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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the interview

‘If President Putin wants less NATO on his borders, he will get more NATO at his borders’ An interview with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Source: Meduza
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the interview
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the interview

The Kremlin’s official propaganda myth asserts that Russia invaded Ukraine to prevent the country from joining NATO. At the same time, throughout the past six weeks of war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged NATO to provide his country with military assistance in countering Russian aggression — albeit unsuccessfully. As a result, Ukraine has called for building a new security system in the region, one that would hypothetically coexist with NATO. In his first interview with a Russian journalist, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about how the Alliance’s relationship with Russia has changed in recent years, and who can bring an end to Moscow’s war against Ukraine. This interview was meant to appear in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, however, threats from the authorities forced its editors to suspend operations. The NATO Secretary General was interviewed by Kirill Martynov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe (a brand new publication that announced its launch today, April 7). 

Please note. This interview was conducted before reports emerged of Russian atrocities in Bucha and other formerly occupied towns in the Kyiv region.

Has NATO ever wanted to conquer or divide Russia? Some people believe that every military alliance in world history always wants to divide and conquer.

No, NATO is a defensive alliance. We have one responsibility, and that is to protect and defend our allies. And no such plans have ever existed. We want to actually have a good relationship with Russia. Russia is our neighbor, and we have strived for many years for a better relationship with Russia. But Russia's actions have made that impossible.

What was the best time in relations between NATO and Russia? 

The first years after the end of the Cold War, the 1990s, there was actually real hope for an improved relationship. And of course, for some years we were able to establish a partnership with Russia and work together on many issues of practical cooperation. We established the NATO-Russia Founding Act, we established a NATO-Russia Council, so gradually we even improved the relationship.

Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner at a meeting in Moscow. July 18, 1990.
Valentin Sobolev / TASS

When I became a Secretary General, I brought with me the experience from Norway. As prime minister of Norway, I worked closely with Russia on a wide range of different issues — energy efficiency issues, environmental issues, but also the new delimitation line. Norwegian experience was that it was actually possible to work with Russia.

Russian state propaganda often says that NATO somehow uses Ukraine against Russia.

Absolutely wrong. Ukraine is an independent nation that makes its own decisions, and we need to respect those decisions. For some years Ukraine wanted membership [in NATO], and then, of course, we agreed. We accepted that decision, but later on, Ukraine actually decided not to get this membership. And we respected this new decision.

Then they changed position again and started to aspire for membership. We have respected Ukraine, their decisions both when they have aspired for membership and in the periods they did not aspire for membership, because NATO’s enlargement has always happened as a result of free, independent democratic choices by democratic nations. NATO has never, ever forced any country into our alliance. The Baltic countries, Poland, all the other central and eastern European countries who have now joined NATO did it through independent decisions of sovereign nations. That is the same for Ukraine and we have worked with Ukraine as a sovereign nation, a partner, but never “used” Ukraine.

I believe the Russian authorities have a vision of the world in which three great countries divide the planet and all other small countries just have no real political sovereignty. How can you comment on this worldview? 

We do not believe in that worldview. We believe in a world where we have sovereign independent nations, where we respect their decisions. And this is something turning the clock back into the past where spheres of influence of big power existed and great powers decided what their neighbors could do. That is not the world we believe in. We believe in a world where we respect sovereign nations regardless of size and the strength.

For NATO this has proven very successful because not by using power, but just by demonstrating that we believe in democracy, that we believe in the rule of law, that we believe in freedom, more and more countries want to join our alliance. I believe that the fact that we have doubled the number of members since the end of the Cold War — it demonstrates the success of this alliance and they have done it because they want to be part of our family. They want to be part of the alliance, which is respecting them and protecting them. Not as Russia wants to force, coerce neighbors to do things they don’t want to do.

What actions is the Alliance taking to stop this war? Or “special operation,” according to official Russian censorship.

It’s for President Putin to stop this war. He started this war. This is his war by choice, and it's inflicting horrendous, horrific suffering on the Ukrainians. But it also is bad for the people of Russia and their Russian families who lost, who are now losing their sons and soldiers in Ukraine, and thousands are wounded.

And then President Putin is also responsible for the severe economic costs for the people of Russia because he has behaved in a way which has led to the economic sanctions. So this is for President Putin to stop the war, and he can do that tomorrow and that will save lives. Ukrainian lives and also Russian lives.

A rally in support of Ukraine timed to coincide with NATO Defense Ministers meeting with Finland, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine. Brussels, March 16, 2022.
Steohanie Lecocq / EPA/ Scanpix / LETA

There is a popular video on Russian social media of Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to President Zelensky, predicting the war back in 2019. He said that war is inevitable and Russia will definitely start it. Do you believe the war was inevitable?

It’s never too late not to wage war and not to start a war. Of course, Russian President Putin always had the choice not to invade Ukraine and Ukraine has never been a threat to Russia. Russia is the biggest land power in Europe. It is the country with the most number of nuclear warheads in the world. And we saw a military build-up around Ukraine over a long period of time. So actually, we warned against this potential war. But it was possible for President Putin to not invade, not wage war, and we still call him to do exactly that, to stop the war.

Are small European countries, members of the Alliance on the one hand, and other countries like Georgia on the other, safe now?

If we talk about members of NATO, they are covered by our collective defense rules. We are a defensive alliance ready to protect and defend our allies and make it clear that we will protect every inch of NATO territory. And this is our deterrence. This is what we provide to all our allies. That an attack on one will be attack on the whole Alliance, on all. So, this is the NATO core principle, all for one, one for all — as a defensive alliance. This has been successful for more than 70 years since NATO was established. Our deterrence is not to provoke a war, but it is to prevent a war, to preserve peace.

Georgia is a highly valued partner. But Georgia is not covered by our collective defense clause.

And so no comments on the safety of such countries like Georgia?

First of all, Georgia is a sovereign nation with internationally recognized borders. And of course, we always expect that those borders are respected, including by Russia. They have actually signed many treaties and documents stating clearly that we should all respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of every nation. This is in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, in the Paris Peace Accords and many other documents, which was clearly stated. Our borders are to be respected also by Russia, and Russia has subscribed to those principles.

How strong is collective security in case of so-called hybrid war? If, let's say, some Russians in the Baltic countries declare that they want to support President Putin?

NATO is the strongest defensive alliance in world history, and we will protect all of us against any threats. And of course, we have also adapted, taking into account that we are facing not only additional military threats, but also hybrid, cyber threats. And we have done a lot to increase our readiness and preparedness to defend against these kind of threats.

Then what we will do and in what way depends on the character of the attack. But we are aware of that. Of course, hybrid and cyber-attacks can be as deadly and as dangerous as kinetic attacks with traditional military means.

What are the long-term consequences of this war? What do the long term consequences of this war mean for the strategic security in Europe?

Well, it’s already clear that this war will have long term consequences and has created a new security reality in Europe because Russia has more openly contested core principles for our security, meaning the right for every nation to choose his own path and also contested NATO’s right to defend and protect all of us. And therefore, NATO is adapting as a response to this new reality. But again, we’ll do the best as a defensive alliance to make sure that this conflict does not escalate beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Should we prepare ourselves for a long war now?

The situation in Ukraine is very unpredictable. And again, President Putin can end this war tomorrow, so it’s for him to do that. But we should be prepared for long term consequences because as long as Russia continues to use military force to achieve its objectives, we will not be able to go back to the situation we had before when we were trying to develop a better relationship with Russia.

And Russia has launched the biggest military invasion of another sovereign country in Europe since the Second World War. This is a waging war with the scale and the scope and brutality that we haven’t seen since the Second World War, and it is President Putin who started it. And President Putin has the mandate to end it.

If President Putin wants less NATO on his borders, he will get more NATO at his borders because this is the way that we are ensuring that no NATO ally can experience the same dreadful or horrendous attack as Ukraine has experienced. And President Putin, if he wanted to divide NATO, he is getting more united NATO standing up against this brutal violation of national borders.

Do you think Ukraine is getting enough military help now?

Ukraine has the right to self-defense. That is enshrined in the UN charter. According to the UN Charter, war is forbidden with two exemptions. One is if the UN Security Council mandates the use of military force. They have not done that in this case. On the contrary, 141 UN members clearly condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine. And then the other exemption for the ban on war or the use of lethal force is self-defense.

What Ukraine is doing now within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders —borders that were also recognized by Russia again and again — Ukraine is fighting to uphold its right for self-defense And NATO supports that right to self-defense by the Ukrainians. We are providing some support, different types of military support. 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (left) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
Francois Walschaerts / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russian propaganda and officials insist that the Russian Army just doing the same thing as, let’s say, NATO during the operation in Yugoslavia in 1999. Is this true?

Not at all. There is no comparison. Whatsoever. What we did in Yugoslavia was to stop atrocities, war crimes, and something that was becoming genocide. We have seen that in Bosnia-Herzegovina a few years earlier. And we tried for a long period of time to find a political diplomatic solution. That was not possible. And then we went in and helped to stop a brutal war.

We had to stop two brutal wars, first of all in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also what led to a massacre in Srebrenica, some serious war crimes, which has been proven later in the International Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and also then later on in Kosovo, where we saw developments in the same direction. So, we were there to stop the genocide, to stop war crimes, and NATO’s intervention helped to do that.

Russian authorities pretend they are doing just the same. They say they started the war to stop a genocide they believe is happening in Ukraine.

There is no evidence for it. I mean, there is no evidence whatsoever. And we have to understand that in some of the regions of Ukraine where Russia said there is a prosecution of Russians taking place, they met the fiercest and the strongest resistance from the local population. So, the whole idea that Russia was coming in as liberators is absolutely wrong because the people living in these places, these cities they are fighting hard against invading Russian troops.

If we can imagine we reach a ceasefire somehow. What further steps need to be taken to normalize relations between the Alliance and Russia? 

We have to see that Russia changes its behavior because especially since 2014, we have seen Russia, which is willing to use military force against a neighbor. A ceasefire would be an important first step to end the violence, to end the suffering. And then it is for Ukraine as a sovereign nation to decide on the terms of any peace agreements between Russia and Ukraine. Let me add one more thing, NATO, of course, still is ready to engage with Russia to try to improve and to create a better relationship. That has been our aim for many, many years. But so far it has been postponed because of Russia's behavior. 

Did the Alliance ever consider Russia as a possible member? This was a line in Putin’s pre-war speech. He pretended to say the “bitter truth” that many years ago, President Clinton said that USA never wanted Russia to be a part of NATO.

NATO is an alliance of 30 allies, and we make decisions together, and sometimes we need discussions, and we need consultations before we make any final decisions. What we saw during the 1990s was that gradually we were moving closer and closer to Russia, not so many years ago. I think very, very few people believed that Poland or the Baltic countries could be called members. Now they are. But of course, they are members because they have proven that they are truly democratic nations, that they allow freedom of speech, they allow the democratic institutions to work.

Russia moves in a totally different direction and is a more authoritarian country, which is cracking down on the political opposition and also on the on free media. So again, I think many good things could have happened in relations between NATO and Russia, if Russia had developed in the democratic direction. But Putin’s leadership moved in a totally opposite direction.

And war against Ukraine is demonstrating the authoritarian nature of President Putin, how he now is even cracking harder down on political opposition on media like your newspaper [Novaya Gazeta], a highly respected newspaper awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. You stand out as a poignant and important voice and President Putin is afraid of freedom of expression, is afraid of the truth. Because there is no democratic desire to allow free press and no way to be able to tell the truth without a free and independent press.

The reality is that this war, which is Putin’s responsibility and Putin’s war of choice, is making Russia poorer, less secure, and much more isolated. In the UN General Assembly, it was North Korea, Syria, and Belarus that supported Russia.

Do all Allies agree that Russia is the biggest threat for now? I ask this question because post-Soviet countries like Baltic countries and Poland really understand this. But let's say Spain or some other countries in the Western Europe can see the situation differently.

I know that all Allies understand that Russia is responsible for aggressive actions against neighbors. We see it. We have seen it over many years and also at the summit, for instance, last week, we adopted a very strong statement condemning the Russian actions and also describing the risks that aggressive Russian actions are causing not only for Ukraine, but for all of us, for our security.

President Putin’s problem is that he tries to force countries to submit under his control and is getting less and less countries in the world trust Russia or President Putin, so they try to move in other directions. So, the more he tries to control countries, the more they try to go away because the countries and their people want to be independent, want to make their own decisions. If they are in NATO, they can make their own decisions. If they are with President Putin, they can’t make their own decisions.

This question is really important, I believe, for those of our readers who dream about free and democratic Russia in some future. Can we imagine a post-Putin Russia, which becomes a member of NATO and a part of European security? 

Everything is possible if you have a democratic country. As I said, not so many years ago, people ruled out the possibility of all the Baltic countries being members of NATO, but now they are members. So, democracy will prevail, the question is when. Freedom is better than oppression, and democracy is better than autocracy. And I just believe in open, free societies where you are not afraid of the truth, where people are allowed to say what they want and who have democratic elected leaders. They are respected by the people, and they create a better and safer and more prosperous society. 

Do you have some special words for Russian readers? 

I do. My message is that it is now President Putin, who is causing so much harm and not only for the Ukrainians, but also for the Russian people. And this is absolutely unnecessary because this is a senseless war that he has started against an independent nation, Ukraine.

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Interview by Kirill Martynov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe