How to Deal with a Resurgent Russia
Interview with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by Matthew Kaminski (Executive Editor of Politico Europe) at the launch of Politico Europe
MATTHEW KAMINSKI (Executive Editor, Politico Europe): We're going to move from a discussion of the future a bit to a discussions which will seem familiar from the past, how to deal with a resurgent Russia. We're delighted to have Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. Please come up, thank you.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Thank you for being here.
JENS STOLTENBERG (NATO Secretary General): [Inaudible].
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Please. So you served twice as prime minister of Norway and in 2010 you resolved almost a 32-year dispute with Russia over the marine boundary. Could you tell a little bit what's it's like to negotiate with Russia?
JENS STOLTENBERG: First of all, it was not me alone solving that.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: [Laughing].
JENS STOLTENBERG: We negotiated for 40 years. And I think that's part of the key to the solution is that we were able to stay for a long haul. I think that the key why Norway was able to reach an agreement with Russia on a borderline up in the Barents Sea and the Polar Sea, also covering the big areas with also great potential for oil and gas, is that we were able to combine something which I think also is a message for NATO. And that is that we combined strong defense, membership in the NATO alliance, with a pragmatic approach to Russia.
So it was no… my experience is that there is no contradiction between defense and dialogue. Actually, strong defense, collective defense in the alliance provides the foundation for a small country as Norway to engage with Russia, and we have for decades developed a very pragmatic relationship with them on energy, on fishery, on borderlines, on many different issues.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Was Prime Minister Putin then your main interlocutor when you were prime minister?
JENS STOLTENBERG: It was partly Putin. The first time I met with him and discussed the borderlines, it was back in 2000. I was a very newly appointed prime minister and he was quite new as president. And I remember that I tried to, on a napkin, to draw the border between Norway and Russia, and also then to in a way explain to him the way we wanted the borderline to go. And everything went well until he took the napkin into his pocket and went…and left the meeting.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: [Laughing].
JENS STOLTENBERG: So that's a document in the Russian archives, and it will not pass the test over the advanced map drawing. But at least he was very concrete, he was very on the substance, and we met several times in different capacities when he was prime minister and also president, and continued.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: What is he like too in person in these personal meetings?
JENS STOLTENBERG: he is very focused on substance and he goes through the different issues we discuss in a very detailed way. And, of course, I don't speak Russian and he doesn't speak English as far as I know at least, so we would do it with translation.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: German could be a common language, right?
JENS STOLTENBERG: Sorry?
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: German could be a common language.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Yeah, but I don't speak German either.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: I thought you did.
JENS STOLTENBERG: At least I understand some German, but my German would… if I started to speak German with him, I think we wouldn't have reached an agreement in 2010.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Okay. [Laughing].
JENS STOLTENBERG: So I used a translator then.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Is he a man, to paraphrase what Thatcher said about Gorbachev, is he man that you can do business with?
JENS STOLTENBERG: My experience is that it is possible to reach agreements with Russia. And as a Norwegian politician, both as prime minister but also as minister for Industry and for Energy, I have the experience back to the 1990s and also actually as a deputy minister for Environment before that, that it's possible to make agreement and to have a cooperative relationship with Russia.
But as I said, a precondition for that is that we have the confidence, we have the strength so Russia never challenged those on the principles, on our integrity of the… or they never challenged the sovereignty of Norway. And that's the problem now is that the trust which is a precondition for a cooperative relationship with Russia has so much diminished because of Russia violating international law and using force in Ukraine. But in Norway, the experience was that if you have the strength, if you are part of a strong collective alliance, it's possible to do business with the Russians.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Do you think the… is this Russia a very different Russia than the Russia of 2010?
JENS STOLTENBERG: It is a different Russia, at least it might the same Russia but behaving in a different way. And I think that I have never been naïve when it comes to Russia and that's also, as I said, the experience is that the way you can engage is that you have to be strong, and so it's complimentary to be in dialogue and to have defense.
It's different, this Russia is behaving in a different way because they use force to change borders. But if we look on it in a bit broader context, it's not perhaps as surprising as someone… someone sometimes tends to believe, because this is… the real disturbing thing is that the behavior of Russia in Ukraine is part of a pattern.
They have for several years invested heavily in defense. They have modernized their forces. They have… they are exercising much more. They have increased the presence, the military presence in the air, on land, at sea. And they are doing much more of the snap exercises which reduce predictability and transparency. And the most important thing and the most… the greatest reason for concern is of course that Russia has used force, not only in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine, but it did so in Moldova back in the 1990s, and in Georgia.
So the problem is not only Ukraine. The problem is that this is part of a pattern which is really a reason for concern.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: But you said that you want to dialogue with Russia and you have through the Normandy format, you know, some of the allies that tried to work with Russia. But where is the strength that… that’s the one that that a lot of people… where is the strength? You have probably only 5 or 6 out of the 20—and I'm probably maybe even exaggerating—of the 28 NATO allies who meet that, you know, that target of two percent spending on defense of GDP.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Right.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: You know, you're not willing to arm Ukraine, and America seems a bit disengaged from this conflict.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Where is the strength? NATO is the strongest alliance in the world, the most successful military alliance in history. So we are a strong alliance, but we have to keep NATO strong. And that's the reason why we are now implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.
We have already increased our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance with more planes in the air, four times as many planes doing air policing, more ships at sea, and more troops on the ground with more exercises, more presence in general. And then we are making our forces more ready, more prepared.
We have something called the Readiness Action Plan and we are now doubling the size of the NATO response force from 13,000 to 30,000. And the centerpiece of this new readiness NATO response force is a High Readiness force of… where elite elements are able to move within as late as 48 hours.
Then we need to do more, and that's the reason why we made this defense investment pledge, stating that we will stop the cuts, gradually increase defense spending and then reach two percent during the next decade.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: There's a report this morning that Russia has built up air systems in eastern Ukraine and there seems to be a new build-up of forces along that very porous Ukrainian-Russian border. What's going on?
JENS STOLTENBERG: It is a substantial Russian build-up along the border to Ukraine, but also inside eastern Ukraine. The Russians have, during the last months, increased their supplies. They have provided the separatists with well above a thousand pieces of heavy equipment, advanced weapon systems, advanced air defenses, tanks, artillery. in addition, they have organized very advanced training and they have also drones and other advanced equipment in eastern Ukraine.
So both what we see in eastern Ukraine but also what we see along the border to eastern Ukraine gives reason for great concern.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Does it bode well for the ceasefire to hold?
JENS STOLTENBERG: It's, of course, it's violating the Minsk Agreement. It's undermining and violating the ceasefire and it provides the separatists supported by the Russians with the capacity to launch a new big offensive with very little warning time. And that's the problem, because the equipment is there, they have trained, they have the supplies, they have the ammunition, they have the drones and the air defense systems in place.
So we are not certain about the intentions, but we know about the capabilities and we have seen the separatists supported by the Russians doing big offensives before. And, of course, they can do it again.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: What is plan B if Minsk fails?
JENS STOLTENBERG: First of all, I think that we now all have to do whatever we can to support the full implementation of Minsk. And if I start to speculate on what we do if it fails, then I think I undermine the possibility of making Minks a success.
There are violations, there are challenges. The ceasefire is not fully respected. But the Minsk Agreement, the ceasefire is the best way forward and the best foundation for a peaceful, negotiated political solution to the crisis in Ukraine. And, therefore, we have to support it.
And I call on Russia to withdraw all its troops from eastern Ukraine. Both parties should withdraw all heavy weapons. And, of course, perhaps the most important thing is that the monitors, the OSCE monitors should be allowed full access. They should be provided with the security guarantees they need to do a full monitoring of the ceasefire.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: You worked very closely with the German government. Angela Merkel was your biggest boost supporter for you to come in to this job. And Germany is now, you know, not only the main economic player, but also the main security player. It also has a very weak military. What are your expectations for Germany? What kind of role can Germany play in security, if it does have this diplomatic clout but has no strength, as you put it, on the military side?
JENS STOLTENBERG: First of all, Germany has a strong military. Germany is a strong and staunch ally. Germany as, as has the whole alliance, acknowledged that we have to increase our capacity and, therefore, Germany announced some weeks ago that they will now stop reducing the defense budget and start to increase. And I welcome that. So Germany is going to invest more in defense, and that is important because Germany is a big economy with a big defense.
Again, I believe that Germany has exactly the same approach as I and as the whole alliance, and that is that we have to combine strong defense with dialogue. That's not only the opinion of Angela Merkel and me. It's stated in the Wales Declaration. There we argued for a strong defense, we argued for the strongest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War, and we are implementing that now.
But at the same time, we have also stated in the Wales Declaration, the declaration we made at the summit last fall, that we still strive for a more cooperative and constructive relationship with Russia. So there is no contradiction between the track of defense, strength, and dialogue engagement.
Russia is going to stay there. Russia is going to be our biggest neighbour. And we, in one way or another, we have to engage. We are ready to engage with Russia, we are ready to cooperate with Russia, but we will never compromise on the principles of our security which is the respect of our borders and the sovereignty and integrity of all our allies.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: We're running low on time, but I want to ask you a question, if you may, one more to answer. How many allies will be in NATO in 2030?
JENS STOLTENBERG: [Laughing]. Oh! No, I think that remains to… in 2030, that's some quite… quite… many years.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Will NATO still be here? Maybe that’s a very[?]…
JENS STOLTENBERG: I think that we have to take one decision at a time. And what NATO has done is that we are, we have decided to make a decision on Montenegro by the end of the year, and we will do so. In general, I would say that the important thing is that whether NATO is going to enlarge or not is up to the 28 allies of NATO to decide. No one has the right to intervene into such a process.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: I was thinking more of sort of a way down the road. For example, can you imagine Russia as a member of NATO in 20 years?
JENS STOLTENBERG: I think I have been a politician for so many years that I have stopped speculating on hypothetical questions, and because the few times I have done that have been a disaster.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: [Laughing].
JENS STOLTENBERG: So I learned not to answer questions.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: And what keeps you up at night?
JENS STOLTENBERG: I sleep. I am very good at sleeping. Actually, I learned that when I did my military conscription back in 1979, because then I learned to sleep everywhere, anywhere, at all time. So, and I still have the ability to sleep when possible, so during the night I at least normally sleep.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: [Laughing].
JENS STOLTENBERG: Then… then… but of course there are reasons for concern, but I address them when I'm awake.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Well, here is our scoop: that the head of NATO sleeps well at night.
JENS STOLTENBERG: [Laughing]. Thank you.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: Thank you so much for coming to our event.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you.
MATTHEW KAMINSKI: It's a pleasure to have you here.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.