“Because I said so!” US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf expressed her annoyance over the “tone” of AP reporter Matthew Lee’s question about the creation of the NATO rapid reaction force in Eastern Europe and accused him of “buying into the Russian propaganda”.
The back-and-forth between the Associated Press’s veteran journalist and Harf created sparks during Friday’s press briefing.
Lee asked the State Department’s spokeswoman if NATO’s latest decision to set up a rapid reaction force in Eastern Europe was related to events in Ukraine.
“And you don’t see that as in any way provocative?” he said.
“No, we don’t,” was Harf’s response.
The spokeswoman said the deployment of the spearhead force – approved by NATO members during a summit in Wales – comes in response to Russia’s “escalatory actions” in Ukraine and is “a defensive measure.”
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“It’s a high readiness joint task force able to deploy within a few days to challenges that arise. It will contribute to ensuring that NATO remains responsive to its alliance, capable of meeting its current challenges. Again, this is in response to escalatory action the Russians have taken. It’s a little disingenuous to say something that NATO is doing in response to Russia’s action is somehow escalatory, that NATO should just sit by while Russia sends arms, sends men, sends troops into Ukraine and say, “Oh, we’re not going to respond,” she said.
Lee noted that Ukraine is not a member of the North-Atlantic military bloc and asked if Russia had taken any “escalatory measures” against NATO members.
“So you’re setting up a rapid reaction force in response to something that you say is happening in a country…that isn’t a NATO member?” the journalist asked.
Harf argued that Ukraine “is very close to NATO.”
“NATO is committed to a Europe free, whole, and at peace, and obviously there are threats to that right now with Russia’s actions,” she stated, adding that she was not sure what the journalist could not understand about that.
Lee tried to explain his point, but Harf interrupting him insisting that everything the alliance did “since Russia’s intervention into Ukraine” was a defensive measure “to be able to protect NATO and our members, and also working together to help countries like Ukraine.” She added that it was not designed to confront anyone.
“I just don’t understand logically how you can look at something NATO is doing to protect our countries and compare it in any way to Russia sending surface-to-air missile systems across the border into Ukraine, which are by definition an offensive weapon,” she said.
The State Department’s spokeswoman then said that “the tone of the question” suggested that the journalist was “buying into the Russian propaganda” for equating those “categorically different things.”
“And I’m not buying into any – anyone’s propaganda, and I think that’s the whole point,” Lee hit back. “You guys object to other countries’ objections about your military exercises all the time, and you think that they’re perfectly legitimate.”
It was not the first time that Lee has got into a heated exchange, posing unpleasant questions at press briefings with State Department representatives over the Ukraine crisis.
Earlier in July, Harf stated that Russia was firing artillery across the border into Ukrainian territory. However, when Lee asked for the evidence behind the allegations other than “just ‘because I said so’,” the spokesperson refused, saying only that they were based on “some intelligence information.”