NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement at a press conference on Monday, saying the decision was in response to the recent incident which he said he “strongly condemns.”
The Norwegian-born official told reporters, “We are constantly assessing security measures here at NATO and we have decided to restrict the access of Belarusian personnel to the NATO headquarters based on our assessment of security measures at the headquarters.”
He again condemned the “forced landing” of the civilian aircraft in Minsk and called for an “independent international investigation.”
“We also clearly state that this is not only something which is violating international norms and rules, but also a direct attack on the freedom of expression and the free and independent press.”
“Therefore, we also call on the immediate release of those two that were arrested during the forced landing.”
In another development, the head of Belarusian national airline Belavia has condemned as “despicable” the decision by numerous EU countries to impose airspace restrictions on the carrier following the forced landing of the Ryanair aircraft in Minsk, which was en route to Lithuania from Greece.
The EU has proposed closing its airspace to state-owned Belavia and stopping it from landing at EU airports, while most of Belarus’s neighbours and many other European nations have banned Belavia flights.
Stoltenberg’s comments on Monday come just ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign and defence ministers on Tuesday. In two weeks’ time, NATO leaders also meet with NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan high on the agenda.
Stoltenberg told reporters this was a “pivotal moment” for NATO but stressed its long-term commitment to Afghanistan despite international forces withdrawing from the country.
He said, “There is no doubt that Afghanistan faces serious challenges and that there is no easy way forward. At the same time, I strongly believe that at some stage the Afghans had to take full responsibility for their own future. The only way to lasting peace in Afghanistan is for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process.”
“We are constantly assessing security measures here at NATO and we have decided to restrict the access of Belarusian personnel to the NATO headquarters based on our assessment of security measures at the headquarters”
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains very difficult and challenging and, of course, the decision to withdraw our troops entails risks.”
NATO, he said, had gradually reduced its presence from more than 100,000 troops, a few years ago, to around 10,000 troops at the beginning of this year, adding, “and now it will go down to zero.”
Another “threat” to NATO, he says, comes from Russia, whose defence minister on Monday accused NATO of stepping up military activity on Russia's western borders.
The minister also said Russia would take “adequate countermeasures.”
In response, Stoltenberg told reporters, “What we see is a pattern of Russian behaviour where Russia over the last years has invested heavily in new modern military capabilities, from conventional to nuclear weapon systems.”
“But not only that, Russia has been willing to use military force against neighbours, in Georgia and Ukraine, increasing and continuing to destabilise Donbass in Eastern Ukraine and illegally annexing Crimea.”
“It is important to manage a difficult relationship with Russia, with transparency on military activities, risk reduction, and also for instance, issues like arms control.”
In a wide-ranging press conference at NATO’s Brussels HQ, he also said there was “no doubt that the rise of China also poses serious challenges.”
He said China will soon have the largest economy in the world and already has the second largest defence budget.
It has, he noted, the largest Navy in the world and is investing “heavily” in new modern capabilities, including hypersonic weapon systems as well as integrating new disruptive technologies like facial recognition, artificial intelligence and big data into the new weapon systems.
But he said, “China is not sharing our values. They don't believe in democracy. They don't believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of media. We see how they oppress minorities like the Uyghurs and crack down on democratic opposition in Hong Kong and also how they coerce neighbours, and how they threaten Taiwan.”