue to fan the flames rather than help to put them out, we stand ready -- with our partners -- to do what is necessary, not to necessarily punish somebody, but to find a way forward that restores this process we've worked so hard to honor through the years.
The Russians have a clear choice: Leave Ukraine in peace and work with us together to create a strong Ukraine, a Ukraine that is not a pawn, pulled and tugged at between East and West, but a Ukraine that could be a bridge to both, with the ability to have an open trading mechanism on all degrees, 360 around Ukraine. And whatever path they choose, I can guarantee this: The United States and our allies will stand together in support of Ukraine.
This crisis is a wake-up call for us to accelerate the other work that we've been doing to promote a stronger, more prosperous transatlantic community.
So to start, we cannot continue to allow allied defense budgets to shrink. Clearly, not all allies are going to meet the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP overnight or even next year. But it's time for allies who are below that level to make credible commitments to increase their spending on defense over the next five years. And if we're going to move the trend line in a positive direction, this has to be an alliance-wide effort.
Two, if we want a Europe that is both whole and free, then we have to do more together immediately, with a sense of urgency, to ensure that European nations are not dependent on Russia for the majority of their energy. In this age of new energy markets, in this age of concern about global climate change and carbon overload, we ought to be able to rush to the ability to be able to make Europe less dependent. And if we do that, that will be one of the greatest single strategic differences that could be made here. We can deliver greater energy independence and help to diversify energy sources that are available to the European markets, and we can expand the energy infrastructure across Europe, and we can build up energy storage capacity throughout the continent.
Third, we have to invest in the underpinnings of our economic partnership. We are together, Europe and the United States, two of the largest markets in the world. And the fact is that we can seriously strengthen our economic ties and accelerate growth and job creation and serve as a buffer to any negative impacts of some of the steps we need to take if we move on both sides of the Atlantic rapidly to complete the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. That agreement will do more to change the way we do business and some of our strategic considerations than any other single economic step that we can take, with the sole exception of the energy independence.
So my friends, I'll just close by saying to all of you that this moment -- without reaching for any hyperbole because the moment is serious enough that it doesn't require that -- this moment is about more than just ourselves. The fact is that our entire model of global leadership is at stake. And if we stand together, if we draw strength from the example of the past and refuse to be complacent in the present, then I am confident that NATO, the planet's strongest alliance, can meet the challenges, can absolutely take advantage of the opportunities that are presented by crisis, and that we can move closer to a Europe that is whole and prosperous, at peace, and free and strong.
That's our goal, and we look forward to working with our fellow ministers and with each of these countries to achieve it. Thank you for letting me be with you. (Applause.)