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We need to remember what this is – a war of aggression

An interview with Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze.

March 22, 2024 - Jens Stoltenberg Vazha Tavberidze - Interviews

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Polish President Andrzej Duda give a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 15th 2023. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: According to Russia, there were presidential elections this past weekend. Were you surprised with the results?

JENS STOLTENBERG: The elections in Russia were not free, nor fair. They confirm that Russia is an authoritarian society. Any opposition, any real opposition doesn’t exist. Those who have the courage to oppose Vladimir Putin are either forced to flee, live abroad, or are jailed; some of them are even killed, as we saw with Alexei Navalny. We also saw attempts to conduct elections in the occupied territories of Georgia, but also in Ukraine, and that is a grave violation of international law. Thus the outcome of these elections were rigged, and of course, I am not surprised.

So Putin shouldn’t be expecting a call from you to congratulate him on his landslide victory?

No, these are not real elections.

In his victory speech, Putin warned the West about the impending Third World War and said that “NATO troops are actively present in Ukraine, engaging in combat against Russian forces”. Is that true?

There are no NATO troops in Ukraine.

Apparently Putin doesn’t buy into the notion that NATO is a defensive alliance. So what would be your response to this warning?

NATO is a defensive alliance. We are there to protect one billion people. We are an alliance of democracies, and the NATO door is open for democratic societies that, through democratic, free, independent decisions, decide to join NATO. No country has ever been forced into NATO. It is not NATO expanding aggressively eastwards, it is rather those countries in the Eastern part of Europe that worked hard to join the alliance. And we have said, well, if you meet the NATO standards, if you’re a democratic society, then of course, it’s for you to decide. We respect it if one does not want NATO membership, but of course, we also respect if one wants NATO membership. We cannot live in a world where Moscow dictates what its neighbours can or cannot do, that’s a world of spheres of influence.

Speaking of NATO’s open door policy, we are not far off from the NATO Washington summit in 2024. You recently reiterated, on the anniversary of the war, that Ukraine will become a NATO member. Do you expect any significant steps in that direction in Washington?

I expect that we will make decisions that will move Ukraine even closer to NATO. We made important decisions last year, but expect us to also make important decisions [now].

Regarding the membership?

To help to move Ukraine closer to membership. And of course, this is very much about ensuring that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are fully interoperable with NATO, and also to help to further integrate the political cooperation between Ukraine and NATO. We are implementing what we all agreed on, but I also expect new decisions.

Which is a bigger hurdle, military approximation or democratic reforms?

They work hand in hand. We need both to mobilize the defence and security institutions and we need to strengthen the democratic institutions of Ukraine. 

Seeing as you are visiting Georgia, which was given the same promise by NATO 16 years ago at the Bucharest summit – should this country expect anything during the Washington summit?
I think the most important thing we can do is to ensure that we help Georgia implement the necessary reforms on transparency, on fighting corruption and strengthening the rule of law and institutions. These reforms are important in themselves, because they will strengthen Georgia to be a more resilient society. And on top of that, a bonus will be that you also are coming closer to NATO. But these reforms have value in themselves, regardless of whether you think that Georgia will become a member in the near or more distant future.

Over the years Georgia and Ukraine were considered as some sort of a tandem when it came to NATO aspirations. Do you think this is still the case? Can Georgia be considered in the same bracket, in the same breath, as Ukraine?

There are differences. First of all, there have been differences between Georgia and Ukraine all the way. You are right that we made the decision together, I was there in Bucharest in 2008 when we said that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. But there are understandable differences. Georgia suffered a full-fledged invasion from its neighbour in 2008 and Russia is present in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But of course that’s different than the full-scale invasion that we are seeing in Ukraine. Then we also made the decision to remove the requirement for the Membership Action Plan for Ukraine, so there is another difference. What’s important is that Georgia and Ukraine have separate and independent responsibilities, but both want to move towards NATO and also EU membership.

When you said that there is a difference between the 2008 full-scale invasion of Georgia and what is happening now in Ukraine, I think there would be quite a few people in Georgia who would not necessarily agree and ask what exactly is the difference. War is war. Blood was shed on both sides. Why does one side deserve it more than the other?

Well, the difference is that they are two different countries and of course if you go into all the different institutions, the reforms and so on, they are on different levels. I am not saying that Ukraine is ahead of Georgia in all fields, there are individual assessments, there are individual efforts to support Georgia and to support Ukraine, and there will be individual separate decisions. So they are not tied together in any way.

Vazha Tavberidze with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: Mzia Saganelidze (RFE/RL)

I want to ask about Transnistria (the breakaway region in Moldova – editor’s note). It was recently reported that the unrecognized authorities there asked Russia for protection. Meanwhile the so-called government of South Ossetia (the breakaway region in Georgia – editor’s note), just a few days ago, said that they are working towards joining up the Russian federation. If any of these scenarios materialize, what would be the western response?

Well, I think it demonstrates that Russia is present without the consent of the nations, both in Moldova and in Transnistria; and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are different countries and different situations, but in both cases Russia uses its military presence to try to coerce these countries…

Yes, that’s the context, but what should be the response from the West?

We would of course call on Russia to not have any forces against the will of Moldova or Georgia. We call on Russia to revoke its recognition of these territories as sovereign states and will continue to do so.

 “NATO allies must do more as Ukraine is running out of ammunition” – you said this three days ago. It wasn’t the first time you made such a statement, nor the second or even third. Do you sometimes have the feeling that your pleas for more support and more action are falling on deaf ears?

First of all, I think the main message is that Putin totally underestimated the will of our NATO allies to support Ukraine. We have been very united, both in implementing sanctions, but also in providing military support to Ukraine. We have to remember where we started, at the beginning of this war, most experts feared that Ukraine would fall within the days, and that didn’t happen. This is partly due to the unprecedented support from NATO allies. We provided 99 per cent of the military support to Ukraine. What you have seen lately is that the support has not remained on the same high level as it was in the beginning of the war. And that’s not least because of the lack of decision in the US Congress. So of course I very much would like to see a decision in the US Congress and I call also on European allies to step up and do more.

On the US Congress – one year ago you said that you were confident of continued US support towards Ukraine. Has that belief stayed intact, especially with looming presidential elections in the US?

I still expect the US to agree on support for Ukraine, especially since it is in the security interest of the US to support Ukraine. If Putin wins in Ukraine, we will also become more vulnerable because the message to him and President Xi [in China] is that when they use military force they get what they want. I also expect it because in reality there is a big majority in the US Congress supporting Ukraine. The issue is to turn this majority into a vote. It is not for me to give advice on how to do this in the US Congress, but I continue to believe that when there is a majority in the US Congress supporting Ukraine, at some stage that will be turned into a concrete decision.

Would you still hold onto that belief if former President Donald Trump makes a comeback, considering his recent remarks about NATO allies?

I expect that regardless of the outcome of the US election, the US will remain committed to NATO allies because it is in their interest to have a strong NATO. NATO is good for Europe, it is also good for America, and United States represent 25 per cent of the world’s GDP. Together with NATO allies we represent 50 per cent of the world’s GDP – twice as much – and 50 per cent of the world’s military might. So NATO makes the US stronger. They have friends and allies in a way that is incomparable to any other major power. There is broad bipartisan support for NATO in the US Congress and we need to realize that the criticism by former President Trump is not mainly against NATO, it is mainly against NATO allies not investing enough, and this has really changed. The European allies are now investing more, spending more than two per cent of overall GDP on defence.

Speaking of European allies, I would like to ask your personal opinion about French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement when he said he would not rule out sending western troops to Ukraine. Do you share that sentiment? Would you be in support of it?

There are no plans for any NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine. We need to remember what this is. This is a war of aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine. That’s a violation of international law. Ukraine has the right to defend itself. We have the right to support them. And that is exactly what we are doing.

To what extent?

Well, we have the right to support them, but we decide what type of support. And we have decided that we provide them with military support, with ammunition, with weapons, with economic sanctions of course. And for many years, Allies have provided training, but we are not planning any military presence on the ground.

This interview took place on March 18th in Tbilisi and was originally published on the Georgian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. We are grateful for their permission to republish here.

Jens Stoltenberg is the Secretary General of NATO.

Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist and staff writer with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, the Spectator, the Daily Beast and New Eastern Europe.

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